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Networks ratchet up challenges to ESPN

DAN PATRICK

DAN PATRICK

It was on Jan. 2 of this year that the formal christening of the NBC Sports Network took place, the setting being the NHL’s Winter Classic between the Rangers and Flyers on NBC.

While it may be difficult to fathom at the moment that both the drab Versus channel (rebranded and upgraded as NBCSN less than six years after a previous name change from Outdoor Life Network) and live NHL games actually existed in this calendar year, it’s apparent now that the unveiling a year ago no longer stands as the symbol of what NBCSN can be and how far it still has to go.

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The fledgling cable sports network’s most definitive moment yet occurred on Dec. 10, when the early minutes of the Patriots-49ers “Sunday Night Football’’ matchup on NBC were preempted by President Obama’s remarks from Newtown, Conn., two days after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Play-by-play voice Al Michaels told viewers that the game could be found on the NBC Sports Network until NBC returned to regular programming. The instant social media reaction — collectively if not-so-politely asking, “Say, how might I find NBC Sports Network?” — was overwhelming and telling. It subsided only when the @SNFonNBC twitter feed sent out a channel guide to assist those unfamiliar with NBCSN.

The publicity of having a Sunday night game was valuable, and it offered a glimpse into the synergy coveted between NBC and NBCSN, even as the latter has struggled to find an audience in its first year. Available in 80 million homes — roughly 19 million fewer than both ESPN and ESPN2 — it has had ratings highs (4.35 million viewers for the US-Japan women’s gold-medal soccer match in the London Olympics) and serious lows (an average of 71,000 prime-time viewers from Aug. 20-26, an all-time low for the network even during its OLN and Versus incarnations).

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Such trials and tribulations in trying to establish a loyal audience in sports cable television are not unique to NBC Sports Network. ESPN, of course, is the established behemoth with resources upon resources. But there are others besides NBCSN who want as large a portion possible of the ESPN stranglehold.

CBS College Sports was rebranded as CBS Sports Network in February 2011, and while it does not show up in the regular Nielsen ratings because it does not subscribe, it is now available in 48 million homes. Perhaps most intriguing, powerful Fox is expected to rebrand Speed — already available in 80 million homes — in August, renaming it Fox Sports 1.

Executives at CBS and NBC don’t exactly throw down the gauntlet at ESPN. “We just focus on our own thing,’’ said David Berson, CBS Sports Network president. “Obviously lots of folks enjoy writing about the comparison, whether it’s ESPN, NBC, Fox, Turner, CBS. We don’t look at it that way, even though it’s inevitable that people will.”

One of those people is ESPN president John Skipper, who told John Ourand of Sports Business Journal this month, “We’ve always had competition. But there’s a little more overt strategy from our competitors to look a little more like ESPN than they have in the past . . . That’s OK. It’s a free market. I’m happiest about the fact that we have about a 30-year head start, and we’ve taken a leadership position.”

That lead is significant. But the question is: How soon can NBCSN and CBSSN — the two cable sports networks already in action — gain any meaningful ground? Or can they at all?

Programming improves

Say this for NBC Sports Network: Its programming schedule has come a long way from those Versus days of such mindless filler as the “T.Ocho Show” and “Whacked-Out Sports.” “The Dan Patrick Show” — which the host wryly describes as a “TV show about a radio show that’s on TV’’ — is as entertaining and fun as sports talk gets, and its November addition to the schedule serves as a morning anchor for the day’s programming, a role the former “SportsCenter’’ anchor is savoring.

“It’s only a matter of time before [ESPN tries] to steal this — sample this idea, I should say,’’ Patrick said with his familiar deadpan. “I look forward to that because I think it will help people further realize how good this is, the show, the product that we have. It took a long time to try to formulate that.

“When I worked at the mother ship’’ — the catchphrase he uses to reference ESPN on his program, which also airs on DirecTV — “they were programming the show. ‘You can talk about these things, but you can’t talk about that.’ I’d never do that again.

“I’ve heard CBS Sports is considering a show like this for the morning, and Fox as well. Until they do it, good luck. Bring your breakfast and your lunch because it’s going to be all day.”

Patrick sets the table, but there are other appealing shows on NBCSN. “NFL Turning Point,’’ a look at pivotal moments from the weekend’s NFL games, is excellent, something Steve Sabol might have appreciated. The engaging Michelle Beadle, plucked away from ESPN, will soon host her own show. NBC has also been aggressive in cutting deals that extend beyond the borders of the US, such as with the Premier League and Formula One.

“We are becoming a much more cosmopolitan society,’’ said Jon Miller, NBCSN’s president of programming, “and a lot of people are living here who moved here from other countries. We want to take advantage of that.”

NBC also is attempting to fill its void in live sports with deals with several college conferences, including a mutual one (along with CBS and ESPN) with the Atlantic-10 and the out-of-New England rights to Hockey East broadcasts. On New Year’s Day, it will replay all of Notre Dame’s football games that aired on NBC this season.

Miller is candid in acknowledging that a big reason for the void in programming — the NHL lockout (which will have cost NBCSN 33 games by the end of December) — is a source of enormous aggravation.

“It’s been very challenging and very frustrating,’’ Miller said. “We never had any indication that this situation with the NHL was going to last until January. It was always our understanding that this was going to be a tweak and a fix.”

The CBS strategy

While NBC Sports Network is to some degree at the mercy of the NHL, its chief current counterpart as a relative cable-sports newcomer recognizes a chance to make a move in the coming months.

CBS holds the rights to Super Bowl XLVII Feb. 3, and in March will be the familiar home of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Adding a prolonged post-Super Bowl program on CBS Sports Network is only one way it will attempt to maximize its relationship with CBS.

“It’s definitely a focal point,’’ said Berson, who is in his second year at CBS after 16 at ESPN. “So many people for years and years have associated that time of year with CBS, from the NFL postseason, certainly the Super Bowl, the final stretch of the college basketball season and the NCAA Tournament, leading right into the Masters.”

As might be expected from a network that originated as College Sports Television before it was bought by CBS and renamed CBS College Sports in 2006, there is a deep reservoir of college games in its repertoire.

CBSSN’s lineup of original studio programming is a work in progress, though the Phil Simms-centric “NFL Monday QB’’ has gained some momentum. Its strategy, however, is obvious: pursue established names with multi-platform appeal that might bring an audience with them.

The versatile Doug Gottlieb, signed as a free agent after nine years at ESPN, is one. He hosts the daily hour-long midnight program “Lead Off,” and his college basketball expertise in part makes him an obvious fit. The other is the one and only Jim Rome, another ESPN expatriate who hosts a show on the cable network, another program on Showtime, and, like Gottlieb, will have his own program on the CBS Sports Radio network when it launches Jan. 2. CBSSN is banking on him to be a franchise player.

“I live in fear that someone is going to knock on my door one day and say, ‘Look, you had a pretty good run, pal, but we don’t really give a damn what you have to say anymore,’ ” said Rome. “And I know that day is coming at some point, so I wake up every morning and try to find a way to keep that knock on the door from coming.

“At the same time, I’m like anybody else. I recognize there’s pressure on me to perform and achieve and justify why they rolled me out. When I’ve seen pictures of me and the promotion that they did, I know people are watching it, and the expectations are high. I’m rejuvenated, I’m motivated, and I do not want to fall on my face.”

A wary Goliath?

ESPN, which surely recognizes characteristics of its own business model in CBSSN and NBCSN’s quest for versatile, multi-platform talent and live programming, is playing it cool, even as it has taken to announcing when its own talent has re-signed, such as it did with Scott Van Pelt and Ryen Russillo last summer.

“People always assume that competition always has to do with us,’’ said Skipper in his Sports Business Journal interview.

“If Fox starts a 24/7 network, it doesn’t mean that whatever they will do will come from us. Maybe the other guys should be worried. Maybe it will come from them.’’

But at least one ESPN alum who has jumped to the competition suggests Goliath is wary of multiple Davids.

“I’ve been in those ESPN meetings,’’ said Gottlieb. “They know that their biggest challenge isn’t going to be CBS, NBC, or Fox. It’s going to be CBS, NBC, and Fox. If and when it happens, it’s not going to be one fell swoop. It’s going to be a thousand little cuts.’’

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at GlobeChadFinn.
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