BULLETIN: The next battleground in the high-stakes world of sports television rights could be the America's Cup.
Yachting? The sport in which the over-under usually is five or six -- as in how many hours will it be before the race finishes?
Not so long ago -- say, last year at this time -- you could have built two 90-foot boats on Madison Avenue in New York and they only would have attracted a couple of parking citations. Nowadays, executives from cable and broadcast networks are trying to push those boats into their front doors to be bottled and showcased to the American public.
It may not be a bidding war, but remarkably, ABC, CBS, ESPN and WTBS all have expressed interest in gaining the rights to next year's expected sail-off between the United States and New Zealand and for the full-scale 1991 America's Cup. Championship sailing won't attract a lot of people -- don't expect to see it on pay-per-view in our lifetime -- but it attracts people who wear monogrammed shirts.
In the TV business, they say it has good demographics.
"It's a terrific high-profiled viewer for us," said Rex Lardner, WTBS' vice president for sports. "It's got great appeal, the 18-to-49 male, educated, home owner."
"We felt it would attract some nontraditional viewers, the upscale man," said ESPN's director of programming, Loren Matthews. ESPN televised the America's Cup last winter. "A lot of people used America's Cup to sample ESPN, and we think we got a different viewer than we had gotten before."
ESPN's coverage of Dennis Conner's stunning victory remains one of the cable network's greatest success stories. The live telecasts of the finals from Australia -- with races beginning after midnight Eastern time -- attracted seven times the audience ESPN usually gets in that time period. The final race went to more than 1.8 million homes, and more than one of every four sets watching cable at that hour was tuned in to ESPN.
The America's Cup telecast also attracted four new advertisers to ESPN -- Bell Atlantic, Crum & Forster (insurance), Atlantic Financial (financial planning) and Domaine Chandon (champagne). Naturally, those sponsors came to the America's Cup expecting the not-so-average viewer to be a guy named Farley who has a cellular phone and an active stock portfolio and likes to drink the bubbly. There were so many Farleys out there, all the broadcast sales departments want to be on board next time.
"There are significant marketing opportunities with this event," said Bob Iger, ABC Sports' vice president of programming. "TV entities realize there is money out there to support this type of project. If you went to companies in the late '70s or early '80s and asked them to throw money at America's Cup, you'd get funny looks. But the corporate support is available now."
ESPN paid $650,000 for the America's Cup rights last time, and the price for the 1991 Cup is certain to be a lot higher. Despite network interest in the '91 Cup, it is more likely to go to ESPN or WTBS because the length of the series and the uncertainty of racing days create scheduling problems that cable can adjust to easier.
Largely because of ESPN's compelling coverage last winter, the America's Cup suddenly has become more than just another competition. "It almost transcended sport," Lardner said. It won't transform American viewers into a nation of armchair helmsmen, but it attracts enough of the right ones to make sailing the latest splash in big-event TV sports.