Comcast SportsNets Find a Fit in Local Markets

By Carolyn Braff

The Comcast Sports Group centers its business on hyper-local sports coverage, and, at a time when a growing number of companies are shrinking and cutting back, Comcast SportsNet’s regional sports networks (RSNs) are growing and evolving, finding a perfect fit inside the local niche each has carved for itself.

“We want to be recognized — and I think, in many of our markets, we already have been — as the local leader in sports, in both game coverage and sports-news coverage,” explains Jon Slobotkin, VP and executive producer of live events for Comcast Sports Group. “In the markets that we’ve been in the longest, places like Philadelphia and Chicago, when big sports stories happen locally, the fan base turns to us first because we’re there every day.”

All for One and One for All
Comcast Sports Group operates 10 sports networks across the country, anchored in cities like Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. Each RSN runs autonomously, but some standardization does occur across the networks. The Comcast Sports Group wants to ensure that, when viewers tune into the network, they know they are, indeed, watching Comcast SportsNet.

“Over the past year, we have crafted a new look for the games that says you’re watching Comcast SportsNet,” Slobotkin says. “Within that look, there’s some room for customization to create something special at each local market. We’re not trying to be the look police, but it’s important to us that you know when you’re watching Comcast SportsNet, because you’re watching the brand not only as a graphics presentation but also as a quality presentation.”

Representatives from the RSNs come together for regular affiliate meetings to discuss every aspect of the networks, from mission statements to production techniques and storylines. Some programming is syndicated across all networks, but, for the most part, as a provider of local sports coverage, each RSN is responsible for creating and scheduling its own content, focusing the programming schedule on what is important to the core constituency of that particular region.

Leading the Web Way
Each of the RSNs is looking at new ways to keep fans connected outside of the MLB and NBA game-watching hours. There are plans in the works to produce more local high school and college events, especially those that can be offered across alternative, nonlinear platforms.

“We’ve explored a number of different technologies to try to bring what would be previously cost-prohibitive events to a smaller market through different platforms like the Web,” Slobotkin says. “Technology is going to be a great facilitator with regard to hyper-local sports coverage.”

Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia recently revamped its Website, and that new and improved model will serve as a template for the other RSNs, which are all working to beef up their identities across digital platforms.

“We hope to have news and information on the Web that serve a complementary role to the games you watch,” Slobotkin says. Halftime ceremonies and other special features aside from game content — which is generally controlled by the league, be it MLB or NBA — are perfect for Web features, and the RSNs are able to use on-air time to promote them accordingly.

They’ve Got the Look
For the upcoming baseball season, RSNs in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, and the San Francisco Bay Area will roll out a new look that incorporates graphics, music, and animations into a more contemporary aesthetic.

“This look is about being America’s regional-sports-network leader, so we’ve basically tapped into America’s colors for our red, white, and blue network colors,” Slobotkin says, crediting April Carty-Sipp, SVP of creative services for Comcast Sports Group, with creating the look. “The animations are slick and three-dimensional, all graphics have movement and sound to them, and it’s a very sharp, clean, readable look.”

Opening Day 2009
For the upcoming baseball season, Comcast will roll out a host of technical enhancements. In Philadelphia, all regular-season Phillies games will be fully produced in HD for the first time, while the Bay Area will see more HD games than ever before (about 150 total, between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s telecasts). All studio programming in all Comcast baseball markets is fully HD, including news shows, pregame, and postgame content. Comcast will also announce a technical enhancement to its baseball broadcasts in the coming months, but, for Slobotkin, the content is the most compelling reason to tune in.

“We have great rivalries among our group, between the Phillies and the Mets, the Dodgers and the Giants, and the Cubs and the White Sox, and we’re going to tap into that this season with plenty of shoulder programming,” Slobotkin says. “First and foremost, when we produce games, we’re storytellers. Regardless of how many cameras you have or what technologies you use, a baseball game can tell a story, and we’ve always tried to do that.”

Although each RSN is a go-to source for the die-hard fans in each city Comcast serves, it’s important to Comcast Sports Group that the networks appeal to the casual fan as well.

“We see baseball as a daily drama and at the local level,” Slobotkin says. “We take care of our core audience, but, if you’re somebody that drifts in and out of the baseball season, we can still catch you up. We keep the daily viewers entertained, but we also try to engage the more casual viewers, and we will continue to do that in each of our markets.”