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Sports Cable Power Has Eyes on NCAA Final Prize

Related: The Year in Sports: CBS’ Man for All Seasons

Related: From Playoff Come Big Payoffs

It's been a big-time year for Turner Sports. Its first time carrying the Final Four to cap off March Madness last spring was a slam dunk, delivering the top five most-viewed college basketball games in the history of cable television. The Kentucky-Wisconsin game averaged 22.6 million total viewers—the biggest single show in Turner’s history.

The NBA’s All-Star Weekend and playoffs also scored. Coverage of the Eastern Conference finals rose 7%. And this season is off to a good start with Turner’s Opening Night doubleheader—featuring LeBron James and Steph Curry—delivering a gross audience of 6 million viewers, up 28% from a year ago.

Baseball, despite continued hand-wringing about its former-national-pastime status, also drove tune-in. Bolstered by the participation of the New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals and even the Chicago Cubs, TBS’ postseason was up 48% in total viewers and 58% among adults 18-49. Viewing on Turner’s various TV Everywhere platforms was up 60% with more than 63 million minutes consumed.

Turner is also excited about the performance of its Bleacher Report digital site, which averaged 36.7 million multiplatform unique users from February to September, up 67% from two years ago.

Lenny Daniels, president of Turner Sports, obviously likes those numbers. But he’s not taking them as a sign to stand still. Instead, his playbook calls for innovation. Next year, Turner will televise college basketball’s championship game for the first time. It is also starting a new league for video gamers—eSports—in partnership with WME/IMG that will have telecasts on TBS.

In an interview with B&C business editor Jon Lafayette, Daniels looks at some of the ways in which Turner Sports is looking to up its game.

You talk about innovation, but sports have probably held up best in a changing TV environment. Will sports TV continue to be a good business?

I always believe sports will have a premium to it because it is live and appointment viewing and you really don’t care to watch the Super Bowl the day after. So I think it is always going to carry with it a premium. But I think we’d all be burying our heads in the sand if we think that people are going to be watching it the same way they’re watching it today. I have an 11-yearold son who does not watch it the way I watch it at all. We’ll be sitting in front of the TV and he is on his phone or any other device he’s got in front of him doing different things at the same time. That’s why our partnership with the NBA is brilliant because they think the same way. They want to evolve. They want to put their content where people are and they want to stay relevant. It’s a constantly moving machine and we’re really not afraid to take risks that we think are pretty calculated.

Are people going to watch people playing video games?

They actually do. We can get you plenty of stats. It is mind-boggling the size of the audience. It’s a relatively untapped television market for sure and I think we’re going to be able to tell the stories to bring it to life so that the casual fan—people like us—really understand it and get to like it in the same way you watch golf or poker or NBA.

There’s going to be a lot of content online and plenty of sponsors looking to reach that young demographic.

100% agreed. It’s a young male audience that we believe is underserved at this point. They need to expose this to a casual fan to really get them to really understand it and like it. Another interesting piece to this is that it fits perfectly into the TBS rebranding. This audience fits perfectly within it. And when you do that with Adult Swim and Bleacher Report, we do have a pretty compelling offering to bring to an audience.

You must be looking forward to having the NCAA championship game.

That clearly is the priority. From a Turner point of view, from a TBS point of view, that could quite conceivably be the biggest event we’ve had on TBS. And we are going to use everything in our power to drive basketball the first six months. We’ve had these conversations where we want to own basketball from January through the NBA playoffs. When you talk about what Turner is and what it has, with not only regular season, but you’ve got the All-Star Weekend, you’ve got that leading into March Madness. You come out of March Madness, you have the championship game, and then you go right into the NBA Playoffs—that’s a powerful basketball platform that we want people to know, if you want basketball the is the place you’re going to get it.

You got a lot of 24-hour sports competition. Does sports play as part of a general entertainment channel?

We obviously are biased, but yes, I believe we are in a far, far better position than having to run a 24-hour sports network. There is a lot of competition out there right now between all of those different networks and the quantity of quality sports that people actually want to watch. I don’t know with four networks that they can sustain it all.

From a TBS/TNT point of view, we love it because we not only carry the best sports, we have the ability to bring in a different audience. These 24-hour sports networks are talking to the same audience all the time, so they can’t bring that casual fan. We have a TBS and a TNT and somebody’s watching The Big Bang Theory and we expose them to the March Madness Final game. We have the ability to reach a different type of person, and we really do like that.

To us, 24-hour sports to us is Bleacher Report. That is our destination. That’s where we’re going to put all of our efforts when it comes to 24 hours of sports, and it complements everything we do across the actual linear networks.

Do you see streaming more games online?

We foresee looking at live video in different ways across Bleacher Report, to be honest with you. The audience that’s going to Bleacher Report may or may not be going there to watch an actual game. We are definitely going to try some different things. We’ll experiment as we always do but our real play here is to really give the fan who goes to Bleacher Report what they want and what they want is really the full 360 degrees of their team or topic. I really think where we reach and talk to these people is through social. That just brings an entirely new type of audience in.

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.