Fox Sports Midwest rebrands, unveils new plan: Local broadcasters will feel heat if strategy works

September 11, 2006

Fox Sports Midwest-which is in the process of rebranding to Fox Sports Indiana in this market-is serving notice it intends to be the television network of choice when it comes to local sports.

Shortly after wrestling part of the Indiana Pacers broadcast rights from WTTV-TV Channel 4, officials for St. Louis-based Fox Sports Midwest unveiled a plan that entails significant upgrades to its local sports programming, including adding professional, collegiate and high school sports of all sorts as well as more pre- and post-game shows and other special local sports features.

The new plan turns up the heat on local broadcasters, which still count on sports segments to bolster news ratings and special sports shows to add to their advertising revenue.

"We've taken a significant leap," said Fox Sports Midwest General Manager Jack Donovan. "We're bringing sports fans locally their own channel. We aim to be the go-to channel for Indiana sports."

The Pacers were the network's largest target. Last year, Fox Sports Midwest and WTTV each broadcast about half the Pacers games. This year, Fox Sports negotiated a deal with the Pacers to air 72 of the team's 82 regular-season games. Though terms of the deal were not disclosed, Fox Sports officials said they pay the Pacers a fee in exchange for the right to sell advertising inventory during broadcasts.

"This is an extremely important deal for us," Donovan said. "The Pacers [programming] is clearly what drives our business in the Indiana territory."

Broadcast experts said the increased Pacers coverage will be key for Fox Sports to sign more revenue-generating deals with cable and satellite providers statewide to carry its programming.

Those deals further Fox Sports' statewide reach, which allows the network to charge advertisers more. And money from cable and satellite service providers will be key to obtaining more sports programming. Fox Sports Midwest gets at least 60 percent of its revenue from cable and satellite companies, industry experts said.

"They're putting the building blocks in place to be a serious player in local sports broadcasting," said Robert Papper, Ball State University professor of telecommunications.

Officials for WTTV, a longtime leader in local sports programming, said the changing broadcast business model is pushing more sports to niche broadcasters. WTTV this fall will become an affiliate of the new CW network.

"I couldn't guarantee pre-empting the CW network, so we offered to take a reduced schedule from the Pacers," said Jerry Martin, general manager of WTTV and WXIN. "Fox Sports came in, and said, 'Hey, we'll take all the games.'The time for us to be a local sports leader has kind of come and gone. This station isn't built around doing 33 Pacers games and 14 IU games anymore."

But local broadcasters, including WTTV and its sister station, WXIN-TV Channel 59, promised to compete for local sports programming when it makes sense.

"Sports is a niche audience, but it's a significant niche, and there are certain advertisers who will pay a premium to advertise during the right sporting events," said Bill Perkins, a local media buyer and president of Perkins Nichols Media. "For certain programs, I think you'll see competition between [Fox Sports Indiana] and local broadcasters."

For instance, broadcast experts said if Fox Sports decides to launch Saturday and Sunday night sports talk or recap shows, that's a lucrative property local broadcasters will want to protect.

Fox Sports officials said they plan a TV, print and billboard campaign to increase viewer awareness. Fox Sports is also hiring local talent to bolster its profile, including WXIN sports anchor Chris Denari to call Pacers games.

In addition to expanding its Pacers coverage, including enhanced pre- and post-game coverage, Fox Sports has also begun airing Cincinnati Reds games-63 this season, with plans to double that next year. Fox Sports will also start airing a significant slate of Indiana Fever games next season.

But Donovan promises those moves won't be the last.

"We have our antenna up for more and better sports programming," Donovan said. "Collegiate sports may be one of our best opportunities right now, but we're evaluating a lot of opportunities."

Fox Sports is already negotiating to air the Wooden Tradition in December at Conseco Fieldhouse. This year's college basketball doubleheader features the men's teams from Purdue and Butler universities.

Fox Sports Midwest, a subsidiary of New York-based News Corp., reaches 5.4 million homes in Indiana, Missouri, Illinois, Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa. Fox Sports Indiana will reach 1.1 million households in Indiana, a number company officials expect to grow as they line up additional cable TV and satellite service providers.
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