By Greg Johnson
Turner Sports, which has televised elite-level professional sports for more than 30 years, is going back to school – so to speak.
The cable broadcasting company, whose entertainment campus is nestled next to the highest point in Atlanta across from the campus of Georgia Tech, is always exploring the right deal to expand its reach into the sports world. The perfect opportunity aligned when the rights to the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship officially became available for bidding last spring.
The new look of NCAA.com.
It culminated with Turner Sports combining with incumbent CBS to acquire the Association’s marquee championship on a 14-year, $10.8 billion television, Internet and wireless rights contract that was announced April 22. A bit later, Turner was awarded digital rights, and on Monday it unveiled a revamped NCAA.com.
Coupled with adding Conan O’Brien, Turner in 2010 completed two of the biggest deals in recent history in athletics and entertainment.
The sports pact means the Division I men’s basketball tournament will expand on a platform of four channels. The unique agreement certainly will benefit fans. All 67 games will air in their entirety on CBS, which has been home to the championship since 1982, or one of Turner’s family of networks (TBS, TNT and truTV).
“This is a landmark deal for us,” said David Levy, president of sales, distribution and sports at Turner Broadcasting. “We have entertainment channels that have high-quality premium sports on them. Because of that demographic and the genre of this high-profile event, the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship was something we thought would fit our brand and our networks.”
Sports fans are accustomed to tuning to TNT to watch pro sports, The cable channel airs NBA regular-season and playoff games and is also home to many NASCAR races. It has broadcast PGA Tour of America events for more than 20 years, including exclusive first- and second-round and early morning weekend coverage of the PGA Championship.
TBS has broadcast Major League Baseball for more than 30 years and has been home of the MLB divisional series and alternating League Championship Series since 2007.
Turner Sports has a history of broadcasting college football dating back to the 1980s. Most recently, Turner provided a package of Big 12 and Pac-10 Conference football games.
But adding the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship gives the cable broadcast company a chance to have something those professional opportunities can’t offer.
“We’ve never crowned a champion on our network,” Levy said. “This deal will allow us to do so when we carry the Final Four, including the championship game itself.”
That won’t occur until 2016 (CBS will broadcast the championship game until then), but to Turner executives, it’s all part of the master plan. At that point, Turner’s research shows that cable and satellite television networks will be in as many homes as free, over-the-air networks. The Men’s Final Four will alternate between Turner and CBS starting in 2016.
“It is a big deal for the NCAA to take its marquee event and put it on a cable network,” said Lenny Daniels, the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Turner Sports. “It shows trending in the industry. The Bowl Championship Series is on ESPN this year, and many of the other sports properties are moving toward cable.”
Another unique part of the agreement is that Turner and CBS are going into a full partnership, including on all advertising sales.
“We didn’t want competing people selling the same product,” Levy said. “Even though we are different companies with different cultures, this particular product is going to be pooled under one unit and divided from there.”
Turner and CBS have collaborated to broadcast the Winter Olympics and golf’s PGA Championship. Joining together again to secure the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship made the venture feasible.
Turner will officially jump into the March Madness business by televising the newly created “First Four” on March 15 and 16.
This is a new concept added to the tournament after the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee decided to expand the field from 65 to 68 teams. The First Four games of the tournament will be played in Dayton, Ohio, and will be shown on truTV. Two of the first-round games will match automatic qualifiers playing for No. 16 seeds, and the other two games will pit the last four of the 37 at-large teams the committee selects into the field.
The games between the at-large teams will occupy the seed line where they would normally be placed in the bracket. The pairings could occupy different lines in the bracket. For example, one game may be played between two No. 10 seeds, while the other could feature a pair of 12 seeds. Winners of those games would advance to play their natural opponent on a 64-team bracket; the No. 10 seed would play a seventh-seeded team and a 12th-seeded team would meet a No. 5 seed.
With the First Four, Turner plans to make a big first impression.
“Turner and CBS talent will all be together for the first round of the tournament,” said Jeff Behnke, the senior vice president and executive producer of Turner Sports. “We will have all the announcers there. For the mix of those two nights, you will see a mix of Turner and CBS.”
That means viewers may be welcomed to the start of the tournament by Ernie Johnson or Greg Gumbel. Or, they may hear the familiar, “Yes, and it counts!” by Marv Albert or CBS’ Jim Nantz, who has called the championship game since 1991, on the play-by-play in the first-round games.
Behnke will play an integral role in the look and feel. Part of that is incorporating different camera angles. Turner plans to use a robotic camera that shoots down from overhead that can help officials determine if a player was behind the three-point line on a field-goal attempt.
“We call it the definitive look,” Behnke said. “We will add that camera in the venues where we can. I can’t stress how much we are combining the expertise we have and the expertise CBS has. It should be special for the viewer.”
The goal is for the viewer to have a seamless transition regardless of the channel they are watching.
“We will partner with CBS on the graphics and animations,” Behnke said. “It will be combined effort. The primary music will be the CBS theme that America is used to hearing. We are in the development stages of a secondary music package.”
Daniels added: “There will be a cohesive feel and cohesive look, but it will be branded on whatever network it’s on. The ticker across the top of screen will say whatever network you are on, but you can switch to whatever game you want to watch.”
The game times will be staggered, which means different ending times, as well.
CBS will maintain its studio in New York, and Turner will provide a studio, most likely the one that debuted on its NBA coverage this season, in Atlanta.
“That’s because of the sheer volume,” Levy said. “We are going to need two, because if one game is going and we have to go into a halftime somewhere else, we’ll need a second studio. It shouldn’t be thought of as a CBS studio or a Turner studio; it will be a NCAA March Madness studio.”
A popular innovation connected to the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship has been the online March Madness on Demand.
Turner has a proven track record when it comes to its digital properties. It runs NBA.com, NASCAR.com, PGA.com and PGATOUR.com, and it is now running NCAA.com. Enhancing March Madness on Demand is a high priority.
There will be options such as different camera angles than those shown on the television broadcasts, profiles, more statistics and a chance to watch more than one game on the screen.
“Instead of it being all about the games, we’re trying to make it a 23-day event,” Levy said.
By taking over NCAA.com, Turner will have a presence in the other 87 NCAA championships, too.
“We are treating all the championships equally. We will figure out how we can make everything work together and create a destination for the college fan, and that should be NCAA.com,” Daniels said. “Right now, the market is fragmented among the conferences, schools and NCAA.com. My goal is how we can make NCAA.com the place for college sports.”
To sum it up, Turner is a big-time sports entity that is ready to boost March Madness to another level in its continued development.
“We thought this worked with the consumer, and our cable and satellite distributors,” Levy said. “This deal hits all of our target points. It really crossed a barrier in sports where there were always cable packages and network packages. This is not one or the other. It is a shared partnership with CBS. It is important that the NCAA membership understand that.”