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Sportskool Leaps A Big Hurdle

The recent launch of sportskool by Comcast Corp. vaults the Mag Rack sister video-on-demand service to top of the heap inside Rainbow Media Holdings LLC’s VOD group.

The sports instructional network is now available in 10 million homes, which shows the power of a Comcast launch. Meanwhile, Mag Rack, without a Comcast deal, but in several more total MSOs, counts only 3.5 million VOD homes.

Still, Rainbow executives are pleased with the progress of both networks, and are about to launch presentations to Madison Avenue to add advertising as another revenue stream.

“We feel there is a lot of momentum,” said Dan Ronayne, senior vice president and general manager for Mag Rack and sportskool, who stopped in Denver recently to oversee a VOD shoot on volleyball featuring Olympic gold medalist Misty May. “We are generating a pretty loyal audience.”

The Comcast boost allows Rainbow to more seriously consider the advertising potential of its on-demand services. “We’re starting to talk to agencies and clients in a meaningful way,” he said. “Advertising and sponsorship are clearly in our future.”

The usage numbers may hasten that day. Without revealing any specific stats, Comcast vice president of national marketing for new video products Page Thompson reported: “Sportskool is doing well.” In particular, she noted, “The skateboarding content is a nice tie in with the X Games.”

While Sportskool has vaulted over its elder sibling, Mag Rack, in the distribution game, Ronayne feels strongly about Mag Rack’s place in the VOD landscape. Led by the popular fitness, gaming and music categories, Ronayne said “we’ve never felt better about Mag Rack.”

The charter for both services has been to provide VOD with original programming. In the early days, it was a tough sell. But now, more and more basic and premium networks are seeing the value of putting unique content on VOD, a trend that just makes Ronayne smile.

Mag Rack provides 40 hours of programming a month across 20 categories. Its 3.5 million-home reach includes Rainbow parent Cablevision Systems Corp., Charter Communications Inc., Insight Communications Co. and Mediacom Communications. Talks continue with Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications Inc. and Comcast, which hired former Mag Rack executive Matt Strauss to develop its own original VOD content.

The programming model, and what’s popular on Mag Rack, has evolved over time. Fitness programming remains popular, Ronayne said. The service also has found success with its 24/7 gamer block of programming, music segments on Guitar Express and School of Music, and tie-ins with Hollywood movies about to hit the theaters.

The instruction-type programming became the basis of sportskool. With the addition of volleyball later this year, sportskool will feature 17 sports. The video shoot with Misty May took place over a day and a half. Typically, sportskool will generate 90 minutes of content from a shoot, and break the instructional videos into six-to-10-minute segments. Those segments will rotate on and off the VOD menu during that sports “season.” For instance, skier Bode Miller’s winter sports segments will reappear on the service this fall.

“We’re just rolling out new programming this year,” Ronayne said. Sportskool has completed video segments for soccer featuring Mia Hamm and for basketball with Bill Walton. Hamm joined husband, Chicago Cubs shortstop Nomar Garciaparra and the Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling in several personal training videos as well. “We’re trying to figure out ways to work with credible athletes,” he said.

In addition to Comcast, Charter, Cablevision and a handful of National Cable Television Cooperative systems carry sportskool.