Regional sports channels have been around for a long time. But they are perhaps the most misunderstood medium of them all. Much of the problem is they are neither fish nor fowl--not a national network such as ESPN and not spot TV either. This causes them some real problems in selling their products and also, to a certain degree, in evaluating their effectiveness.
What is a regional sports channel (RSN)? It is a cable channel that generally devotes 100% of its airtime to cover sports programming. Unlike ESPN, which is an amazing success story, regional channels, by definition, are not national in scope. They deliver as little as a single Nielsen DMA to a dozen or more simultaneously. The focus is on local teams both professional and college. There are also some excellent syndicators such as Raycom which air basketball and football such as the ACC Conference on broadcast TV in a number of markets and have splendid production values. Cable giant Comcast is entering the fray in many parts of the country and, if they stick with it, should have some success down the road.
The largest player is Fox Sports which has 10 owned and operated regional networks crisscrossing the U.S. plus partial interest in others and serves as a sales organization for 35 entities. They at one time probably thought they could compete head on with ESPN by delivering large numbers in home markets across the US. String the local numbers together and you should get far more than ESPN could with a national game. Somehow it did not work out that way in terms of dollar sales. ESPN is one of the greatest success stories in TV history. They have branded themselves better than almost any other product or service in the world. Their Sportscenter program is Appointment Viewing for many young men and has turned people across the country away from late news on their local affiliate. When college football appears on ABC, it tellingly is billed as ESPN on ABC. No one would have forecast that years ago.
So while Fox and other RSN's often deliver surprising numbers in the 2009 media world, they do not get the respect or outrageous premiums that ESPN does both nationally and in local cable. Young people tell me they watch a game on Fox but afterwards switch to ESPN to see the highlights rather the Fox post game show. I guess the spirit of Rodney Dangerfield still lives on as Fox gets no respect. Certainly, they and others in the RSN space do not get what they deserve from the advertiser community.
Another problem for the RSN's is finding out who the decisionmaker is regarding their use. Is it the client? Agencies hate it when they are bypassed by salespeople. Is it the spot buying director? The planning supervisor? The media director? You have as many answers as you have agencies so this hybrid medium which is a tough sell to begin with has logistical problems that other media types do not have to hurdle.
Salespeople in the regional arena have always been problematic to me. I have never seen such wild extremes in quality. Two of the best salespeople that I have ever encountered across all media types were RSN reps. One was from the midwest; the other the Carolinas. But very often the new rep assigned to an agency seems to have had 48 hours of training and is turned loose on the ad world. They are particularly ineffective if they cannot shed the mindset of spot TV salespeople which many of them were prior to joining the RSN. They are very presumptious and feel they deserve a share of a local market buy. Talk to them of "crossover points" (where regionals become a better value than buying the covered spot markets) and you get a deer in the headlights response.
But RSN's have a great deal to offer. Here is a brief list that an energetic salesperson should get across in a 20 minute meeting. In no specific order, we find:
1) They are a network and by definition networks save advertisers money over spot.
2) It is a wholesome environment which is increasingly rare in TV. (A few hockey games may negate this!)
3) The pods are shorter. In a world of men grazing across the satellite and cable universes during breaks, this is important.
4) As DVR penetration grows, sports are probably going to be a affected a lot less than primetime series. (In our January 6th post, "The Elephant in all Our Offices", we discuss how even sports is losing a bit due to DVR growth)
5) The teams featured are local or regional at worst. This goes a long way in instilling viewer interest and loyalty.
6) One of the last bastions of "Appointment TV" which has largely disappeared from broadcast TV.
7) Regional networks generally produce their programming which gives them great flexibility.
Flexibility requires a bit of explanation. RSN's often produce their own games and can create client oriented exposure with customized and fun features that the networks and ESPN cannot or will not do. The good ones will get out in the community for you with player appearances at retail locations and build consumer interest. Solid promotions, on-air contests and access to the teams are much more than their competitors can do. Long term with TV slowly sinking, this might be their best avenue of growth and financial survival.
They also listen to clients because they have to. Regionals are a very tough sell and often the advertiser is as involved as the agency in putting a deal together. Saavy clients need to ask for something that is unique to them. They usually can get it.
Finally, let's face it. When broadcast catches a cold, these guys at RSN's probably have walking pneumonia (basketball excepted early this month). So, they are very much in a "Let's Make a Deal" mode. There may not be a better time in the last 20 years than now to take the plunge with RSN's. Values are excellent and they are very hungry and that should spawn imaginative packaging.
If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org