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Despite sluggish start, NBC Sports Network must remain committed to long-term plan

The early returns are in, and NBC Sports Network is doing…horribly. We’re only two months into the experiment, but anybody who was expecting a fast charge against the ESPN monster is going to be quite disappointed by what has happened so far. To give you an idea of just how tough things have been for the rebranded sportsnet, consider that its bulwark has been the NHL, which ESPN has largely neglected.

“Costas Live,” the interview show featuring renowned TV sports personality Bob Costas, has generated subterranean ratings. How bad are things? Well, only 108,000 people tuned in to a recent broadcast. That’s the same amount that watched a re-run of a “World Series of Poker” program on ESPN that ran against the NFC title game in late January. For those of you who don’t know, because ESPN is a broadcast partner of the NFL, it usually airs the least appealing shows it can opposite other networks’ professional football telecasts, the better to make sure it isn’t stealing eyes from the Big Fella. So, a live broadcast featuring Costas was as popular as a recycled poker program.

There’s more. Seven of the 10 most viewed programs on the network have been outdoor shows, like “Bill Dance Outdoors” and “NAPA’s North to Alaska,” a nod to its earlier incarnation as the Outdoor Life Network. When NBC flipped the switch from Versus to its newly named concern on January 1, those shows were supposed to fade away, not serve as staples. Since it’s natural that some of the rustic types would remain loyal to the wilderness fare, their popularity makes some sense. But how do you account for the fact that the network’s higher quality shows, like “Costas Live” and “NFL Turning Point,” are being seen by the same audiences that watched former filler like the “T.Ocho Show,” which ran on Versus?

NBC’s five-year plan for its new sports network revolved around a combination of studio programming and games. So far, the produced stuff is floundering. NHL ratings are up seven percent, but NBC is struggling to gain rights fees for other live events. It did announce a deal to air Colonial Athletic Association basketball and football games, beginning in the fall, but with all due respect to the CAA, that’s not quite like partnering with the Big 10. ESPN has already inked deals with the major college conferences, and those looking for new TV homes understand they have an advantage in negotiations with NBC. One league executive summed it up this way: “We know they need us more than we need them.”

It’s tempting to tell NBC to give up the ghost and declare this enterprise a loser before things get so bad the Sports Network begins to impact the image of the parent and drain the Comcast coffers. A quick exit would allow for media critics to write hasty post-mortems and then forget about the whole thing. The NHL wouldn’t be too happy, but whatever company decided to clean up the NBC Sports Network mess would be thrilled to air its games.

That’s the easy way. And it shouldn’t be NBC’s way. Though we live in a world where two months are considered to be the equivalent of two years, the slow start must be considered normal for something like this. NBC had to re-brand a network that had a low profile to begin with and do so without a major property on which it could lean. (Sorry, NHL.) It inherited a collection of niche programming that is not attractive to mainstream audiences and is trying to wade into the big-money world of rights fees without an established ratings track record. If it is to land a premiere conference’s programming, it must pay a premium – if it even gets to the negotiating table.

No, NBC Sports Network needs to build slowly and avoid making rash business decisions that will cause problems down the road. It must jettison the outdoors programming (some of it) and let shows like “Costas Live” build an audience. Though landing the CAA rights package isn’t big news, if NBC Sports Network does a good job with the games and shows around them, it will prove to bigger leagues that it can handle their properties.

Finally, it must rely on NBC’s premiere sports programming to help build awareness. That means airing plenty of Olympic coverage this summer – hello, team handball – and using the network’s NFL relationship to create programming that appeals to a wider base of viewers. If NBC goes after the Major League Baseball contract, the sportsnet must be part of the deal. It’s unlikely ESPN’s synergistic behemoth can ever be slain, but there is no reason this sports-mad nation can’t find room on its favorites list for another channel.

NBC Sports Network hasn’t exactly broken swiftly from the blocks. If you can’t beat poker re-runs, you have some problems. But abandoning the plan is not the way to go. Comcast isn’t used to losing, so don’t bet on a white flag on this one. In the meantime, sharpen your skates and get ready for the next episode of “Fishing with Roland Martin.” NBC Sports Network is here to stay.

(Editor’s Note: This column contains information from John Ourand’s SportsBusiness Journal report “NBC Sports Net ratings show out of the gate.”)

Michael Bradley is a writer, broadcaster and teacher headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. His written work has appeared in Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, Athlon Sports, Hoop and Slam, among others. He is a host on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philadelphia and contributes analysis for Yahoo! Sports Radio and Sirius Mad Dog Radio. He appears on CSNPhilly.com, writes a weekly column on Philadelphia Magazine’s “Philly Post” and has authored 26 books. He teaches sports journalism at Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and Neumann Universities.

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