Friday, November 16th, 2007...3:25 am

Sports Media & Technology Conference

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This week I attended the Sports Media & Technology conference presented by The Sports Business Journal and the Fantasy Sports Association. The conference is one of the few events in the sports industry where the spotlight is supposedly on digital sports media. While the conference certainly focused on leveraging new technologies and distribution platforms to better serve fans and create new business opportunities, the overwhelming focus seemed to be on the raging conflict between sports television networks and cable operators.

It’s no secret that television rights are the cash crop for sports. If you are not convinced, check out the revenue being pulled in by the NFL or NCAA from it’s television partners. The NY Times recently reported that the YES network is being valued at 3 billion dollars. That is 2.5x the valuation that Forbes has placed on the Yankees franchise. All of a sudden, the Yankees are a media empire that happens to have a baseball team. The Sports Industry has taken notice. Just about every conceivable sports entity from the NFL to the Mountain West Conference to the Ski Channel have created a television network. Now they want the cable operators to pay them a hefty subscription fee to widely carry their networks on their basic packages. For the most part, cable companies aren’t budging unless they own an equity stake in the networks. Hence, we have a good old Mexican standoff. The opening keynote panel on “understanding tomorrow’s sports media consumer” was laced with so much double talk and posturing I thought a presidential debate was about to break out.

On the road to ubiquitous sports coverage and super serving the sports fan, there certainly seems to be a few fumbles, interceptions and technical fouls. Sports fans are often a primary driver for penetration of new technologies such as online video and mobile data devices. When Sling Media Co-Founder and CEO Blake Krikorian was asked what Sports can learn from the entertainment industry, he actually flipped the question and said that sports is way ahead of the curve in adopting new technologies and understanding their customers. At the same time, the NFL has limited it’s out of market package exclusively to one channel and it’s damn near impossible to watch a Thursday night game on the NFL network. After years of having no problem watching my alma mater, Michigan, play football on television in NYC, I now have to scramble to find bars that carry the Big Ten Network. What happened to that “any place, any time, anyway…power to the consumer” chant that media executives used to throw around like it was the next verse of take me out to the ballgame?

There certainly are some exciting events on the digital side of sports that were debated during the conference. A panel on online networking communities discussed the new and interesting ways that fans are conversing with each other through new online platforms and tools. My favorite panel was on the impact of the blogosphere. Will Leitch (Deadspin) and Henry Abbott (TrueHoop) didn’t mince words in explaining what’s happening in sports journalism and how the power is shifting to the fan. The faster that big media admits they have lost control the better they’ll figure out how to adapt to the new landscape. They engaged in a great conversation with Chris LaPlaca, a twenty-seven year veteran of ESPN and a Senior VP, Communications. Mr. LaPlaca seemed nervous of the changing landscape, excited by the new opportunities, and eager to learn from the little guys. It was awesome to see a senior executive at ESPN taking notes from upstart bloggers. That’s the kind of stuff that made this conference worthwhile.

The conference also featured extensive fantasy sports coverage with multiple panels devoted to the thriving industry. It’s hard to be a sports fan these days without sinking your time, life and money into fantasy sports. It’s an ideal online application for media companies and advertisers as it is highly engaging, sticky content and incites so much (maybe even too much) passion. The Fantasy Sports Association released research that over 11 million people are playing fantasy football and millions more participate in fantasy baseball, basketball, NASCAR and golf. While fantasy has been dominated by the big three (Yahoo, ESPN, CBS Sports), a burgeoning crop of upstart companies are entering the space to create new applications, support existing games with content and statistics, or making a play to aggregate the industry and create new advertising opportunities.

Many interesting NYC based sports start-ups were represented at the conference including Takkle, Fantasy Sports Ventures, Sportsvite and Sports Technologies. New York City is the ideal location for a digital sports start-up. With access to sports media companies, major advertisers and the top sports market in the world, conditions are ripe for innovation, new products and to leverage market opportunities. It will be interesting to see how these companies capitalize in the space.

Unlike music and entertainment, the sports industry is still living off the fat (think of Oliver Miller) of traditional media. With the importance of live viewing (no DVR), the penetration of HD, strong ratings and a passionate consumer base the future for sports media is very healthy. Hopefully, the sports world will push forward with digital and technological innovation and continue to allow me, as a fan, to enjoy my sports experience in new and exciting ways.