Sports Illustrated is making a big bet on video with the planned launch of a streaming sports network to complement its existing brand. Called 120 Sports, the new standalone business brings together partners SI parent Time Inc. along with the MLB, NHL, NBA, Nascar and leading college conferences, and will give viewers cross-platform access to game highlights. There's no mention of the NFL or access to live games, however.
The gambit comes as SI parent Time Inc. prepares to spin off from Time Warner later this year, and its CEO Joe Ripp is under pressure to show that the publishing giant can find growth beyond its core advertising business and can move fast to take advantage of soaring consumer and advertiser demand for video and mobile content. (The name of the company is a reference to the programming that will be done in two-minute segments suited to digital audiences.)
Financials weren’t disclosed, but the network is said to represent a significant investment for Time Inc., which will lead ad sales for the network. (Production is being handled by Chicago-based Silver Chalice, also an investor in 120 Sports, which hired about 100 people to create programming for the network.)
Media companies have been scrambling to increase their available video content, which is more lucrative than standard online display advertising. SI has been more aggressive than most Time Inc. brands in terms of its video offerings. Its 3-year-old video unit produces about 50 original videos a week, executives have said, and last May, SI launched a 30-minute, daily talk show, SI Now. SI said those offerings would continue after the launch of 120 Sports.
Being in partnership with the leagues presents the potential for conflicts for SI journalists covering those leagues. Time Inc. evp Todd Larsen said during a conference call to discuss the deal that Time Inc. has strong editorial policies in place that will protect its journalistic integrity, noting that the publisher has a long history of covering sibling companies throughout its history being part of Time Warner.
Sports fans have shown a willingness to pay for content, especially live; a study by Sporting News Media found that 8 percent have paid to watch sports via an online subscription and 11 percent were willing to pay for live sports content online. However, the network has chosen to make its content initially free to users, although it expects to start charging next year. Time Inc. didn’t identify any ad partners or sponsors but said they could be named closer to the planned spring launch.
The network will be available as an app and on the partner sites as well as OTT (over-the-top) and connected TVs. Programming will run 24-7 and in addition to game highlights of professional and college sports, SI is expected to contribute existing or original programming.
Bob Bowman, president and CEO of MLB Advanced Media, said during the call that despite the lack of live game content, he expected the network to attract viewers with its made-for-digital format. "Our goal is to produce it and present it in a way that no one has done before," he said. "We think there's room for a digital-first, digital DNA, approach…We think it will find an audience quickly."
The announcement was made by Time Inc.'s Larsen, who recently was elevated, with evp Evelyn Webster, to run all Time Inc.’s brands. Here’s the full memo from Larsen:
I am pleased to share the news that Time Inc. has entered into a partnership to create 120 Sports, a groundbreaking digital-only sports-video programming network. Time Inc. will own a significant equity stake in the company, along with our partners at MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM), the National Hockey League (NHL) and Silver Chalice (SC), a Chicago-based digital-video production company.
This is an exciting opportunity for us. Not only are we building a new stand-alone business that complements one of our brands, we are also expanding our video and mobile offerings across Time Inc. Further, we will be able to offer our clients significantly more video programming inventory, as SI will drive ad-sales for the entire 120 Sports network as co-exclusive ad-sales agents with SC. The deal will also give SI editors access to the 120 Sports player and content—including game highlights of professional and collegiate sports—to enhance our coverage across all platforms 24/7.
120 Sports is named for its concept of offering original sports programming in two-minute segments, a pace the digital audience wants, and is set to premiere this spring with many hours of daily live and on-demand sports news reports and features. SI will contribute original programming to the network, along with content partners, which include MLB.com, the NBA, the NHL, NASCAR and several collegiate conferences.
This programming will be housed and distributed through a new state-of-the-art video and data player created by MLBAM specifically for 120 Sports and designed for all interactive media platforms, including mobile, tablet, Web, OTT and connected televisions. At launch, the 120 Sports product will debut as free native applications for mobile and tablet devices, a Web experience for SI.com, MLB.com, NHL.com and 120Sports.com.
This is a very ambitious enterprise for Time Inc. and one of many we hope to invest in as part of our plan to turn our brands into cross-platform powerhouses. I’d like to thank the entire Sports Illustrated team for its hard work bringing this deal to fruition, especially Jim DeLorenzo, who quarterbacked the project from beginning to end.
Please see the attached release for more information about 120 Sports, and we will be sure to update you on the launch date.