LTS 2011: League Execs Balance Entertainment, Engagement, and Obligation

As television-rights deals expand and the second-screen experience gives way to third and fourth screens, league executives must continue to find ways to keep fans entertained and engaged. At the same time, longstanding threats to the fan experience — rain delays, labor disputes, network disagreements — never disappear.

At SVG’s League Technology Summit this week, executives representing the NBA, PGA Tour, MLB, and NFL discussed their respective approaches to these issues while describing how they maintain the delicate balance of fan, network, and league expectations.

Playing the Waiting Game
For the NBA, maintaining that balance in the midst of a season-threatening lockout was essential. NBA Entertainment EVP of Operations and Technology Steve Hellmuth kicked off the discussion with a look at how his team kept its focus.

Steve Hellmuth

“We were very concerned with scenario planning,” he said. “We could restart the season here, we could restart the season there. We were constantly engaged in scenario planning.”

Projects like simplifying the NBA Fantasy system kept top talent and IP professionals busy, while a policy prohibiting programming featuring players involved in the bargaining unit forced the league to accelerate creation of a fully digital archive for programming content.

Glenn Adamo, VP of media operations for the NFL, took a similar project-minded approach when faced with a potentially lockout-shortened season.

“It was nonstop scenarios,” he explained. “What if we play this day? What if we lose the preseason? One week, two weeks, three weeks, four weeks? How do you keep the network relevant? What do you cut back on and what do you keep? We had NFL Films creating content in the event that we would continue to get delayed.”

Major League Baseball, while currently enjoying a period of labor peace, faces game disruptions every season due to weather.

“For the most part, it’s [balancing] the interests of fans who are either at home or in the ballpark,” said Chris Tully, SVP, broadcasting, MLB. “If you’re representing the interests of the viewers, you’re clearly representing the interests of your network partner, but it is also balancing the integrity of the competition. In baseball, the commissioner is particularly sensitive to that in terms of pitching matchups and making certain that rain doesn’t give an advantage to one club versus another.”

David Dukes

PGA Tour Entertainment Senior Director of Technical Operations David Dukes echoed this point when discussing his league’s decision to shorten the Barclays to 36 holes because of Hurricane Irene.

“[You] try to find a balance between your obligations both to your fans and to your network partners but also to the sheer volume of people out there working and their families. So there’s kind of a fine line you have to walk,” said Dukes. “At the end of the day, [tournament officials] felt like they made the right call with eliminating a couple days of the tournament [to let] people get out in time [and] get back to their families.”

The League-Network Relationship
The relationship between league and network partner certainly poses challenges but ultimately offers benefits for both. 

The NFL’s 2006 collective-bargaining agreement, for example, provided additional sharing between the league and its network partners.

Glenn Adamo

“In the past, CBS would have their melts, Fox would have their melts, and then this new NFL Network came in,” said Adamo. “At first, [there was] a little reluctance to share, but, once we got the games packaged, we decided to kind of form a co-op where we shared everything. That continues today, and it continues to the point where we have weekly calls where we talk about problems. It helps everybody elevate their production and their storytelling ability.”

Over a year into an asset-management initiative, PGA Tour Entertainment has converted its entire archive into digital format, allowing the Tour to better support its network partners from a content perspective.

In a similar vein, MLB Network provides the framework for MLB-produced content and allows the league to reach fans wherever they are.

3D Not There Yet
Long anticipated as the next frontier in sports television, 3D is not yet where it needs to be for widespread use, according to the panelists.

“If you sit in a mobile unit watching uncompressed 3D about 3 ft. away from a 32-in. monitor, you can watch it all day. It’s an unbelievable experience, and you’re convinced it’s the future of sports,” said Hellmuth. “With a 50-in. television set, people are sitting 10 and 12 ft. away, and they get tired very rapidly, they get headaches, and it doesn’t work. For 3D to work in the home, you actually have to redesign the living room.”

Meeting Eyeballs Where They Are
A recurring theme throughout the day, the league executives discussed tapping into the second-screen experience.

Chris Tully

“You want to go and be in front of the eyeballs wherever they are, whatever screen, whether it’s in home or out of home,” said Tully. “You want to be there.”

To do so requires a fresh look at directing events and a reimagining of how people watch television.

“It wasn’t that long ago where you’d say the word computer or you’d say online and sports leagues go, ‘Wait a minute! You can’t do that,’” said Adamo. “Now everybody embraces it and says, ‘How can we reach them?’”

However, producing content for the second screen is not enough. Leagues must pay particular attention to how the younger demographic interacts with the Internet.

“It’s not the World Wide Web any more,” said Hellmuth. “Facebook changed everything, especially among young people. [Their] consideration set for Websites is very slim. They might just go to something that someone recommends on Facebook, go out from Facebook, and come back to Facebook. You have to go meet them there.”

Moderating the League Perspectives panel, MTV Networks VP of Production Planning and Strategies Jeff Jacobs summed up the balancing act required of league executives: “If your objective is to further enhance the viewer, you’re obviously on the right track.”

Click here for SVG’s comprehensive coverage of the 2011 League Technology Summit!