Turner Sports cashing in on NCAA tournament

With the Final Four games starting Saturday, I decided to talk with the Turner Sports exec who engineered the biggest programming deal in the company’s history.

David Levy

David Levy

I’m talking about the $10.8 billion, 14-year agreement to team up with CBS for the rights to telecast and webcast every NCAA men’s tournament game — live across the nation.

Turner Sports President David Levy had just finished giving a progress report to his bosses last week — Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes and Turner Broadcasting CEO Phil Kent — when I got the chance to talk with him. We were joined by Turner Sports COO Lenny Daniels.

Is the first year of the mega-deal working so far? Or are Levy and Daniels toast?

“This is a great property,” Levy, 48, said. “It had to fit a smart business model.” If not, he said, he would have gotten “bullets in the back.”

The numbers have been strong so far. On TV, the games have averaged 9.4 million total viewers — up 11 percent from a comparable period during last year’s tournament, which occurred before the Turner-CBS deal was hatched. On the Internet and mobile devices, there’s been 41.6 million total visits — up 60 percent.

How about on the ad revenue side?

“It’s substantially ahead of our business plan,” said Levy, who wouldn’t disclose details. (I think Bewkes and Kent got those.)

Lenny Daniels

Lenny Daniels

But before we get to the critical business plan, here’s a little background. Turner does not operate a 24/7 sports network like ESPN. So it has come up with a strategy that tries to tap its strengths. In addition to broadcasting sports, Turner has been operating other leagues’ websites for years. The sites include NASCAR.com and PGATour.com, among others. Two years ago, NBA.com was added, along with NBA TV.

The leagues are taking advantage of Turner’s media expertise. And Turner gets to market more TV properties and websites to advertisers and cable distributors — including heavily trafficked league sites with considerable brand muscle.

“We believe if we build a brand for the NBA, we build a brand for Turner,” Daniels, 45, said as he took a drink from another iconic brand, Coke.

In the sports world, there aren’t many properties with the marquee value of the NCAA tournament. That’s why the NCAA wanted its media outlets to deliver live broadcasts of all games nationally. Logistically, that requires four TV networks with widespread distribution, and Turner (TBS, TNT, truTV) and CBS won the rights.

Turner’s ability to score financially increases now that it has the tournament — hence its willingness to pay big bucks for the media rights. The company can market to advertisers in three ways, Levy and Daniels said:

– Vertically: It can sell the tournament — along with other sports properties — on three screens — TV, Web, mobile.

– Individually: It can sell the tournament — and any of the other properties — on one screen.

– Horizontally: It can sell specific demographics. For example, an advertiser may want to reach males, 18-49, on the Web.

It’s all about leveraging multiple properties on multiple platforms.

Next Tuesday: CNN President Jim Walton

- Henry Unger, The Biz Beat

For instant updates, follow me on Twitter.

4 comments Add your comment

Buzz G

March 29th, 2011
8:06 am

Everybody makes big buck on college sports…the colleges, the coaches, the media. Everyone, that is, except the athletes. Their talents and efforts get them nothing except a diploma that they can hang on the wall. And if they don’t make the pros, that diploma rarely is worth much. It is not fair.

TnGelding

March 29th, 2011
9:53 am

IF they don’t turn pro. The diploma and experience are priceless.

I’ve been pleased with the coverage of the games, so far. Never mind that only one of my teams made the Final Four, UConn. Go Big Blue, represent the conference well.

Road Scholar

March 29th, 2011
10:32 am

I appreciate Turner stepping in to help cover ALL the games. Instead of watching a team on a split screen, if at all, we now can watch all the games, depending on how quick your trigger finger on the remote is! This deal is a huge improvement for sports fans!

Suz505

March 30th, 2011
12:48 am

Buzz G is right on with his comments. The NCAA, the universities, the networks, all the sports gear companies make billions off of these college athletes while the athletes get a one year scholarship. That’s right, if the athlete is not of use to his team anymore, his (her) scholarship can go to someone else the next year. Finally there is a lawsuit against the NCAA over their ownership of an athlete’s image from college career on. The NCAA is still making money on athletes who went to college in the 70s through trading cards, video games and the like. I enjoy March Madness and the games this year have been incredible. The athletes responsible deserve compensation now.