More than the Mets
Sportsnet New York debuts tomorrow with hopes of being television's WFAN
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
BY MATTHEW FUTTERMAN
In a business where buzz counts almost as much as the bottom line, Jon Litner won't be using a traditional yardstick to measure the success of the area's latest regional sports network.
Litner, chief executive of Sportsnet New York, better known as the new Mets channel, wants to overhear someone on his 6 a.m. train from Connecticut to Grand Central Station telling a buddy about something he saw on the channel's "Sportsnite" highlight show the night before.
He wants to see sports fans peer into SNY's street-level studios on 51st Street and Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan. He wants to turn on his car radio and hear that his team of reporters has broken a major story.
In other words, he wants SNY to be more than just a billboard for the baseball team that owns it. He wants the channel to make a difference and alter the sports media landscape in the nation's top market.
"Sports is one of New York's cultural institutions, and it's not dissimilar to Broadway," Litner said earlier this month in anticipation of tomorrow's SNY launch date. "We've got an opportunity here to satisfy the appetite people have here for deep, rich local sports coverage and information."
As Litner spoke, there was a palpable sense that the curtain is about to rise. A handful of technicians busily reran cables and relaid the studio's lighted logo on the set's carpet. An anchor would soon show up for a rehearsal of "Jets Nation," a weekly magazine show.
"I came here because we're going to be different," said Tom Healy, a director for SNY who had worked for Fox News. "We're not concentrating on one team. We're going to be the most comprehensive place for fans to get their news."
For the moment, forgive Litner and his staff for neglecting to mention the main purpose of SNY: Making Mets owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz a lot wealthier by giving them the same thing George Steinbrenner has with the YES network. Launched four years ago this month, YES is now valued at more than $1 billion, produces annual profits of more than $100 million, and ensures the Yankees' owner of always having enough cash to go after the sexiest free agents on the market.
That's the easy part. With every major cable company in the region expected to pay a combined $170 million a year to put SNY on basic cable, Wilpon and Katz are well on their way to becoming media moguls. In addition, they are likely to see a substantial increase in the amount of money they get for selling the broadcast rights for Mets games; Fox Sports New York had been paying them about $45 million a year.
"There is no reason, given the way the business works, why SNY shouldn't be able to take in 90 or 95 percent of the money YES does," said Leo Hindery, who created YES for Steinbrenner and his partners.
But the bigger issue for SNY, which Katz and Wilpon co-own with Comcast and Time Warner, will be to convince local fans they really do need a fourth regional sports network; that MSG, YES and FSNY (not to mention ESPN) don't already give them everything they need; that the next time the cable bill goes up a couple of bucks, it will be for an invaluable source for constant chatter about local sports -- the television equivalent of radio's WFAN.
"The question is, am I going to watch Sportsnet instead of ESPN's "SportsCenter"? Do I just want to see the local slant?" said Rick Gentile, who teaches about sports media at Seton Hall's Stillman School of Business. "Sports fans want all sports, not just local coverage, and it is very hard to beat SportsCenter at the game they invented."
For now, Litner, who left his post as chief operating officer of the National Hockey League to create SNY, is less focused on ESPN than on his main local competition at MSG and YES.
YES offers all Yankees all the time. There are replays of old Yankees games, "Yankeeography" documentaries, Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay interviewing players, Yankees fans playing poker against Red Sox fans, and so on.
MSG, meanwhile, focuses mostly on its namesake arena, Madison Square Garden -- except perhaps when the news involves unsavory details about the management of the teams that play there. MSG famously gave little mention earlier this season when a former top Knicks executive accused Knicks general manager Isiah Thomas of sexual harassment.
As for FSNY, national programming dominates when it is not showing local games.
By contrast, the business plan that Litner persuaded Wilpon, Katz, Comcast and Time Warner to buy into calls for SNY to be everything the area's other regional sports networks are not -- the ultimate source of all local sports news.
"This is a model that has worked at our stations in Chicago, Baltimore and Philadelphia," said Jack Williams, president of Comcast's Sportsnet stations.
Litner has hired nine anchors and attached a reporter to every major New York-area professional team. In a media world increasingly bent on "narrowcasting" to niche audiences, Litner has decided to go broad.
"Sportsnite," the station's highlight show, will air at 10 a.m., 6 p.m. and 1 a.m. from its street-level studio in Midtown, which just happens to be in a Time Warner-controlled building. Needless to say, Sportsnet got a good deal on the rent.
Steve Greenberg, an investment banker with Allen & Co. in New York who advised Wilpon on the media venture, said the Mets' partners helped provide the three main ingredients for a new regional sports network: compelling programming, top-flight management and distribution.
"A partnership arrangement -- and Time Warner and Comcast -- brings a certain amount of legitimacy from day one," Greenberg said.
Since Time Warner and Comcast control about 50 percent of the region's cable households, SNY was able to avoid a nasty fight over getting access to those company's cable systems.
In addition, since those companies have deals to carry channels owned by Cablevision, the region's dominant cable provider, Litner has been able to move quickly toward a deal to gain access to Cablevision's system, something that took YES 16 months. SNY executives expect the Cablevision deal to be complete by tomorrow. They expect a deal with DirecTV to be done by the beginning of the regular season on April 3.
One drawback of this sports television trend is that smaller cable distributors, such as Patriot Media in central New Jersey, often claim they cannot afford the more expensive sports channels, driving away some of their subscribers to satellite service.
The SNY plan is not without risks. While devout Mets fans will be there to watch the team's games, will anyone tune in for other programming? Because SNY will not have a pro team's games to carry during the winter, can its live schedule make do with college sports from October through March?
Finally, with so many other options for sports news, can the annual investment of several million dollars in SNY's news-gathering operation actually pay off?
Ultimately, industry experts say, the channel's success probably will rise and fall with the Mets. If the Mets are good, fans will watch, allowing SNY to promote its news shows and other programs to a captive audience before and after games.
The alternative, as Gentile says, is fairly obvious.
"If the Mets are dreadful," he warned, "come July, everyone is going to stop watching."