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A Sporting Life: A Q&A With Fox's Bob Thompson

Bob Thompson began his career in cable back in 1981 as a marketing representative for Storer Communications in a suburb of Portland, Ore.

Over the years, he took on increasing responsibilities for the operator locally and regionally across an array of disciplines from installation and operations to ad sales and negotiations, before jumping to the content side as general manager of Prime Sports Network in Denver.

Liberty Sports then put him in charge of nine RSNs and in 1996 he became EVP/GM of Fox/Liberty Networks, which co-owned the services. With Fox taking ownership, Thompson climbed the leadership ladder in various roles on the regional side to his current position as president of Fox National Cable Sports Networks, where he oversees operations for Speed, Fox Soccer Channel, Fuel and the company's holdings in the Big Ten Network joint venture, among domestic and international networks.

During that time, he's worked for such industry heavywieghts as Peter Storer, Bill Daniels, John Malone and Rupert Murdoch.

At month's end, Thompson is going to step away and serve as a consultant for Fox. Herewith, he looks back and ahead at the TV sports landscape during a Q&A with MCN 's Mike Reynolds. An edited transcript follows.

Multichannel News: You've come from the infancy of this industry to one with vast technical prowess and a maturity many ways. Your thoughts on the journey from knocking on doors to where you sit today...

Bob Thompson: Well, certainly the industry has changed not only from a technology standpoint, but just from its presence in everyone's everyday life. I mean back in the early days when they were showing the 35-channel, plain vanilla cable service and you look at what the offerings are today, the triple play, maybe the quadruple play here if the cell phone ever gets off the ground.

MCN: Those 35-channel packages back in the day didn't include regional sports networks.

BT: No, they did not. I think my first experience with RSNs was with some systems in Texas for the Home Sports Entertainment [channel] in Dallas and Houston. I think when I first came across them or started dealing with them, they were a $9 a month pay service.

MCN: Wow. So you were on that end of the negotiations?

BT: I was.

MCN: Were you a stickler, trying to hold down the cost to $8.25 per month?

BT: (Laughter) I used to have my battles with the RSNs, yes.

MCN: Which was a good learning experience to being on the other side of the negotiations?

BT: I must have done something right because when I left Storer -- the reason I left Storer, well first it was sold to TCI and Comcast -- and because the guys who ran Home Sports Entertainment, Ed Frazier, etcetera, recruited me to run the RSN in Denver.

MCN: Prime Sports Network...

BT: Yeah.

MCN: What was the programming when you started back in 1989?

BT: We had 25 [Denver] Nuggets [NBA] games.

MCN: Were they any good back then? Alex English was still playing?

BT: English was still there and Michael Adams. They weren't bad, but it went downhill quickly.

MCN: How long were you there before you made the bigger jump to getting involved with Liberty?

BT: Well, Liberty, I think, bought the company within couple years. At the time, Prime Sports was owned by Bill Daniels and John McMullen. And then they sold a portion of it to Liberty about a year or two after I started and then Liberty bought out the rest about a year later. And then at that point, I began getting involved with starting some new RSNs in the Midwest and other areas and then took over the management of all of Liberty's RSNs.

MCN: So as you became more involved with Liberty Sports, you started a number of regionals. What were some of the areas.

BT: Oh boy, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Salt Lake.

MCN: These are all legacy to today, right?

BT: They're all still around.

MCN: Any perspective on the fact that the regionals, especially those with three seasons worth of sports, are part of what people watch throughout most of the year.

BT: Well, I think one of the things that we really began pushing at Liberty and even more so at Fox was to acquire more and more events. Like I said, when we started in Denver we had 25 Nuggets games. Now, it's not unusual to see even 100% of a local NBA, NHL or MLB team's schedule on the local RSN.

It was an economic factor.The RSNs were willing to pay more than the local broadcasters. It was also a function of sort of the demise of pure, independent television stations that frequently aired those games in the past.

It was also as a result of the growth of cable and satellite penetration, where team owners and leagues, etcetera, figured that more and more people and certainly more and more sports fans, had a multichannel TV service and therefore the risk of putting their games on those RSNs and not alienating your fans was somewhat diminished.

It also sort of coincided with cable operators understanding that in order to attract more and more customers they had to have the programming that would attract them.

MCN: Was there a tipping point when sports, which had been the province of broadcast stations, went to RSNs?

BT: I don't know if there's any one deal, but I think over a couple of years in the early to mid-90s you had the advent of some of the "smaller" broadcast networks, be it UPN or The WB. And you just saw more and more of the pure independent stations going, as well as the increase in salaries for players and the owners looking to figure out a way to fund those salaries.

MCN: So we can blame you for A-Rod's $27 million annual salary?

BT: (Laughter) Sorry. No. But I was actually with [Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks] the night that deal went down.

MCN: You were?

BT: It was during a hockey game.

MCN: Did he let you know that was in the process, or did you put him over the top on that?

BT: No, no. I did not.

MCN: Fox RSNs and their affiliates are in 82, 83 million homes. What more can be done?

BT: With our RSNs, we're concentrating more and more of the localness of them. That's what the viewers want, that's what the advertisers want and that strategy for us has sort of been paramount from day one. We had a variety of national programs on the RSNs over the years, but it has always been local first. And to the extent that we can create and develop more compelling local programming, that's certainly something we're going to do.

The next thing is certainly all the new-media opportunities out there. And that's the difficult thing for the RSNs because it's the conflict between rights at the team zone versus rights at the league zone. Things like broadband product, global products... It's certainly going to be something that'll continue to grow in the coming years.

MCN: How difficult a transition is that going to be? I mean fundamentally the business that you've been involved with has been about fans watching the games on television and as the landscape has changed both locally and nationally, they now have many, many more places to check out and get more involved with their sports.

BT: Yeah, it is definitely a balancing act and we have to certainly pay attention to our distributors, who help us pay the bills, certainly. They are certainly our first concern. But as they get into these additional types of businesses we have to be able to be there and support them in the expansion of those businesses.

MCN: As the business has become more complex, what kind of impact has that had on resources?

BT: Fifteen or twenty years ago, we didn't have a single individual devoted to new media. Now we have quite a few. The other thing obviously it's done is it has made the contract negotiations much, much more complicated. And that, therefore, entails more lawyers. (Laughter)

We've had to change how we operate based on how technology changes. And we're very much of the belief that we have to be where the viewers are. So if our viewers are consuming products through a television or through a small screen or as part of an IPod download we have to be in those places. It's the old saying: you have to fish where the fish are.

MCN: You've worked for Rupert Murdoch, John Malone some of the biggest names in this industry. How did that shape your career?

BT: I've certainly had my share. Even back to the Storer days, with guys like Peter (Storer) and then Bill Daniels, Peter Barton and John Malone and then the Fox crew. It's been certainly a privilege to have been in those types of organizations and see how those individuals think and how they operate their businesses.
They are all certainly different. Some have been more conservative, others are much more aggressive. But I think it has been a good mix, which has certainly helped shape me, certainly. Some things I can be much more conservative on and other things I like to be much more aggressive on. I try and take the best from all of them and hopefully that has helped make me much more well-rounded.

MCN: The most challenging or the most satisfying things that you've done over the course?

BT: Well I think certainly any of the new national network launches or the RSNs. Or being on the board of the Golf Channel, to see that thing go from very small to very large...Certainly the Big Ten Network, which is really sort of a bit of a new concept. You know, it's a regional channel. but it's a national channel. It's a little different model.

MCN: I was going to ask you about The Big Ten. It's a hybrid, but within a year you guys pretty much had most of your major players tackled.

BT: When we sat down with the conference, we were very up front with them that we thought we would have some battles because it was sort of a hybrid-type concept. And distributors look at one conference doing it and their immediate thought is that there's going to be six more of them.

MCN: Sure.

BT: And so we had to allay those fears with the conference and also with the operators, that not all conferences are created equal, not everybody was going to ultimately do this and I think we've been pretty much proven to be correct there. The other thing, certainly we told them, was that we're going to have some battles up front, it was going to be ugly and public. And it was. But that we felt ultimately that we would get the distribution. And it pretty much played out as we had planned. If you go back and, interestingly enough, look at our initial business plans and projections, we were pretty much right on.

MCN: Back to the pro game. There have been a number of clubs that have tried either successfully or unsuccessfully to launch their own networks. Where do you see those particular set of circumstances at this point?

BT: It's really a market-by-market situation. It's certainly worked in some markets and with what I would consider to be sort of marquee-branded teams... For others, it hasn't worked so well. And I think it comes down to what the particular level of expertise is at the team as it relates to programming and broadcasting, etcetera, versus their willingness to just take a check.

MCN: And let you guys do a lot of the heavy lifting and it's a nice check.

BT: I think the checks are nice, I think they're fine. And they concentrate on what they know best, which is hopefully selling tickets and putting a competitive product on the field, and let somebody who knows how to deal with television, deal with television.

What you might see down the road is maybe more and more partnership-type situations. Comcast in Chicago is a perfect example. You've got all four teams in there. But then even that creates some issues. And I think you're sort of seeing that right now in the sale of the Cubs. One of the big sticking points there is the whole broadcasting issue. And so while I think it creates some opportunities, it also has the potential to create some problems as well. But certainly a rights deal model is the cleanest.

MCN: As you look back over the time on the rights deals, there have been some sticky wickets in some different places. What's been kind of your philosophy overall and what was the toughest negotiation?
BT: Well I think our philosophy overall was to provide the teams with competitive rights and superior service. And that means helping them sell tickets, helping them do whatever it takes to be as successful as they can be. Do we have to get the last nickel off the table? No. And I think ultimately as long as everybody walks out of the room feeling they're a winner, those deals over time tend to turn out to be pretty successful.

Toughest negotiation? That's hard to say. I think probably one of them was with the Houston Rockets and the Houston Astros {The clubs were looking to form their own network in 2004, but ultimately renewed with FSN Southwest, now FS Houston].

MCN: They were ready to go.

BT: It was difficult because it was a multi-tiered deal. You're dealing with each team, as well as the entity that the team had formed. So it was a rather complicated, a little bit of a three-tier chess game all going on at once. And that required some very, very significant time and effort on the part of a lot of people at Fox and the Astros and the Rockets. But ultimately we got to a point where we got the deal done...It was close, yeah. It really was.

MCN: End of the month, retirement, consulting?

BT:Yeah technically [I'll?] still be in service to Fox for at least a year to advise and consult for them. And beyond that I haven't really made any other plans. I've had a few calls from people who want me to work on maybe a project here and there, but nothing definitive at this point, other than the Fox piece.

MCN: There'll be a little time to work on the golf game.

BT: I'll try to get that handicap back into the single digits.