A conversation with Neal Pilson
Neal Pilson is the president of Pilson Communications, Inc. (PCI), a sports television consulting company with a broad base of clients in the sports business. He spent 19 years as an executive at CBS Sports, including nearly 10 years as president, where he negotiated broadcast agreements for all of the network's major sports franchises, including the NFL, the NCAA basketball tournament, the Masters, the PGA, U.S. Open tennis, college football and basketball, as well as the U.S. television rights to the 1992, 1994 and 1998 Olympic Games. In 2012, he advised the University of Connecticut on its four-year regional television agreement with SNY, which expanded the school's women's basketball coverage to 14 million homes. Since founding PCI, he has served as a consultant to the WTA, WUSA, LPGA and WNBPA.
I co-teach a Sports Leadership class at the Columbia University Graduate Sports Management Program with Pilson and, in a recent interview, we discussed how women's sports can become more viable television properties on their own and how watching women's sports is different than watching men's.
Question from Val Ackerman: How has the television coverage of women's sports evolved over the past 25 or 30 years?
Answer from Neal Pilson: I think the earliest [coverage], perhaps, was when CBS bought the [NCAA] men's basketball rights in 1982. We included the women's basketball finals as part of that agreement. There was coverage obviously of women's tennis, and coverage of women's gymnastics [and other sports] as part of the Olympics. But independent women's sports, to the best of my recollection, really weren't covered at all. There was no regular-season women's basketball on network television. And so while I'm sure it appears slow and somewhat torturous for some of the people looking at the women's sports picture, the growth [on television] over the past 30 years has been substantial.
Q: Was getting coverage just a gradual process, or can you think of any major milestones along the way?
A: Overall, I think it was gradual. There were a couple of accelerants. One was the Billie Jean King event [with Bobby Riggs in 1973]. I think the most dramatic event was the Women's World Cup [in 1999], which really captured the imagination of the American public. And also the beginning of coverage of the WNBA [in 1997].
Q: How has the proliferation of outlets in recent years helped?
A: Back in the day, there were only three networks. Each of them did about 300-350 hours of sports programming [a year]. So you had about 1,000 hours of national TV coverage among the three networks. That was it. Now a single outlet like ESPN televises over 50,000 hours [a year]. And I would guess with all of the outlets combined you get close to 100,000 hours. So the growth of distribution outlets on television and cable, putting aside web-based distribution, has benefited all sports. But women's sports has gotten significantly more coverage because there are so many ways now to reach the public.
Q: How do the viewing habits of female and male viewers differ when it comes to sports coverage?
A: Most women's television events occur on channels that are dominated by men, or occur during time periods that are dominated by men. And [so] if at any point a women's sports event is carried by ESPN, the normal male audience on ESPN is close to 70 percent. So it shouldn't be a surprise that most women's sports on an outlet like ESPN are dominated by male viewers because they're the ones that are looking at the channel.
Also, when women's sports air on weekend afternoons on the broadcast networks, that's the time period that men are sitting at home and controlling the channel. ... The gender of folks attending women's events is far different from the viewing audience. This difference wasn't widely appreciated by some of the organizers of women's sports properties 10 or 15 years ago. They pitched their television at women, but they only reached men because the [events] were on men's channels during men's viewing hours.
Q: Does the male viewer base on television affect how women's sports properties should be marketed?
A: I think women's sports properties just need to grow audiences. I don't think they should be terribly concerned about the demo at this point. By scheduling their events on weekend afternoons, they just aren't going to get a significant female audience because traditionally, women are not watching television on a Saturday afternoon between one o'clock and six o'clock. So understanding how your audience is created and who is watching it is very important, as is [knowing] the people you see in attendance aren't necessarily the people who are watching.
Q: Why don't channels that traditionally program to women carry more women's sports?
A: Efforts have been made over the years to get these channels to carry women's sports, but they come back and tell you they get a much higher audience for entertainment programming than they do for women's sports programming. During the day, when women are traditionally watching, they will get a higher rating for entertainment programming, whether it's talk shows or network repeats or game shows, than they do for sports. And at night it's even more dramatic. Gymnastics and figure skating do very well in prime time because you have a higher women's audience in prime -- it's usually 60/40 women watching the Olympics in prime time.
Q: What do you see as the prime women's sports television properties and why?
A: The women's U.S. Open final; I think women's tennis is now equal to, and perhaps even more dominant, with television audiences than men's tennis. Women's figure skating clearly is the dominant sport as compared to men. Same with women's gymnastics. Beach volleyball did very well in the Summer Olympics. The women's events that dominate seem to be individual events. The public, for a whole variety of reasons, just doesn't place as much credibility or have as much interest in women's team sports as they do men's. That said, Women's World Cup soccer has done exceptionally well in recent years. There's something about a women's team representing the United States that has truly attracted a male and female audience. And, of course, the WNBA, regular-season women's college basketball and the women's NCAA basketball tournament probably get more hours of television coverage than any other women's sport.
I think women's sports properties just need to grow audiences. I don't think they should be terribly concerned about the demo at this point.Neal Pilson
Q: How would you describe the current state of network interest in women's sports?
A: I think there's more willingness now among network executives to program women's sports. ESPN does a very good job with women's softball. Women's basketball is getting far more coverage than it did five or 10 years ago. I think there's going to be a lot of interest in Brittney Griner when she transitions from college to professional. ... [But] it still must compete with other types of sports programming and other types of entertainment programming, and the competition is measured by audience ratings ... and sponsor and advertiser support.
There are no "oughts" or "shoulds" in our business. Commercial television networks look at every property, men's or women's, in terms of measuring rods that are very objective. Can it generate an audience? Will the rating be good? Will the demographics be good? And can they sell it to sponsors and advertisers who will pay for rights fees and production costs and so forth? Those are very fundamental questions that television executives have to ask themselves because that's how they're being measured.
The sense that there is some obligation on the part of television networks and channels to carry women's sports really doesn't exist. The obligation is to serve your shareholders and your television stations and your affiliates and your cable audience. And all sports programming, women's or men's, is measured on that basis. The fact that women's sports has grown significantly in recent years in terms of coverage speaks to the fact that there are more sponsors and advertisers, and more viewers who are now interested in women's sports, than was the case 10 to 20 years ago.
Q: What should women's sports properties be thinking about as they strive to increase their coverage on the air?
A: I think it's about attracting more interest and attention ... and making women athletes more prominent within their sport. Look at Danica Patrick and the amount of coverage she gets within the auto racing world. Look at Serena and Venus and all the other great women's tennis players. They attract a truly significant male and female audience. Part of the effort has to be to make these athletes more marketable, get them involved, work hard to get them advertising endorsements, work hard to get them on the morning shows, get them interviewed.
When Brittney Griner moves to the WNBA, there should be an expensive and intelligent [campaign] that not only promotes her, but promotes the sport, as well. Because we're finding that male athletes and female athletes [alike] tend to drive audiences to watch them. The American public has always been interested in golf, but Tiger Woods really excites people and he ends up generating a 20- to 30-percent increase in audience every time he's in a tournament. I think Brittney can do the same thing for the WNBA.
Q: Let's talk about the viability of a channel devoted exclusively to women's sports. What are your thoughts about that? Good idea or bad idea?
A: Probably in the final analysis, it's an idea that isn't going to work right now. Getting a channel devoted to any specific property is not an easy proposition. Normally you need leverage: You try to market two or three or five channels in order to get them on, rather than just try to go to market with a single channel.
Also, no matter what you do in terms of creating a single channel for women's sports, you're always going to get a much better rating if you're on ESPN, which has cross-promotional capabilities 24/7, or Turner or CBS, where exposure or promotion for a given property reaches a much wider audience than if you are in a single channel, single genre-type presentation. You need to attract an audience. And the best properties are already on other channels and doing reasonably well.
So you have the dilemma of what do you put on a women's sports channel that will attract an audience, but at the same time not lose the audience that is watching women's sports on the more established channels. One possibility would be to have [the channel] show more than just women's sports. See if you could link with women's health. See if you could link to some form of children's programming that would link daughters and mothers together.
I think there are imaginative ways to do this so it wouldn't just be a "sports channel" because for a variety of reasons, women for the most part don't view sports with the same level of intensity as men. And so I wouldn't try to count on the single-interest sports channel as a way to proceed. I think it'd try to link it with much broader issues that are of interest to women beyond, but including, sports.
Q: Would you foresee challenges with content or advertiser commitments?
A: There are lots of women's sports properties that don't currently get national cable distribution. So I don't think you would have a problem with programming. The real problem [would be] persuading sponsors and advertisers that there would be an efficient purchase of commercial time that will reach the audience they want to reach to sell their products.
Q: Some have said that women's sports should be marketed in a different way from men's sports because the women who are following them are "more interested in stories than statistics." That has led to marketing strategies for women's sports organizations that might be somewhat different than those used on the men's side in the same sport. Is there also room here for any fresh thinking or innovation in terms of how women's sports are televised?
A: From a production standpoint, when you watch a women's event, the format is exactly the same [as a men's event]. You watch a basketball game, and the format is the same. [Many years ago,] half of what we did, or a substantial portion of what we did, was taped. ABC's "Wide World of Sports" was the predominant sports show 30 years ago, and it was all taped except for a few live events.
Our business has changed now, and almost everything that the networks do is live. And the rule when you're televising live events is you don't miss live action. That's been the rule for men's sports, and it's carried over for women. [But] there are other ways to televise a property. An easy example is golf. Because so much is going on in golf, you're missing a lot because it's going on over nine or 10 different golf holes. And so the audience understands that, while it's watching a live shot there are eight or 10 shots that it's not watching. Women's golf would lend itself to coverage where more time is devoted to the players themselves and the stories that surround the tournament than just the graphics of the tournament itself. Instead of showing every shot live, golf could experiment with a format where 60 percent is live and the other 40 percent is features and interviews and what we call softer coverage, rather than just the hard live telecast.
When a women's tennis event begins, you're watching it live and the breaks are very quick, so you don't have time to do any feature programming. But there's 10 or 15 minutes between matches, where you could do more [features] coverage. Once a World Cup soccer match begins, you're not going to slip features into the live coverage. [But] you could come on the air a half-hour earlier with interviews and features and stories, or use your halftime. Rather than interview the coach, you could do a quick feature on one of the players. So there are ways to modify coverage to provide stories and vignettes that would be appreciated by your female audience.
Q: Things are moving so rapidly in sports media and technology, with outlets that didn't exist five or 10 years ago now playing a critical role in getting stories out. Is there anything on the horizon in the sports media universe that you think could have a bearing on women's sports coverage in the future?
A: We're seeing more colleges and [other] owners of sports properties looking at channels that they create on the Internet and then own and control 100 percent. It's a way of targeting. If you have an internal distribution process, you can internally promote to [your target audience] that they can see and utilize a 24/7 web-based distribution. We are moving in that direction. And that's relatively inexpensive. You don't have to persuade the gatekeepers at Comcast or CBS to put you on. You don't have to beg and plead. You can decide to do that yourself.
Q: What would it take to see more women's sports highlights on "SportsCenter" or other news or entertainment shows?
A: Well, ESPN's going to make its judgments based on what it thinks its audience wants to see. They're making their judgments based on the kaleidoscope of events that happen every day. Their audience is probably close to 70-percent male, and they only have an hour. If ESPN is persuaded that a woman athlete or sports event should get more highlight clip coverage, they will do it.
Women's sports properties do have the ability to generate their own clips and highlights and seek distribution beyond ESPN. There are distribution opportunities with local television. There are distribution opportunities on YouTube and Google -- there are ways of generating more footage quicker and faster. [It] doesn't all have to be on television. There could be feature stories in magazines and the style sections of the paper rather than just the sports sections.
I think a group of highly motivated, highly sophisticated, experienced women executives who believe in the value of women's sports could seek funding and then begin to finance and spend money in support of women's athletes and women's sports events and attempt to grow them from the top down, whereas most sports develop bottom up. Right now, it's kind of hit and miss. And you can say, well, the men don't do it, and I would tell you the men don't need to do it. The sports reporters and newspapers do it for them. It's a little more challenging promoting women athletes.
Q: But it's going to take more than female viewers and a group of female executives to move this along, isn't it?
A: There doesn't seem to be any question that for women's sports to grow significantly beyond where they are today they have to involve men. They're not going to be able to get there just by appealing to women.