Eyes in Los Angeles have been glued to the soap opera that is the Los Angeles Lakers all spring, as the team marches through the NBA playoffs. And that is just fine with Neil Viserto, who, as VP, sales and marketing for SportsLink L.A., has been trading that attention into dollars all season for the five MSOs that own SportsLink L.A.’s parent, Adlink. As the star-filled and star-crossed team sets cable ratings records, as it did during the Western Conference finals series with the Minnesota Timberwolves last month, the reasons why the Los Angeles-based ad sales interconnect set up SportsLink one year ago are clear. There is a fervor attached to sports programming that no other genre can match. Since its launch last June, SportsLink has been tapping into that fervor. Ad sales from L.A.-area sports avails totaled around $4 million in 2002, before SportsLink was formed. Last year, SportsLink’s sales jumped to $8 million and are expected to top $12 million this year for the department’s MSO owners: Adelphia, Charter, Time Warner Cable, Comcast and Cox. After only a year in existence, SportsLink will generate 7%-10% of Adlink’s total revenue this year, Viserto says. That translates to $12 million-$17 million. After posting those numbers, you’d think that systems in other markets would be looking to replicate SportsLink. Only a few are doing so, however. "To the extent that they can, every interconnect should mimic the SportsLink model," says Jerry Ware, Turner Networks Sales’ VP, local ad sales. "Adlink is special, being in the second-largest market in the country. But every interconnect in the top 10 markets should be considering it." Some already have taken on that challenge. National Cable Communications, the national spot sales arm that sells local cable ad spots to national advertisers for cable operators, brought in former Viacom TV station marketer Chip Carmody to oversee a newly created sports-centric division two months ago. Late last year, Comcast merged the local ad sales department in its mid-Atlantic division with the ad sales unit at SportsNet Mid-Atlantic, which the MSO also owns. The move has helped Comcast’s ad sales unit—Comcast Spotlight—grow its client base by more than 40% and report "significantly" higher sales revenue, says Joe DelGrosso, Comcast Spotlight’s VP/GM, Washington region. The reasons for creating these special departments to sell sports-centric advertising and promotional packages go beyond the gaudy numbers. As the industry frets about how the ad market will evolve, as ad-skipping DVR technology becomes more popular, spots on live sports programs should become a precious commodity. "Sports has always been a magnet for advertisers, and with the advent of digital video recorders, the genre of live sports programming will be even more attractive," says Kevin Barry, VP, local sales/marketing for the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau. "Broadcasters have long known the power of their sports programming because they have so little of it. But cable operators have almost an embarrassment of riches when it comes to sports, and they’ve not traditionally taken advantage of it. This isn’t a big trend yet, but I think as more people watch SportsLink’s success, they’ll go out and do the same thing." Not as Easy as It Looks Given the wild success Sports-Link has enjoyed in its first year, it’s surprising that more systems haven’t created sports-centric ad sales arms. But some of Sports-Link’s biggest supporters are skeptical that its success can be translated to other markets. "Is this something I would like to dedicate resources to in other markets? I’d have to say no right now," says Time Warner Cable Ad Sales president Larry Fischer. "We already have so many things to focus on right now—the number of zones we serve, the number of networks we insert on, supporting the national rep firms with sales—that right now I don’t want to hire someone to head up a sports unit. "Other interconnects should probably consider it at some point," Fischer continues. "But they need to make sure they find the right talent. That’s been crucial to the success at Adlink." About 15 years ago, Time Warner Cable tried to put its sports ad sales business into one package without much success, Fischer says. "New York isn’t a great sports town when you look at the ratings. But it also could’ve had something to do with who we had in charge of [sports] at the time." Another of SportsLink’s owners, Adelphia, is separating its sports inventory in several markets "to stimulate demand the way SportsLink has done in L.A.," says Jack Olson, the MSO’s SVP, media services. But Adelphia’s support for such a system outside of Los Angeles seems tepid, given the fact that Adelphia has no plans to hire an executive to oversee sports sales. Even if MSOs’ ad sales units decide to create sports-centric departments, the actual process of getting a unit off the ground is arduous. It took SportsLink almost six months just to break down and collate the sports programming and ad avails offered across all the cable networks, says Matt Brown, Adlink’s VP, marketing and communications. "I tell operators it’s going to take them longer to put together a sports unit than they think it will take," says Bob McCauley, Adlink’s president. One Year of SportsLink McCauley left L.A. broadcast station KCOP-TV to become Adlink’s president two years ago. He saw immediately that L.A.-area cable systems were underutilizing the sports ad inventory, which amounted to about 10,000 spots per year. Only about 20% of sports spots were sold out regularly. It’s not that sports avails were being totally ignored in Los Angeles, McCauley says. But the interconnect had never broken out for clients all the spots available on all the cable networks. "Sports was the most valuable programming offered to advertisers [for L.A.-area broadcasters]," McCauley says. "When we came to Adlink, we knew we wanted to focus on the high-ticket items. And for advertisers, that means sports." Once the SportsLink team was in place, it created a database spotlighting all of cable’s live and canned sports programming. Then Viserto and Brown began pitching the new opportunities to local clients and ad agencies. SportsLink offered deals that let advertisers focus on buying spots on specific networks, during specific sporting events or at specific times of the day, season or year. With the help of networks’ marketing arms, Sports-Link also crafted ad packages that included expanded marketing opportunities, such as added exposure during sporting events, sponsorships and special events. "[The networks’] promotions would drive ratings, the clients would get the opportunity to take better advantage of the network marketing support and the operators would improve their ad sales revenue," Viserto says. Promotions that Work When he first arrived at Adlink, Viserto says his mission was to sell spots at the right rate. Now, he says, he wants to provide clients with more marketing opportunities by bringing cable networks’ marketing muscle into the mix. Viserto uses radio spots, point-of-purchase displays and other marketing ploys to enhance advertising packages for clients. For instance, SportsLink might run radio and TV spots hyping a visit by ESPN’s bus at a local car dealership. Or an advertiser might receive tickets to sporting events. "Adlink’s sports division gives it a special focus on sports that has been beneficial for everyone," Turner’s Ware says. "Los Angeles is a huge market for us, and we saw a tremendous advantage to promoting our services there." One of SportsLink’s most successful promotions with TNT centered around the network’s NBA package. The tip-off campaign launched last September highlighted the NBA All-Star Game, which was held in Los Angeles in February. TNT gave the interconnect a slew of tickets to the All-Star Game, Rookie Event and Jam Session as well as access to a hospitality suite, and an opportunity for advertisers to meet and greet the players during the weekend’s activities. At the same time, SportsLink ran TNT’s taggable ads touting the game across its inventory. A similar program has been undertaken during the playoffs, Ware says. "We got a lot of exposure for our programming, and Adlink made a lot money on the spots," he says. "Adlink is easy to work with—we expect to do more promotions with them in the future. There are so many things we can do, including promotions for Major League Baseball." Another of SportsLink’s successful promotions was with The Golf Channel during the network’s Mutual of Omaha Drive, Chip and Putt Jr. Challenge. Now in its sixth year, the challenge provides opportunities for children age 7 to 14 to compete in events that develop and test their golf skills. The tour visits 100 cities across the U.S. and Canada and involves about 30,000 kids. The Los Angeles leg of the tour took place in March and consisted of four events at area golf courses. As part of the SportsLink package, sponsors Jaguar and Land Rover received on-air exposure promoting the event and were given on-site exposure at each of the four events. The car manufacturers received signage, with both sponsors bringing cars to each event as well, says Maureen Bennett, Adlink’s director of strategic marketing and promotions. "We’ve done taggable avails for some time," Bennett says. "We’ve ramped that up a bit and gone beyond that." For instance, a client might get tags at the end of network-created spots, signage at sporting events, co-branded radio spots ("Watch the NBA playoffs tonight on TNT, brought to you by ABC Electronics…"), point-of-purchase materials and programming guides. "Now we want more multisports and multiyear contracts from national advertisers. And we think we can achieve that," says Rick Oster, Adlink’s VP, general sales manager. It’s no surprise that automotive is the largest advertising category for SportsLink, making up about 40% of the unit’s annual revenue. (After all, auto remains the dominant category overall for local cable ad sales.) Still, Viserto and Brown are trying to expand their client base this year. "That’s always the goal," Viserto says. "In sports, there are 30 to 40 companies that do most of the spending. But we want to expand that. If they’re a team sponsor, that is the kind of sponsor we want. I tell my clients this: `If you bought the Lakers on broadcast, you’ll only get a certain amount of eyeballs. We’ll give you more because we can offer all these networks that offer the Lakers as well as other basketball teams.’ We had a booth at the All-Star Game and asked people what they watched. Eighty-seven percent said they watch more than one local team. That’s the power we bring to clients that broadcast can’t touch."