Stations Game For Sports Growth

It was game over for WTHI Terre Haute when the station pulled the plug on sports several years ago. But a funny thing happened when the CBS affiliate brought it back almost three years later. The station saw its image rise in the community, says Todd Weber, vice president and general manager. Ratings and revenue grew too: Weber saysoverall audience share has climbed about 5% since sports, relaunched with an intensely hyperlocal focus, came back following WTHI’s acquisition by LIN in 2005. Revenue has grown 6% since then, according to BIA/Kelsey.

While stories of stations scrapping sports coverage altogether—citing increased competition and decreased relevance, thanks to the ubiquity of cable sports news and realtime results on digital devices—have become common, more compelling are the reports of stations elevating their local presence with more savvy, and more local, sports reporting. “We’d lost sales and clients because of [dropping sports], but more than anything, we’d lost our image and our branding,” says Weber. “Sports is part of the package of local coverage in the community.”

It’s a challenging time, to say the least, for sports guys toiling in local TV. Cable colossuses like ESPN and Comcast’s Regional SportsNets are on major stories like the Orlando Magic’s Dwight Howard covering an opposing center. Besides supplying more highlights than any fan can possibly ingest, ESPN is in the midst of a major local initiative too. That fans know not only the final score, but who homered, who tossed a shutout and who went 4 for 5 in virtual real time from their handhelds only compounds the problem for stations that have supplied viewers with scores and highlights for decades.

While it may not be the optimal time to break into local sports, the abundant—and some say unparalleled—interest in pro, college and high school sports (including fantasy sports participation), coupled with the mounting programming hours stations are looking to fill on linear and multicast channels, on the Web and on mobile, speaks to local sports’ considerable vitality. Stations that offer standout hyperlocal coverage and fresh and compelling local angles, that consistently beat ESPN to the hot stories in their markets and play to their multiplatform potential show that sports is as essential to the local news Holy Trinity as it’s ever been.

“Sports are such a part of people’s lifestyles, so it’s incumbent on stations to make it interesting—find the story behind the story, the strategy, what the player is like, what made the game turn,” says Thomas Dolan, president of television management recruitment firm Dolan Media Management. “It’s a winning strategy, because the rest of the stuff is dead.”

Too Many Players, Not Enough Games

“Dead” isn’t far off the mark when describing some markets for sports talent. In West Palm Beach, Hearst TV’s WPBF does not feature regular sports segments (though major sports stories are in the general news mix, as is often the case with stations that scrap sports segments). Two years ago, market leader WPTV dismissed its sports anchors and outsourced sports to ESPN Radio. This past January, the Scripps station did a deal to produce sports for Raycom’s WFLX—meaning radio produces sports for two TV stations in West Palm. Sports radio also has an increased role at the CBSowned TV stations nationwide.

Last June, Comcast’s SportsNet Bay Area commenced producing sports for NBC Local Media’s KNTV; the model is being looked at in other markets where Comcast and NBC own separate sports outfits, including Philadelphia and Chicago. “We want to start in one place and get whatever learnings we can out of that,” says Princell Hair, Comcast Sports Group’s senior VP of news operations. “We’ll evaluate and look at other opportunities down the road.”

While sports has had a reduced presence in the female-friendly morning and 5 p.m. news for years, some stations have bumped regular sports segments in 6 p.m. and late newscasts, too. “We decided we could better serve our viewers by making [sports] big and bold when appropriate,” says Mary Lynn Roper, president and general manager at KOAT Albuquerque. “Other times, we’ll use the time to be more relevant to viewers. It’s worked well.”

Sandra Connell, president at placement firm Talent Dynamics, says TV sports talent is finding work at Comcast, MLB, Bright House and of course ESPN, among other cable nets. She cites the Fox O&Os for hiring sports anchors, too. But much of local broadcast is a different story. “Their place and the amount of time they get in a show is just not a given,” she says via email. “They might have to justify their place and a solid local story will usually help.”

Yet several industry watchers insist it’s hardly doom and gloom for the jocks. Bob Papper, Hofstra University professor of journalism and overseer of the annual Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA)-Hofstra local news studies, says stations scrapping sports in recent years got outsized coverage in the press. What was less reported: Similar to WTHI, the stations frequently ended up bringing sports back within a few years.

Research from Frank N. Magid Associates says a third of news viewers age 25-54 are passionate about sports, a third can take it or leave it, and the other third dislikes the category. Sports will never draw viewers the way weather does, but Papper believes it remains a critical piece of the newscast puzzle—and typically offers the most compelling video. “I tell news directors they’re crazy to drop sports,” he says. “It’s a small audience, but it’s also a rabid audience—probably more so than any other [subject] area.”

Of course, stations offering the same old scores and highlights will fade faster than the 2011 Twins. Papper speaks of stations putting a “way bigger emphasis on what you don’t see on ESPN”—including high school games and participatory sports, such as local running races. LIN’s KBVO Austin, a MyNetworkTV affiliate, will produce a second season of weekly high school football games later this year, in HD, out of its new production trailer. It doesn’t stop at the high school level— some in local TV speak of covering youth league competitions as well.

At Fox-owned WNYW New York, Duke Castiglione’s segments are, as the cliché says, not his father’s sports reports. Castiglione, 37, grew up watching dad Joe do the sports on WKYC Cleveland. It was all about highlights back then, but Castiglione says a “different twist” is now required to draw viewers in. That means investigative pieces on performance enhancing drugs in baseball, including hidden cameras, and concussions in football. It means covering fringe sports, such as mixed martial arts, that may not get major play on the networks. It means digging deeper to find the human interest. “Amidst all the competition today,” Castiglione says, “people just want to see and hear a good story.”

More Platforms, More Opportunities

Papper says stations set a record for local news in 2010, the average of five hours per day being 24 minutes more than 2009’s record number. Thanks to expanded morning newscasts, multicast channels, standalone Websites and social media, sports guys are often getting more room to deliver content than they did a few years ago. Castiglione, for one, gets four or five segments, at 3-4 minutes per, in WNYW’s mammoth Good Day New York. He has a Sunday Sports Extra show as well, and conducts sit-down interviews with public figures from the sports world that are of interest to the general audience, such as former Yankees skipper Joe Torre.

KWTX Waco rebranded its sports department “254 Sports” to give it its own online home. “We thought sports could be more than something we did at the end of the newscast,” says Bob Bunch, VP and general manager. “We wanted to give sports its own identity and promote it as such.”

Dick Haynes, senior VP of research at Magid, says stations’ local brands, in some cases established over the past half-century, put them in a superior position to capitalize on online and mobile media. Groups such as Hearst TV and Gannett, to name two, own local high school sports online franchises. Haynes mentions station-issued scores, updates and highlights sent to smartphones. “If stations can marry up new technologies and their expertise and their brand, they can own sports in the marketplace,” he says. “But you don’t do it by having the best two-minute sports report in the newscast. You have to go beyond that.”

Hearst TV is using its multicast channels not just for pre- and post-game and coach’s shows, but for live sports too. Its KITV Honolulu, for one, is airing a dozen San Francisco Giants games on channel 4.2 this season. “Live sports still resonates with the viewer— and the advertiser,” says Frank Biancuzzo, senior VP at Hearst TV. “I think that’s where the real opportunity for stations is today.”

As Biancuzzo notes, sports draws a healthy share of advertisers too, including the vital auto category, and offers sponsorship opportunities the rest of the news cannot. “There’s an emotional attachment to sports,” says WTHI’s Weber. “That helps you monetize it, both on-air and online. You have certain advertisers that buy into sports for that reason.”

The Worldwide Leader in… Local Sports?

Everyone acknowledges the enormous shadow ESPN casts over sports media, and the Worldwide Leader is sharpening its local strategy as well. “ESPN Local,” with sites representing New York, Chicago, Boston, Dallas and Los Angeles, recently turned two, and the language coming out of ESPN headquarters—the sites are “built on the foundation laid by ESPN’s owned and operated stations,” said ESPN in a statement— suggests its prime target is TV stations.

Traffic for the sites is impressive., for one, averages 4.6 million unique visitors and 25.4 million total minutes per month. ESPN Local plans to expand to new markets, perhaps in 2012. Mighty as the brand may be, some in local TV say there’s no way an ESPN reporter should scoop their talent on a local story. “We’re there at practice day in and day out, covering the team,” says Comcast’s Hair. “That gives you access that a national network can’t have. There’s no reason why a national reporter should break a story in one of our markets before one of our local reporters. And we hold them to that standard.”

For all the talk about shaking up the local news formula, considerable evidence remains that viewers still want breaking news, weather and, yes, sports in their newscasts—and on the other platforms stations are feeding 24/7. WTHI Terre Haute, which features everything from Indiana University athletics to the state’s beloved high school basketball competition in its revamped sports mix, learned this lesson the hard way.

“Here, the culture is family. You grew up with your kids watching local sports on TV,” says WTHI’s Weber. “Sports is critical to your local image and critical to your impact in the community.”

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Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.