Miscellany

An Interview with John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal

We nearly enjoy covering the sports media as we do watching the actual games, which is what makes today’s Q&A cool: It’s with one of the foremost writers in the media/business field, John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal. Ourand’s been a must-read on the struggles of the NFL Network, and in terms of understanding the business side of ESPN, he’s well aware of the challenges that lie ahead not from competitors like FOX Sports, but the leagues themselves, such as the MLB Network.

And as you can tell, he’s a long-time Orioles fan.

Q: Do you fall in the category of “know what you wanted to do with your career during high school and college” or is there another reason for you windup up as a sports business reporter?

I knew I wanted to be a reporter, not necessarily a sports business reporter. Even now, I identify more with being a journalist instead of sports reporter.
My first job was as a sports reporter for the Gazette Newspaper chain in suburban DC. At small papers like that, the sports department is the lowest rung of the editorial ladder. After about three months on the sports desk, I moved to be a general assignment reporter, essentially trading high-school volleyball and wrestling matches for county zoning board hearings. Eventually, I took some jobs covering the cable industry for various trade magazines. In 2006, I heard about an opening at SBJ for a media reporter. Given the amount of cable issues in sports media over the past couple of years – like ESPN, NFL Network and MLB Network – my background in cable has helped a lot more than my interest in sports.

Q: Is there a standard-bearer for sports TV reporting? Would it be Rudy Martzke back when he was at USA Today? When do you feel the media reporting on the media became widely popular?

When newspapers cut costs, sports media columns are the first to go. Right now, there are really only three sports media reporters I look for every morning: Sandomir, Best and Hiestand. As for Rudy, I’ve never met him. He couldn’t pick me out of a lineup. But broadcasting executives are still telling stories about him and how he covered the beat, so I guess he was the standard bearer for a time.
The good news is that while there are less newspaper columns on sports media, there’s now more being written than ever before. Blogs like yours have filled a hole left by the dwindling number of sports media columnists. Newspapers are really missing the boat on this. I know that sports media stories are popular. I see it on our Web site. Given the financial problems newspapers are having, though, they won’t be bringing back sports media columns any time soon.

Q: How do you think the media has handled the web? Your publication, Sports Business Journal, seems to have really made a push in the last six months to put more material on the web. Do you think media outlets who are currently giving away the product for free will ultimately have to change its game plan?

General interest newspapers and magazines have no clue how to make money on the Web. Online advertising still is a fraction of what print advertising is. And subscribers have resisted paying for content, since there’s so much free stuff out there. There’s no easy answer. SBJ has subscribers that pay $250 per year to get the magazine, so we can’t just give everything away on the Web. But when we have a good story, it makes sense to push the story out so that people know that SBJ broke it. It’s a delicate balancing act.
We have an online model with Sports Business Daily that’s working for us. We have people (well, really companies) paying more than $1,100 per year for it. Obviously, at that price, we’re not going to get a million subscribers. It’s not a consumer deal for us. But it’s turned into a good business because it’s targeted to high-level people that work in sports. And it breaks enough news that makes it worth the money for them.

Q: Let’s say this recession lasts another 4-5 years. Which sports leagues do you think would be most hurt by the downturn as unemployment – as well as inflation – rise?

It’s easier to list the leagues that will be OK: the NFL and MLB. Probably the NBA, too. If things don’t get better this year, I’ve been told that a couple of NHL and NBA teams will have trouble making payroll. The leagues facing the most troubles are the ones that depend more on sponsorships than TV revenue. The PGA Tour, for example. NASCAR is another one that will have to make up sponsorship shortfalls.
Then there’s the smaller leagues that could have troubles. How will MLS handle a prolonged recession? What about the lacrosse leagues? Arena Football League already closed shop and doesn’t look like it will ever come back. There are going to be others.

Q: Having covered the NFL Network extensively in the last year, how do you see the MLB Network stacking up? Do you feel as if perhaps it took some notes on the do’s and don’t of having your own network, and that will give it an advantage?

MLB Network is a month old, and it’s at the beginning of what I expect will be a long honeymoon.
Five years ago, when NFL Network launched, it had that same honeymoon. People forget now, because nobody can see it. But when it launched, people couldn’t get enough of NFL Network. It was the fastest growing cable network ever, people loved the NFL Films library, it hired good on-air talent, and
it was being led by Steve Bornstein, the executive who oversaw ESPN’s wild growth in the 1980s and 1990s. Even Bryant Gumbel got some good press – at least before he announced his first game. The shine has definitely worn off NFL Network.
It’s the same thing now with MLB Network. It just completed the biggest cable launch ever. It’s programming has received good reviews. It’s on-air roster seems good. And it’s being run by a veteran TV executive.
MLB obviously learned from some of the NFL’s missteps, particularly in its dealings with cable. Let’s wait a few years, though, and see if the shine wears off of it.

Q: How significant would you consider ESPN locking up the BCS? ESPN now televises the majority of college basketball, has the NBA, is making forays into golf, airs a lot of tennis, and does its fair share of baseball, and Monday Night Football. What’s next for ESPN? Are we beyond the point of anyone trying to cut into ESPN’s enormous lead on television?

If I’m ESPN, I’m more worried about league-owned channels than anything else. Both the NFL and MLB already are competing more with ESPN today than Versus does.
ESPN used to cover the NFL draft alone. Now, it shares coverage with NFL Network. ESPN and ESPN News used to be the only place to see comprehensive NFL highlights and press conferences. Now, viewers flip to NFL Network on Sundays, too.
The same thing is going to happen with MLB Network. ESPN used to be the only place to go for nightly baseball highlights on “Baseball Tonight.” Now, MLB Network is running out “MLB Tonight.” I’m sure MLB’s corporate sponsors will be pressured to support the league’s offering. Given the economy, will they also support ESPN?
If NFL Network can figure out its distribution issues – and it will – it’ll be just a matter of time until both leagues put more live games on their network, which could hurt ESPN’s NFL and MLB schedules. Remember, neither league has playoff games on ESPN, so this really isn’t that far-fetched.
I’m not saying that ESPN’s in any kind of trouble. ESPN is stronger and more powerful than it’s ever been right now, as evidenced by the BCS deal. It’s unlikely it would lose either of those leagues. But if that were to happen, it would be able to withstand it.
What ESPN has going for it is a fat checkbook. It’s unlikely that the NFL could pass up the $1.1 billion per year that ESPN pays it. Plus, the leagues like the fact that ESPN devotes so much non-game programming to their sports, and they don’t really want to mess with that.

QUICK HITTERS
Q: Favorite board game of all-time. Backgammon.
Q: In a word, the Super Bowl commercials were … Expensive.
Q: Who do you feel is the most significant sideline reporter on TV today? Pam Oliver.
Q: A sports book that you’ve read and that you’d recommend. The Sportswriter by Richard Ford.
Q: Don’t we need a college football playoff? We won’t see one for at least five years, probably longer.

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