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‘Its tough to beat the champ': NBC Sports Network launches aggressive campaign to challenge ESPN dominance

During ESPN’s annual bowl-a-palooza during the holiday season, the usual advertising staples – credit cards, beer, cars, beer, insurance – flowed across the screen after seemingly every play. Anybody who watched enough football, and believe me, I did, developed an immunity to the commercials, along with the uberannoying Nelly song that served as a perpetual soundtrack to the action.

Amidst the morass, one ad stood out, not for its humorous content or particularly clever pitch. Its attraction was in its incongruence. And that it appeared on ESPN showed just how far the company producing it was willing to go in its efforts to go after the sports giant.

Washington Capitals star forward Alexander Ovechkin sat in an empty locker room, methodically lacing up a skate. Though he did not speak on camera, he provided the commercial’s voiceover. “Practice does not make perfect,” he intoned. “Only perfect practice makes perfect.” As he said that, the camera panned away to reveal his equipment arrayed neatly on the floor in front of him. It could have been an advertisement for anything, from performance supplements to a sports drink. But it wasn’t. Copy on the screen read, “We’re getting ready.”

The announcer closed the deal:

“Introducing the new, 24-hour sports network. The NBC Sports Network, coming January 2nd.”

How about that? ESPN was running ads for its competitor. Or, more accurately, Comcast – my cable provider – was using guerilla-marketing tactics to promote its new property. On January 2, Versus, perhaps the worst-named sports station ever, except of course for its previous moniker, the Outdoor Life Network, became NBC Sports Network. Since Comcast now owns NBC/Universal, it was placing ads for its new network on its main competitor’s programming.

It was a savvy opening gambit. Comcast was using its delivery system to tweak its new rival. That’s what you can do when you control how the content reaches viewers’ eyes, and ESPN could not have been happy with the move.  Then again, if ESPN allowed a media buy by NBC that promoted the new channel, it would be the height of arrogance. You could almost hear the folks in Bristol saying, “Sure, you can try to challenge us, but you start in a big hole and have no real chance of ever catching us.”

Whether this was Comcast’s inserting an ad on its rival or ESPN’s saying it doesn’t care what Comcast doing, because it can’t win, the fact is that the game is on. The question within that statement, however, is whether the game will be competitive or not. Other networks have tried to tackle ESPN before, with no success. Betting against Comcast is not a good idea, but the NBC Sports Network faces a huge deficit, if it wants to become more than a curiosity or sometime choice for viewers.

Let’s pretend for a moment that it’s possible to take down a network that has engrained itself into American culture and used its multiple platforms to create a synergy that is unparalleled in U.S. media. We’ll have to forget that ESPN has long-term TV deals with the MLB, NFL and NBA and isn’t partnered with the NHL because it doesn’t want to be. ESPN practically owns college football, and though it doesn’t control the NCAA basketball tourney, televises more regular-season games than anybody. It isn’t close. ESPN broadcasts NASCAR, soccer, golf, tennis and even poker. It has created a web site that draws millions of eyes per day, has radio affiliates across the country and has produced original programming that many consider to be near the top of the genre. NBC Sports Network isn’t trying to take down a giant. It’s trying to slay an army of Brobdingnagians.

As NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus says, “This is going to take time.”

Really? You mean that fans aren’t going to flock to the Dakar Rally or the hours of fishing shows NBC Sports Network is airing on weekday afternoons? There is no way NBC can come close to ESPN with what it’s airing right now. A quick scan of the early Network offerings reveals a lot of dead space. A lot. Sure, there is a bunch of hockey coverage. NHL games. College games. Pre and post-game shows. If a puck is involved, NBC Sports Network will show it.

The NBC Sports Talk program is another staple. It’s a daily, hour-long look at the day’s sports news. Nobody is breaking stories; rather experts are analyzing and offering opinions. NFL Turning Point breaks down the week’s action and relies heavily on NBC’s contract to air Sunday Night Football. The network will also show Major League Soccer, which is a pretty good move, given the growing (albeit not so fast) popularity of the league. Expect a lot of other, smaller-time sports action, like the Can-Am Grand National Cross Country Series and the AMA ATV Motocross National Championship Series. And look for a lot of Olympic programming this summer, as NBC Sports Network becomes the number two outlet for action and will no doubt get the second-best allotment of U.S. stars.

NBC Sports Network will air some documentary-style programming, such as “Cold War on Ice,” the story of the 1972 Canada Cup showdown between players from the NHL and the Soviet Union. That sounds pretty good. Unfortunately, “NBC Sports: A Storied History,” doesn’t. And I have no idea what to say about the following: “The Supermodel’s Secret to a Perfect Butt.”

The key to any kind of long-term survival is the continued acquisition of quality content. With the MLB contract up for grabs, NBC could well make another pitch for weekly national and post-season broadcasts, using the argument that putting the World Series on ESPN could potentially hurt ratings, since the four-letter network is only in 86% of U.S. households. (NBC Sports Network is in about 67%, but NBC is in 100%.) That could give the fledgling network a chance to air some baseball games during the summer, when hockey is on hiatus.

There could be some NFL inventory available as well, if the league decides to go with another eight-game Thursday schedule at the beginning of the season. Not that every single network wouldn’t be trying for that programming pearl. Expect Comcast to open its coffers often in attempts to beef up the channel’s programming in coming years. If NBC can grab baseball and football for its sports station and then pick off some college packages as they become available, it has a chance to become a viable competitor – with one exception: It’s practically impossible to slay the SportsCenter dragon. It is the heavyweight champ of highlights shows and perhaps the single greatest promotional vehicle in television history. In the end, NBC Sports Network could be defeated by ESPN’s ability to bring in viewers in the morning and sell them its shows coming up that day. It’s a remarkable model that has been honed to a marketing razor’s edge and helps ESPN continue to grow and thrive.

NBC Sports Network may have Comcast’s fat wallet and NBC’s “storied history” behind it, but it is miles behind ESPN right now. It can make up ground, but a long-run victory is highly unlikely. Viewers should hope for the best but bet on ESPN. It’s tough to beat the champ.

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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