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WHMB thinks new all-sports local TV channel will score

January 13, 2017

WHMB-TV Channel 40 became the primary source of local high school and college sports television content when WRTV-TV Channel 6 folded its Hometown Sports & News Network in October, and now it’s looking for fortify its position as a go-to source for area sports.

On Thursday, WHMB launched WHMB TV All Sports Channel 40.3 in cooperation with American Sports Network, a subsidiary of Sinclair Broadcast Group. It’s the first time WHMB or its parent company, LeSea Broadcasting, have operated an all-sports station.

Local high school and college sports have been a staple for WHMB for nearly three decades, and now the company is attempting to succeed where WRTV’s HTSN could not.

WRTV General Manager Larry Blackerby told IBJ last summer “the cost of this programming is too great,” calling the decision to switch the Hometown Sports & News Network channel to a national TV network featuring classic action and Western movies and TV series “strictly a local business decision.”

LeSea Broadcasting and its stations are not-for-profits, WHMB General Manager Keith Passon said, adding, “Our model is very different from WRTV’s.” 

“I’m confident this new channel will succeed,” Passon said. “That goes back to why we’ve lasted for 28 years in high school sports while others haven’t been able to make it work. We do 55 high school games a year. We know how to do this and we know how to do it right on a modest budget.”

Passon thinks he can operate the new all-sports channel for $250,000 a year.

“Other general managers might think I’m crazy, but I know we can make this work if we can generate $20,000 to $25,000 a month in advertising revenue,” Passon said. “And from the feedback I’ve gotten, I feel very confident we can do that.”

The first thing Passon did to contain expenses is to sign a barter—non-cash—deal with ASN to secure programming. WHMB already produces a lot of local sports content, which will now move over to the new channel. 

But Passon said securing enough good, cheap sports programming to keep the station humming around the clock remains a challenge.

“Right now we’re running five hours a day of infomercials during the late-night and early-morning hours,” Passon said. “Not only does it raise a bit of revenue, it also fills a programming gap. We hope to eliminate that and have around-the-clock sports.”

If WHMB exceeds its initial ad sales target, Passon said the station will use the money to acquire and produce more and better sports programming. He is hopeful that his station can sign deals with minor-league professional teams to complement the station's coverage of amateur sports.

Advertisers and potential advertisers started contacting WHMB as soon as word starting getting out about the new station, Passon said.

The other big challenge for Passon will be getting cable and satellite TV companies to carry the station. Currently, local viewers can only get the station over the air by affixing an antenna to their TV.

“I’m going to start my discussions with cable providers next week,” Passon said. “I know getting on cable will be a challenge, but being all-sports will be a big plus for us. Sports are in demand right now. I’ll be surprised if we can’t get cable coverage for this channel.”

Programming for the new channel—which is already on the air—will include coverage of the Mid-American Conference, the Horizon League, Big Ten hockey, and Hockey East—a college conference that includes the University of Notre Dame.

The channel will air plenty of high school football and basketball games—including live and broadcast of past games from the station’s library, WHMB officials said, in addition to sports-talk shows, racing programs, outdoor shows and various professional sports.

The vast majority of the programming, station officials said, will be local, but the station will also broadcast some sporting events from Conference USA and the Atlantic 10, including those conferences' postseason basketball tournaments this spring.

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