A la carte digital content could've been a powerful weapon in FOX Sports 1's battle with ESPN

For as long as the recently-announced FOX Sports 1 has even been rumored to exist, it's been widely assumed its ultimate success would be determined by one thing: can it topple ESPN? Ad spending, subscriber count and ratings are all mile-markers along the road to the eventual goal of providing a viable alternative to ESPN and, in an ideal world, supplanting it.

In the press release accompanying the extravagant event announcing the channel—which joins CBS and NBC in the competition to challenge ESPN—Fox Sorts Media Group co-President and co-Chief Operating Officer Eric Shanks was as clear as as one could be in a medium as manufactured as this one. Emphasis is my own.

Fans are ready for an alternative to the establishment, and our goal for FS1 is to provide the best in-game experience possible, complemented by informative news, entertaining studio shows and provocative original programming.”

Though what I'm most interested in here isn't the channel as a whole, but a particular product that's launching along with it—one that could've been much more and sent The WorldWide Leader a message it couldn't ignore. I'm referring to FOX Sports Go, mentioned way down in the very last paragraph of the press release. Again, emphasis added:

 

 Launching together with FOX Sports 1 will be FOX Sports GO, a groundbreaking mobile sports experience for iPhone, iPad, Android devices, and web. FOX Sports Go will offer more than 1,000 live games and events from across FOX Sports, FOX Sports 1 and FOX Sports’ 22 regional sports networks, as well as scores, highlights, news, stats, and analysis. The live games and events will be available to subscribers of participating cable, satellite and telco providers at no additional cost.

As expected, FOX Sports 1 will be playing the same game on the same field as everyone else. Though they launch with a wide subscription base, great licensing deals and a very respectable crop of on-air talent, there's ultimately nothing remarkable or potentially-revolutionary about their product.

So what could have changed that? What would've advanced the entire sports television industry and potentially scared the hell out of ESPN? A la carte programming: making it available to non-cable subscribers—live events and everything—through a reasonably-priced subscription that'd give subscribers access not only through the mediums mentioned above, but also their Apple TV, Roku, gaming console or smart TV. Break free from the model and get the channel to people as soon as possible.

FOX Sports Go sounds almost exactly the same as the widely-popular HBO GO, which, like the former, is only available to HBO cable subscribers. But that may not always be the case, and according to media/technology veteran Chris Dorr, there's a regularly-prepared memo circulated deep inside HBO's New York offices discussing the service's model. In the memo, support for the notion that HBO is leaving money on the table grows stronger.

Every year the corporate strategy folks lay out these numbers to their bosses at HBO and to their bosses at Time Warner. And every year the debate rages within HBO. They ask themselves: Do we cut HBO Go loose from the requirement that one has to buy a linear HBO subscription from Comcast? Do we grab that larger profit per customer that is waiting for us if we eliminate the middleman?

This is but one instance of the general dilemma that all mass media companies face today. In our larger media world we are moving from distribution networks that are centrally controlled, ie, cable systems and broadcast networks to a distribution network that is based on a distributed architecture–i.e. the Internet.

As this shift to the Internet occurs, mass media companies have the opportunity to deal directly with their customers as they never have. Large creators and publishers of content, like HBO, can now interact with their customers and understand their wants and desires in a completely new manner. And they can do so at a much lower cost than going over legacy mass media networks. This cost will only continue to go down as the price of all things digital continues to fall.

I strongly encourage you to read the entire article. I normally don't pull excerpts as long as that one, but the entire piece is fascinating. 

Back to FOX Sports 1. Though the items mentioned above certainly apply—who doesn't want more money and a better relationship with consumers?—but there are several reasons specific to FS1 for why this could work and makes sense:

  • Get everyone you can familiar with FOX Sports 1's programming, as soon as you can. At its debut, planned for August, FS1 will reach an impressive 90 million homes. That's great, but why not go further? Their lineup of non-live-event programming seems strong, but it's hard to get people used to it. FOX should want as many people tuning in as they possibly can; if NBC's early results are any indication, this isn't going to be easy and FOX should do what they can to change the gameplan. 
  • Reach a younger demographic. Don't get me wrong, my mom loves Terry Bradshaw. I'm pretty sure every mom does. The channel will also have a show from Regis Philbin—who is 81. FS1 will launch with a decidedly older set of talent, and that may specifically draw an older audience. To balance the viewership, FOX could target the generation in which cord-cutting is increasingly more prevalent. If the channel's highlight show and live programming were good enough, FOX could quickly move to supplant ESPN as the default background-noise sports channel for this group.
  • FOX Sports 1's programming can't be turned down—so do it because you can. Apple didn't get to where it is today on creativity and innovation alone; no, it took some bullying in the deal-making process. The concern with a la carte programming is that it's going to upset cable providers, leading to difficulty negotiating future deals. I understand that, and it may, but ultimately FOX Sports 1's programming partnerships cannot be turned down—they have college football, college basketball, MLB, NASCAR and MMA. Executives there wouldn't rule out the possibility the channel would eventually show NFL games and future NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was even on-hand for the FS1 announcement. 

    There's a reason this is the third national sports channel to launch in a little more than a year. Cable providers need sports. It pays the bills, and it's about the only thing viewers need to watch live, with advertisements. 

FOX Sports 1 has certainly already earned ESPN's attention. With their sports licensing deals and celebrity talent—some of which was even poached from The Worldwide Leader—they're far ahead of fellow ESPN competitors CBS and NBC. But if FOX wants to put a scare into ESPN from day one, and show them this is real, they must change the way this game is played. They should push sports broadcasting and all of the television industry forward, right now.
 

ESPN pulls LeBron James Vegas party story. Why?

Just how much sway does Team LeBron hold at ESPN? That's a question worth asking after a recent story by LA reporter Arash Markazi detailing LeBron's Vegas partying was pulled from The Worldwide Leader's site post-publication.

In the article, Markazi (who obviously has the greatest job in sports) shadows LeBron during parts of a three day party marathon for which he reportedely received six figures for 'hosting'. The article, which can be seen in Google Docs form, was updated as recently as 6:40am ET before being pulled from the site. People are wondering why, and rightfully so.

First off, pulling the article in the first place was incredibly stupid. Once the article is published, there's no point in removing it. This has no effect on whether or not it will be read. Once an article is released to 'teh interwebs', it's out there. So, that leads to the repercussions. Here are two points that aren't really raised by this development, but more-so are established themes underscored by ESPN's actions.

 

  • ESPN does not care, whatsoever, about journalistic integrity. This is nothing new. tWWL takes care of its business interests first and foremost. ESPN and ABC are the leading broadcasters for the NBA. LeBron James is the biggest star in the NBA. Dancing on top of James' already-trounced image doesn't help them. However, does this go deeper than that? We've already seen LeBron take over ESPN's airwaves for an hour, does his camp have a say in what's printed as well? It'll be interesting to see if the folks at LRMR had enough sway to pull this article down.
  • LeBron and his camp are big babies, completely out of touch with reality. Again, nothing new. We saw what happened with the LeBron-getting-dunked-on/Jordan Crawford controversy. If his camp did pull the story from ESPN, it doesn't have any effect other than once again letting everyone know he's outrageously self conscious and cannot deal with any amount of criticism.

Now, to a couple highlights:

Bottle after bottle of "Ace of Spades" champagne is delivered to the table by waiter flying down from above the dance flore like some overgrown Peter Pan on a wire. One time he's dressed like a King, another time as Indiana Jones and another time in a replica of James' No. 6 Miami Heat Jersey.

James, who can hardly see the flying figure through his tinted glasses, almost gets kicked in the head on the waiter's last trip down. He looks at the girls around him and says "I wish they'd have one of these girls with no panties do that instead of the guy.

Toward the end of the night, Boston Celtics forward Glen Davis walks past James' party and looks at the scen up and down several times like a painting in a museum, soaking in the images of the go-go dancers, the "King" sign and the ostumed man delivering bottles of champagne.

Davis shakes his head and walks on.

Another NBA star with a similar reaction:

[Lamar] Odom, smoking a cigar, can't quite keep up. James celebrates by crossing himself and taking a shot of Patron. Moments later, a handful of girls dressed as cheerleaders walk toward his table with someone dressed in a James' Heat uniform. Someone throws talcum powder in the air as James does before every game, while his new unofficial song, "I'm in MIami," plays,

Odom casts a glance James' way before looking in the opposite direction and raising his glass at a couple on the dance floor who point to their rings and smile.

Ridiculous stuff. Pulling the article does much more damage to both LeBron and ESPN than publishing it ever would.

UPDATE: LeBron's camp says it wasn't them. Riiiight.

UPDATE II: Darren Rovell with more insight:

ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz tells us why the LeBron Vegas story was pulled: "The story should have never been published. The draft was inadvertently put on the server before going through the usual editorial process. We are in the midst of looking into the matter.”

Like others are already saying, that's tough to believe.

Also, on the subject, we have some fantastic dramatizations from the hilarious team at The Basketball Jones.

TBJ Dramatization: ESPN's 'LeBron in Vegas' story from The Basketball Jones on Vimeo.

Dramatization: ESPN's 'LeBron in Vegas' story, Act II from The Basketball Jones on Vimeo.

Photo credit: Mario_d

Is live blogging sporting events dying?

Almost every sports blog has, at some point or another, ran a live blog on a particular game or event. This process of rapidly updating one blog post with short insight and commentary on a game was extremely popular a few years ago and almost expected of any blog covering a particular team.

As Shel Israel of Global Neighborhoods notes in his blog bost, In loving memory of live blogging, the practice was very popular in the coverage of technology conferences but has since faded with the advent of Twitter.

Then along came Twitter. Obviously, I considered this also important and revolutionary. I still do. But it has occurred to me that this, faster, easier, shorter way of reporting through "live tweets" has replaced the longer, deeper, more thoughtful social media form,at of live blogging. It has done so in a very short period of time and my sense is something is being lost.

Tweets by their nature are terse. An audience members usually says who is speaking & maybe the topic. A rave review is the that she or he "rocks." But the coverage of what is actually being said is reduced. So are the questions and comments coming from outside the room.

This is happening in the world of sports as well. But with sports, Twitter isn't the only thing tool being used as an alternative to true live blogging. A service called CoverItLive is used on several popular blogs. ESPN has also jumped in the live blogging game with their Section 140 and Virtual Pressbox, which operates very similarly to to the CoverItLive. While both are better than traditional live blogging, and each have their advantages, they aren't what I would use to cover a game.

Before going into CoverItLive and Section 140, here's a few reason why I believe live blogging is dying, and should.

  • It's ridiculously tedious. I've done it before and always get frustrated having to go back and constantly save the same post, adding a bullet as the game progresses. Eventually you have one post that goes on for pages, looking ridiculous.
  • It's isolated. You have to navigate to the post and constantly refresh in order to get the most recent copy. Unless you're a frequenter of the blog or a diehard fan of the team, you're probably not going to see it.
  • There's very little communication. While the author of the blog should certainly be presented as an authority on the subject, being the only one speaking during a game can place yourself above the audience.

Now, onto  ESPN's Section 140/Virtual Pressbox and CoverItLive: it's a glorified commenting system and chatroom. When I first heard about ESPN's service, I had high hopes, hoping tWWL would bring in content from Twitter and making it more readable to those who didn't use the service. In reality, the Virtual Pressbox is almost identical to CoverItLive, which provides a chatroom running througout the game, presenting the writers' updates set aside from the rest. It enables polls of readers as well. These two services do have their advantages though. Here's are a few CoverItLive's positives:

  • It's easily accessible. You know exactly where to go to find discussion on the game from those who are interested. You know that the discussion will revolve around the game you're looking for insight on.
  • It's very convenient. It updates easily and all the technical aspects are completely taken care of.
  • It's conversational. Even if the comments from readers are slightly downplayed, they are there. Writers can quickly interact, answering questions and commenting on any polls that are conducted.
  • Great set of features. You can bring in images and live video (via UStream). You can pull in up to 12 Twitter accounts (while limited, this is huge). Check out the complete list.

One of the big downsides on a service like this: it costs money. Not to read, but to host on your own blog.

And Twitter; why I'd use it for live blogging:

  • It's free. Pretty simple, it's easy for the writer to get on there, nothing barring a reader to do the same.
  • It isn't a 'walled garden'. It spreads very easily. If you want people to be able to read your Twitter feed on your blog, they can. If they want to read the comments on the web, they can. If they want to put it on their desktop and in a column it alongside others with entertaining commentary on the game.
  • It's mobile. If you want to live blog from a game, you can. I've done it before and with the use of services like Twitpic and Twitvid, provides content you're not going to find anywhere else.
  • Easy to update. Like CoverItLive, all the technical aspects are taken care of and it's easy to update immediately . You don't have to wait for the post to update and the formatting is easy.
  • Lists. At first, I wasn't big on lists. I wasn't going to go on Twitter and relist my followers after I'd already broken them down on Tweetdeck. Well, now I can export those lists. I really need to do it further, but right now I have a column/list for the 350 sportswriters, sports bloggers, sports marketers, athletes and follow on Twitter. It was simple to create and I can share it with whoever. Say I were operating a Portland Trailblazers blog, I can quickly create list of sportswriters, bloggers and fans who I know are also watching the Cavs/Blazers game tonight and share that with my blog's readers.

While Shel Israel is hesitant to accept services like Twitter as a superior alternative to traditional live blogging, I am not. It's more conversational, it's more accessible, updateable and—at least in the realm of sports—the updates on live blogs weren't any more in-depth than the tweets most people are providing.