Al Jazeera’s Fledgling Sports Net Refines Its Ground Game

BeIN taps TBWA\Chiat\Day to forge a brand identity

In its bid to become a bona fide player in the U.S., the fledgling network beIN Sport has a lot going for it: deep pockets (thanks to the backing of Al Jazeera), the rights to choice soccer leagues like France’s Ligue 1, and distribution via Comcast, Dish Network and DirecTV.

That said, beIN’s initial reach and programming slate pale compared to giants like ESPN and NBC Sports Network. Still, the newbie is betting that smart marketing can help it compete.

After a search, beIN has hired the New York office of TBWA\Chiat\Day to create ads in the U.S. The agency’s challenge is formidable: create a brand identity in a crowded field of national sports nets that later this year also will include Fox Sport 1. It’s a tough task, but not impossible.

“The difficulty is finding those audiences, then once you find them, you have to stand for something,” said Justin Barocas, a partner at marketing communications firm Anomaly, who has worked on both ESPN and NBCSN. “You have to be able to build a programming schedule and content … that serves those audiences in the most appropriate way while having your own singular voice because that’s what’s going to stand out. It’s not just, ‘We have this matchup on this Saturday.’ It’s more about, ‘Here’s what we believe in; here’s what we stand for.’ ”

In other words, if ESPN is the ultimate home for sports fans and NBCSN is about the humanity of sports, what is beIN’s distinction?

Beyond that core branding challenge, beIN also has a significant disadvantage in reach. The market leader is ESPN, with distribution to more than 98 million homes, followed by Golf Channel with 84 million homes and NBCSN with 78 million, according to Nielsen. And once Fox Sport 1 launches, it will likely become the new No. 2.

Fox plans to use its Speed channel as the main vehicle for its national sports net. Speed reaches some 87 million homes. By comparison, one source estimated beIN’s reach at no more than 10 million homes. (The newcomer isn’t tracked by Nielsen, and beIN, through its public relations agency, declined to speak to Adweek for this article.)

In the eyes of media analyst Michael Nathanson, that reach disparity is beIN’s greatest challenge. “No distribution [provider] is running out today begging to launch a new sports network unless you’re Time Warner Cable in Los Angeles,” said Nathanson of Nomura Equity Research, alluding to plans for the media giant to launch a regional channel built around the Los Angeles Dodgers. “Everyone else is, ‘We’ve got enough sports, thank you.’ ”

Another potential obstacle for beIN is soccer saturation. While the growing U.S. Hispanic population has fueled demand for soccer on TV, that demand already is served by sports nets and broadcasters like Telemundo, Univision and Fox Soccer Channel. So, acquiring the rights to other sports such as Nascar or college football will be key to beIN’s long-term success, said John Ourand of Sports Business Journal.

Despite the headwinds, Ourand is bullish about beIN’s chances in America, simply because the Al Jazeera-affiliated net is well-funded.

“That means they can afford to pay rights fees, and that means they can afford to get cable carriage deals that maybe aren’t the best,” he said. “Another plus … is they are happy to accept sport tier carriage so far. So they’re taking the tack that they just want to get on. And once they get on, it’s sort of like Fox News 15 years down the road.”

And we all know how that gambit turned out.

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