Despite high fees, cable operators see regional sports networks as among their most effective marketing partners. In the industrial corner of West Virginia, a 14-year-old junior high school student and his mom drove three hours from their Parkersburg home to Pittsburgh to take in a ballgame, the student’s prize for winning an essay contest that Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh co-sponsored with Charter Communications. The same day last month, Fox Sports Net North broadcast FSN North Live from a Minnesota Air National Guard Base as part of a "Freedom Week" program at state military bases. The following Saturday, FSN North, which sent a crew to embed with 3,000 Guard troops from the state, showed a Twins game ad-free as reporter Ron Johnson talked live from Iraq with local soldiers, who greeted their families back home. Charter systems were full partners in these initiatives, which elicited praise from many of the same local dignitaries who regularly hammer cable operators. While the citizens who participated in these programs probably didn’t know it, the service provided to local communities by Fox Sports Regional Networks (otherwise known as Fox Sports Net, or FSN) is about much more than good corporate citizenship. It’s a result of a calculated business strategy that touches everything that FSN does. But this grassroots movement is not limited to FSN’s network of 21-owned affiliates. Comcast Sports Southeast, for example, assists operators who carry local high school football telecasts on Friday nights. Even regional sports nets (RSNs) built around pro teams have found that going local generates positive buzz with a sports-crazed public and goodwill with cable operators. And that goodwill comes despite operators having to pay the highest license fees to RSNs this side of ESPN—anywhere from $1-$2 per subscriber to a reported $3 per sub for Comcast SportsNet Chicago. With MSOs often grousing about the high cost of sports programming, the regionals now understand that it is in their best interests to provide substantial local marketing support to help boost the systems’ prestige as well as a higher quotient of original shows that better reflects their viewers’ ardor for their local teams. "In the earlier iterations of FSN I think we tried to be a little too national," says FSN COO Randy Freer. Indeed, systems that are often strapped for resources appreciate that the RSNs perform much of the marketing drudgery necessary for local events. In addition, the RSNs are content to let operators gain mileage from these events through giveaways, signage and co-branding while piggybacking on the RSNs’ efforts. Operators are also benefiting in other ways from RSNs’ local bent. The tie-ins with local sports teams help cable differentiate itself from DBS competitors, who can’t match cable’s local presence even if they take part in the RSNs’ promotions. Operators say the partnerships are effective because nothing stirs passions like sports. And then there’s the thrill of having subscribers see themselves and their kids on TV. "They get really excited about it," says Becky Ross of Charter Minnesota, whose subs see games carried by FSN North. "They bring signs to be on TV," Ross says of a high school baseball tournament FSN North carried. Is there a more attractive marketing message? In FSN’s case the move to serve the local community came from a decision several years ago to jettison a plan to compete directly against ESPN. Its thinking stems from a three-part plan that draws heavily on local pro teams, colleges and high schools as well as cable operators and local officials, says Freer, who oversees the 21 owned affiliates covering 85 million homes. IN BRIEF, THE PLAN INCLUDES: —Developing programs in local communities that "we can take the lead on and own," Freer says. In Arizona, FSN has awarded more than $100,000 in grants to finance parks and recreational projects. —Partnering with local sports teams on projects like those described above in Minnesota and West Virginia. —Working with cable operators on producing local programming and community campaigns like the Texas Sports Medicine Foundation, which provides medical equipment for inner-city athletic programs. FSN Southwest worked with Comcast Dallas last year (now a Time Warner Cable system) to help publicize the program. "When I started at Prime [Network] way back we did some college events and pro events," says Mike Dimond, VP/GM of FSN North, which has 3 million subscribers across five states. "Now it’s come full circle where we’re part of the local community and we want to make sure key partners and viewers understand we live here, we go to school here," he says. Says Freer: "The regional sports business at its core is about local sports and a local market—local cities connect with that sports franchise…We’ve really gotten focused on telling stories on local teams the local fans care about." NATIONAL TEMPLATE, LOCAL CONTENT On the programming side, FSN affiliates have retained national series, such as The Best Damn Sports Show Period, but these shows are no longer the hub of FSN’s marketing and promotional efforts. Instead, one year ago FSN created series to be national templates for RSNs that wanted to produce shows with a local spin. They include: In My Own Words, an interview series; Under the Lights, where viewers see the inner workings of sports teams; and Spotlight, mini-documentaries on players’ lives before they reached the pros. "It gives us a greater opportunity to get in depth with a bigger sports figure in our region," says Jon Heidtke, VP/GM of FSN Southwest, which has an Under the Lights show upcoming that chronicles the production of an annual magazine covering the fervent college football-recruiting scene at Texas high schools. THE COMPETITION FSN has another reason to attend to its home cooking—the increased competition. FSN faces rivals from Comcast SportsNet and team-owned nets such as the new Cleveland Indians’ SportsTime Ohio, and the New York Mets’ SportsNet New York, a joint venture with Comcast and Time Warner Cable that also debuted this season. Its competitors use strategies similar to those FSN deploys, with some variations. "We’re positioning ourselves as a throwback to what regional sports networks used to be," says Jim Liberatore, president of SportsTime owner Fastball Sports Productions. A purist, Liberatore points to FSN’s national shows as examples of the type of nationally flavored programming he will not run. The FSN national shows are used largely to plug gaps in affiliates’ schedules. Liberatore wants to launch shows about high school and college sports while keeping the Indians front and center. Still, the home market influences almost every decision. Case in point: During Indians broadcasts, announcers even highlight the Ohio ties of opposing team players. Regional Roundup Regional sports networks often have a complex relationship with cable operators; they are among the most popular, but most expensive services. RSNs have placed greater emphasis in recent years on serving communities in partnership with operators, teams or government officials. Below is a selected list of RSNs and high-profile local projects/promotions they have undertaken. FSN ARIZONA
HQ: Phoenix
Launch Date: Sept. 7, 1996, as Prime Sports Arizona
Key Execs: Mike Connelly, VP/GM; Mike Roth, executive producer
Geographical Coverage: AZ and NM
Subscribers: 2.3 million
Teams: Arizona Diamondbacks, Phoenix Suns, Phoenix Coyotes, Phoenix Mercury (WNBA), U of AZ, AZ State
Recent Promotion: Awarded more than $100,000 in grants to parks and recreational programs. FSN DETROIT
HQ: Detroit
Launch Date: Sept. 17, 1997
Key Execs: Greg Hammaren, VP/GM; John Tuohey, executive producer
Geographic Coverage: MI, OH, IN
Subscribers: 3.2 million
Teams: Detroit Tigers, Detroit Pistons, Detroit Red Wings, Central Collegiate Hockey Association
Recent Promotion: Sponsored FSN Buddy Days with Boys and Girls Club that funded recruitment of 1,000 new memberships and provided computer equipment for two clubs in Detroit. FSN NORTH
HQ: Minnesota
Launch Date: 1989 as Midwest Sports Channel; 1996 as Wisconsin Sports Channel
Key Exec: Mike Dimond, VP/GM
Geographical Coverage: MN, ND, SD, WI and IA
Subscribers: 3 million Teams: Minnesota Twins, Milwaukee Brewers, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Minnesota Wild, Minnesota Lynx (WNBA), Universities of MN and WI
Recent Promotion: Operation Home Base, a commercial-free telecast of a Twins game that included live greetings from local soldiers based in Iraq. FSN PITTSBURGH
HQ: Pittsburgh
Launch Date: 1986 as KBL Sports
Key Execs: Steve Tello, VP/GM; Paul Kosuth, executive producer
Geographical Coverage: PA, OH, MD, and WV
Subscribers: 2.3 million
Teams: Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Cavaliers, Pitsburgh Penguins, Big East, Big Ten, Atlantic 10, Horizon League, PIAA, WPIAL college conferences
Recent Promotion: Co-sponsored with Charter Communications the "Road to the Pirates" reading program and essay contest in Wood County, WV. FSN ROCKY MOUNTAIN
HQ: Denver
Launch Date: November 1988 as Prime Sports Rocky Mountain
Key Execs: Tim Griggs, VP/GM; Ken Miller, executive producer
Geographical Coverage: CO, UT, WY, MT, KN, NB, ID, NV
Subscribers: 2.5 million
Teams: Colorado Rockies, Utah Jazz, U of CO, U of Denver
Recent Promotion: Denver Broncos Partnership with Comcast Denver that included "Kids Day Caravan," a traveling road show to Comcast markets and "NFL 101 & 201," sessions hosted by players and staff to educate women about football. FSN SOUTHWEST
HQ: Dallas
Launch Date: January 1983 as Home Sports Entertainment
Key Execs: Jon Heidtke, VP/GM; Mike Anastassiou, senior executive producer
Geographical Coverage: Texas, LA, OK, AR, NM
Subscribers: 8 million
Teams: Texas Rangers, Houston Astros, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Stars, Houston Comets and San Antonio Silver Stars (WNBA), FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo (MLS), U of TX, TX A&M, Baylor
Recent Promotion: Partnership with Comcast Dallas (now owned by Time Warner Cable) to promote Texas Sports Medicine Foundation. COMCAST SPORTS SOUTHEAST
HQ: Atlanta
Launch Date: September 1999
Key Execs: Mark Fuhrman, VP/GM; Steve Thomas, executive producer
Geographical Coverage: GA, AL, TN, SC, MS, AR, KY, FL, WV, NC
Subscribers: 11 million
Teams: Southern and South Atlantic Minor League baseball, ACC, SEC, Southern, OH Valley, Sun Belt, partnerships with 10 colleges
Recent Promotion: Distributed premiums to cable operators and helped market local high school football games of the week that the systems produced. SPORTSTIME OHIO
HQ: Cleveland
Launch Date: March 2006
Key Execs: Jim Liberatore, VP/GM, Fastball Productions
Geographical Coverage: OH, PA, KY
Subscribers: 2.6 million
Teams: Cleveland Indians, Ohio Athletic Conference

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