Larry Scott, Pac-12 networks look to break sports media frontiers
SAN FRANCISCO -- Marshawn Lynch grabbed a power drill and joined in on the photo op. Along with former Pac-12 standouts Ronnie Lott (USC football), J.T. Snow (Arizona baseball) and Jennifer Azzi (Stanford basketball) -- not to mention the mayor of San Francisco, Ed Lee -- the Pac-12 had invited the former Cal running back to take part in Monday's groundbreaking ceremonies for the future studios of the Pac-12 Networks.
Standing in the cold, gutted 70,000-square foot space of a downtown San Francisco office building, Lynch was noticeably giddy about the opportunity.
"I like the idea of the network," said the running back from nearby Oakland. "I kind of lost touch with my Cal Bears roots on the East Coast for four years [with the Buffalo Bills]. We might get a game or two every so often, but I never really got to watch the guys I'd built relationships with."
Predicaments like his are precisely what Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott set out to eradicate upon his July 2009 hiring, but last year's 12-year, $3 billion conference deal with ESPN and FOX was just the beginning. If all goes according to plan, there will be seven new Pac-12 cable networks -- one national, six regional -- on the air starting August 15. Together they will combine to air 850 live events next year, including every football and men's basketball game not aired by one of the league's partners.
And they won't just be showing the games on television, either.
"Everything that's on the Pac-12 Network, from day one, is going to be available on your iPad or on any mobile device," said Scott.
Scott and the growing staff of Pac-12 Enterprises -- which will encompass the TV networks, a conference digital network and a sponsorship department -- have just over six months left to pull off what can certainly be considered the most ambitious sports start-up venture to date. Pac-12 Enterprises President Gary Stevenson, who helped launch Golf Channel in the mid-'90s, began the job last fall, scouting potential headquarter locations (they settled on San Francisco in November) and hiring an executive team. He currently has about 25 employees on staff and is looking to add roughly 100 more between now and launch day.
"It's almost like building a game plan for a sporting event -- you have to do first quarter, second quarter, third quarter, fourth quarter," said Stevenson, meaning the project is into the second quarter of its year-long lead-up.
The Pac-12 begins with one notable advantage that most recent sports start-ups lacked: It's already secured distribution deals with the four biggest cable companies -- Comcast, Time Warner, Cox Communications and Bright House -- in its geographic footprint. In Pac-12 states, the national and/or appropriate regional network (Washington, Oregon, Northern California, Southern California, Arizona or Colorado/Utah) will be available on basic cable from day one. The national network will be available on those companies' digital sports tiers in other parts of the country.
Whereas the five-year-old Big Ten Network spent its first year in contentious negotiations with cable networks (today it has 45 million subscribers and is available in 80 million homes), and the first-year Longhorn Network is still only available to a scant few, the Pac-12 can already claim its networks will be available in 40 million homes. It does not yet have deals with DirecTV, Dish or other satellite providers.
"There won't be the same narrative around, is it going to be distributed or not distributed in a certain territory. It will be available to all our fans everywhere," said Scott. "Now, if you're a satellite customer, or you've got Verizon [FIOS] or AT&T [U-Verse], you'll be eagerly watching to see whether we get a distribution deal with one of those. We want to be distributed on every platform, but there won't be the same kind of tension or angst in those negotiations."
The Pac-12 also retained full ownership of the networks, as opposed to joint ventures like the BTN and FOX or LHN and ESPN. Scott said prepayments from the new ESPN/FOX deal and expected subscriber fees helped offset start-up costs, and that the networks will be "a net-positive revenue wise from day one."
But it's not enough to simply get the games on the air. Not surprisingly, the same commissioner that traveled to China in December to discuss staging Pac-12 sporting events there wants his league's networks to break new ground in the arena of sports television.
"If we're successful," said Scott, "it will look different from any sports channel people are used to watching. It will feel 'West Coast,' modern. It will have some technology bells and whistles that people haven't been able to embrace before, because those are all important things to our brand."
Stevenson's team -- including the head of the networks, former ABC Sports and MSG Network executive Lydia Murphy-Stephans -- recently began the daunting but intriguing challenge of figuring out how to fill 8,760 hours of programming per year on seven different networks.
To be fair, there will be considerable overlap. Of the 850 planned live events, 350 (including all football and basketball games) will air on both the national and regional versions of the network. Hence, an Oregon fan in Phoenix will be able to see every Ducks' football game this fall, provided he's a Cox customer. So, too, will a Comcast customer in Philadelphia or a Time Warner customer in New York, albeit as part of a premium sports tier.
The six regional networks will air up to 100 additional Olympic sports events featuring one of the two schools in that region, as well as coaches' shows and other local programming.
While the Pac-12's concept draws logical comparisons to the Big Ten and Longhorn networks, sports television consultant Neil Pilson said it more closely resembles various regional channels -- SNY in New York, NESN in New England, Comcast Sports Net in the Bay Area and elsewhere -- that anchor themselves around a local pro team, then fill additional hours with national programming.
"They're on the right track. They've got the right cable partners," said Pilson, former president of CBS Sports. "The one issue is fan loyalty in the Pac-12. You know there's fan loyalty in the SEC -- whether it's in Georgia, Alabama, Florida. The question now is to what degree the public in those [West Coast] areas embrace those channels."
It's a valid question. Pac-12 fan bases aren't generally as rabid as their South or Midwest counterparts, as the league's football attendance average was just 52,249 last season, well behind the SEC's figure of 75,832. Meanwhile, the networks will launch at a particularly dismal time for Pac-12 basketball, with the league in danger of placing just one team in next month's NCAA tournament.
On the other hand, Scott says, Pac-12 fans are the most passionate in the country about the so-called Olympic sports -- track and field, swimming, volleyball, etc. -- in which the conference has long excelled. Pac-12 affiliated athletes combined to earn 89 medals at the 2008 Beijing games, more than all but seven participating countries, with its schools producing such national headliners as swimmer Natalie Coughlin (Cal), softball pitcher Jennie Finch (Arizona), soccer goalie Hope Solo (Washington) and volleyball player Kerri Walsh (Stanford).
Beyond just alumni interest, the hope is that dedicated fans of those sports -- generally deprived of televised events in non-Olympic years -- will tune in to see the next wave of stars, including participants in this summer's London games.
"For women in particular, that now are having the opportunity to play in the WNBA or professional swimming, you can start building your marketability. People can see you and start to get your personality," said Cal and U.S. national team swimming coach Teri McKeever. "And most of the conference recruits international student athletes. Their families and fan bases will be able to see them compete."
Stevenson and his team have spent considerable time pondering what approach they'll take to set their networks apart from other sports entities. One common theme has emerged: spotlighting personalities.
"The look and feel will hopefully incorporate the personality of the campuses in addition to sports," said Stevenson. "The way NBC does the Olympics, you don't get the sense it's just about the Olympics, it's about the personalities. Part of our aspiration is that when you see Pac-12 Networks, you'll know you are there."
While he didn't offer specifics, it sounds like the network is also serious about spotlighting academics. That doesn't necessarily mean televising a chemistry lecture, but rather spotlighting, say, a prominent Silicon Valley executive with a Pac-12 diploma.
"There's some very famous iconic personalities that have come out of this conference that we're going to tie in to this network," said Scott.
But the main focus, of course, will be football and basketball. In illustrating the networks' purpose, Scott often points to the case of former Arizona star and current Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Derrick Williams. Despite excelling throughout the 2010-11 season, the eventual No. 2 draft pick was rarely mentioned in national top player discussions, only reaching critical mass when he led the Wildcats to the Elite Eight.
"To me, that was an indictment of the conference and our media platforms that will fundamentally change with our new TV agreements and our TV network," said Scott. "We will never have the Derrick Williams problem again."
As the speeches dragged on during Monday's ceremony for the new studio, Stevenson joked, "The construction guys just informed me we're already an hour behind schedule." Lynch and Co. got to start drilling the first holes of the first wall shortly thereafter.
Six months from now, they'll eagerly watch the finished product.