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'Showtime' Nears for Time Warner Cable Sports' Lakers Networks

With less than a month to go before the tipoff of two regional sports networks centering on the Los Angeles Lakers, Time Warner Cable Sports is bolstering its content lineup, stepping up its marketing game and engaging in carriage discussions with potential affiliates.

Time Warner Cable SportsNet and Time Warner Cable Deportes, the nation's first dedicated RSN for Latinos, are slated to launch on Oct. 1, following the cable operator's February 2011 acquisition of the NBA franchise's media rights for between $3 billion to $4 billion over a 20-year span (the allocation evidently expands by another $1 billion if a five-year option is exercised). The team's games had been televised by Fox Sports West and KCAL-TV.

The RSNs will televise 70 contests of the revamped Lakers, whose lineup not only includes Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, but other perennial all-stars Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, as well as a host of shoulder programming around the storied NBA franchise.

"It's certainly been exciting to be a Lakers fan this summer from when free agency started around July 4 through the acquisition of Dwight [from the Orlando Magic]," said Mark Shuken, senior vice president and general manager of TWC Sports Regional Networks.

In addition, TWC SportsNet has secured rights to Major League Soccer's Galaxy, the WNBA Sparks, CIF high school football and last week scored select Mountain West Conference football and basketball action.

At presstime, TWC SportsNet, which is reportedly asking $3.95 in monthly subscriber fees for the two networks, had yet to add any affiliates beyond the nation's No. 2 cable operator. Shuken said that Time Warner Cable is the largest distributor -- with about 2 million subscribers in the RSNs' territory that extends to "Fresno to the north, Tijuana to the south, Hawaii to the west and Las Vegas to the east." All told, TWC counts about one-third of the MVPD homes in the territory's 6 million

"We're in ongoing conversations with the seven or eight potential affiliates, including DirecTV," said Shuken. Other key prospective carriers: Dish Network, Cox in Orange County, where 30% of Lakers season ticketholders live, and Las Vegas; Charter Communications in the LA suburbs; plus telcos AT&T U-verse and Verizon FiOS. "Launches have timelines and we're proceeding on the right course you would expect," he noted.

Presumably that means potential deals could be triggered around the networks' debut on Oct. 1; the Lakers' first exhibition game on Oct. 7; or the club's road opener for the 2012-13 regular season against Portland on Halloween night (The Lakers begin the pursuit of their 17th NBA crown against Dallas at the Staples Center on TNT the prior night.)

In the meantime, consumers in the RSNs' areas are about to get hit with a full-court marketing blitz. After starting in mid-July with social media activities that included the posting of videos around the Lakers, Galaxy and Sparks, TWC SportsNet began using billboards featuring Bryant on Aug. 13. The campaign's outdoor component will feature six different executions, including other stars from the respective teams, on "both static and changing boards," said Shuken.

Starting on Sept. 3, though, the push will kick into a higher gear with TV and radio ads on such high-profile sports as Los Angeles Dodgers baseball games, the National Football League and international soccer. While TWC cross-channel avails and other assets will be in play, the schedule will be "primarily paid media," according to Shuken. Although he declined to put a value on the media/marketing launch campaign, Shuken said it was "significantly greater than for any other RSN."

He noted that while there isn't a tagline per se, the messaging will focus on the "depth and access" the RSNs will bring to viewers and "the games you never miss and things about the teams you've never seen before." Shuken said there were different sensibilities involved for English-language sports fans who have been accustomed to RSNs and a "more welcoming approach for new Hispanic viewers."

To that end, Time Warner Cable Deportes will also have some different programming than its English-language cousin. It will also feature Mexican boxing and wrestling and high school football from teams in Hispanic communities, as well as dedicated daily and weekly information shows. Shuken said the network also expects to soon finalize a deal for Mexican soccer.

The Mountain West Conference content -- 12 football games and two dozen basketball games -- will not air on the Spanish-language service. Rather, TWC SportNet will become the exclusive regional home of San Diego State Aztecs, Fresno State Bulldogs and UNLV Running Rebels. The rights were acquired through a sublicensing deal with CBS Sports Network in exchange for additional carriage on Time Warner Cable systems; with the conference itself in the wake of the demise of The mtn. its regional sports network; and the schools themselves.

"Our networks will have more locally acquired and produced programming than any other RSN," said Shuken. "The Lakers, Galaxy and Sparks games and the unparalleled access to the clubs are enough, but we think we've rounded out the product well for viewers in Fresno, San Diego and Las Vegas.".