Interviews

Sports Media Visionary Ed Desser: Legal gambling will bolster ratings for blowouts; Select tech players will bid for rights

Founder of NBA TV sees flat compensation for many announcers and continued pay increases for superstar broadcasters. He says some radio could shift to an online platform.

Ed Desser

There’s a photo of David Stern and Ed Desser, likely taken at the time that the commissioner left the NBA in 2014.  It has a handwritten inscription signed by Stern, “Ed, I could not have done it without you.”

It’s no secret that the 30 year commissioner was a taskmaster. The time demands and level of expectations he required of league employees were excessive. Stern was not a man who profusely spewed compliments.  Heaping praise on Desser, a 23 year NBA employee, was earned through merit.

During his long tenure with the league, Desser produced results. He engaged in each major TV contract that the league signed for both the NBA and WNBA. He formed and ran NBA TV and served on the Board of Governors Planning Committee.

Desser and iconic David Stern, who served as NBA head for 30 years

Since 2005, his eponymous Desser Media has done work for leagues, college conferences, some 30 pro teams and international governing bodies. In other words, Desser is a man whose opinion and negotiating skills are sought by a cross-section of property rights-holders.

If Wayne Gretzky knew where the puck was heading, Desser seems to have a sense for where sports media is going.

I had a chance to get Ed’s views on the direction, patterns and trends covering sports media.

Do you see the role of Facebook and other social media giants accelerating their pursuit of play-by-play rights? 

Yes, most of the major tech players have a sports programming group assigned to determine how it should best address the important sports market. Some will look to take major packages away from traditional sports broadcasters (AS AMAZON JUST DID WITH EPL).

Others will take a more measured approach, looking for properties that are a good fit for their particular user base, now and into the future. Still others, will likely leave sports to others, as has been the case so far for Apple and Netflix. Best case scenario is that a handful of these players will have a meaningful position in sports.

In addition, I expect that some existing sports players will develop a major on-line live sports presence (e.g. ESPN+, FloSports, NeuLion), though not in the same way as the linear networks have done so historically (e.g. broad based, nearly universal penetration). 

Streaming has become an almost widespread phenom. From high school volleyball to DII basketball, virtually every event at all levels is available somewhere. Will the collective viewing numbers reach sufficient critical mass, making streaming a player for real ad dollars?

Depends on what you mean by “real” ad dollars. Ad revenue is a function of audience size and the ability to reach specialized groups that are otherwise difficult to do.

It is getting easier to narrow-target small audiences with new media. So while the ad revenue for a particular event might not be huge, the cumulative amount will likely be so over time(the so-called long tail). 

The size will be a function of the interest in the big players to take away major rights from the linear networks. As long as the business model and accessible universe for the TV properties is stronger, they will retain most of the big events. 

With streaming and increased digital tentacles, will the vertical sport networks (e.g. MLB Network) maintain their values, grow or decline?

Hard to imagine these networks growing their relative value. Today it is less unique to have a full time sport-branded network than it was at the time. As the person who launched the first one, NBA TV, I take no joy in that answer. However, the ecosystem is changing and the leagues will adjust their media exploitation accordingly.

When they launched, they were linear video versions of league websites. Today those sites have a great deal of video, and fans are getting used to finding it in many places. And tastes are evolving away from channel surfing and long, single channel viewing sessions.

When the vertical networks launched, they were linear video versions of league websites. Today those sites have a great deal of video, and fans are getting used to finding it in many places (PC and mobile)… And tastes are evolving away from channel surfing and long, single channel viewing sessions. 

With so many more games available on some form of media, will announcers’ salaries level off, drop or increase?

All of the above. The big time, super popular and ultra-gifted stars will continue to be in high demand and should continue to command large and growing salaries. For most of the rank and file, I would anticipate fairly flat compensation. On the low end, more events will be distributed using PA feeds and amateur/student announcers. Therefore, I would expect the average compensation to decline as the quantity of the latter increases. 

In addition to their on-air work, what will announcers be able to do to make themselves more valuable to a rightsholder or team, in addition to just being play-by-play people?

Desser (l) with lady pioneer sportscaster Lesley Visser and former CBS Sports executive Ted Shaker

They create value through harnessing their knowledge and team/sports brand association to improve business opportunities for the team, sport or network that employs them.

Yes, announcers will be asked to do more and more, from podcasts to news cut-ins and commercials. They will not have the luxury of focusing exclusively on announcing, but rather can expect to leverage that in a variety of ways designed to grow business opportunities in a crowded environment.

 

Where do you see the future of radio play-by-play? The NBA and NHL place these announcers in the nosebleeds and advertising support has waned.

Radio just isn’t as special or as good a business as it used to be. As ad dollars decline, this trend is likely to continue.  Expect more simulcasts in radio’s future and some teams’ games shifting to an internet-only distribution.

How will the legalizing of gambling affect broadcast sports both nationally and locally?

While it is way too soon to tell, gambling is another way to stoke fandom. Legal gambling probably means more gambling. It means that fans/gamblers will have more reasons to follow games that are blowouts. All this should be positive to the demand for sports broadcasts. 

REMI (remote integration) through which announcers call games from the studio; will it increase or decrease?

It will increase, as pressure to cut production costs continues. It is certainly better to have a unique radio broadcast “off tube” rather than just a simulcast. Similarly, it is better to have two announcers paired in studio rather than just travel one. Inefficiencies get pushed out as technologies improves.

You were one of the pioneering minds in building the NBA television model and for that matter the first president of NBA TV . You worked for David Stern for 23 years. Tell us about what Stern meant to you.

Way too many things to write here. David was not only a great mentor, but also a visionary. He made it possible for me to launch things like NBA TV, League Pass , NBA.com, and do the many TV deals we did with Turner, NBC, ESPN/ABC, and others. He also solidified the NBA and made today’s success possible. It is hard to overstate the importance of David’s contributions to the NBA as the sports industry today!

(Ed Desser’s company website is: www.desser.tv)

 

 

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David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.

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