Digital Sports Revolution: The move to AOL. Back in ’94, when I was the Advertising Manager for Home Team Sports, the regional sports TV network for the mid-Atlantic region, I noticed how nearly all of the 23 or so regional sports networks (RSN’s) marketed in fairly the same manner (as noted in the initial blog on this subject). But, I was trying to figure out how to differentiate HTS from the other RSN’s as well as how to differentiate myself. A couple of interesting items got me moving in this direction in ’94.
First, we worked with a terrific consultant, Jeff Grimshaw, who was hired to execute all of our on-air promos (primarily for tune-in for Orioles, Bullets and Capitals games). He had gained great experience during his time running on-air promotions for Turner Sports and by that time he had his own company. He and I talked regularly about the TV space but also about a few of the emerging trends. Jeff set up a meeting for our HTS management team to go visit with Bell Atlantic TV in Arlington, VA. Bell Atlantic was working on a fascinating product called “Star-Gazer.” They were pushing “interactive TV.” What did this mean? It meant the TV viewer could become an active viewer, not just a passive viewer, re coach potato. One could order TV shows, movies and pizza as well as potentially shop from the TV. I know that sounds common now in this digital age but back then that was revolutionary thinking.
The other important item is that one of the key members of the Bell Atlantic team was a brilliant and smart person named Anne Levy, who I believe was serving as their On-Air promotions expert at that time. I’ll get back to this connection in a moment.
The other important item for me was attending a cable marketing show in the summer of ’94 — I believe it took place in blazing, hot New Orleans. There was a guy from a small company called America Online delivering a presentation about “interactive news.” His name was John Coulston and he was the GM of the AOL News Channel. He was talking about they could deliver more than static new stories. How they could deliver photos — and how AOL members could engage by posting messages and respond to the news stories. Well, much of what AOL was doing at the time was the pre-cursor to what is now called Social Media.
The other meeting that really got me thinking about to differentiate HTS from the other RSN’s was seeing a presentation from a company called Princeton Broadcasting System (PBS). Their pitch was that an at-home viewer could watch a sporting event on TV and have their choice of 8 – 10 camera angles rather than the singular feed that is available. Although the idea didn’t really take deep root, I believe some of the PBS technology was used to help create the very popular “First Down” yellow marker that is now so prevalent on TV.
So a combination of these three presentations — Bell Atlantic’s Stargazer, AOL News and PBS — really got me motivated and inspired. Again, a lot of credit goes to Jeff Grimshaw for having and sharing the vision to think “outside the box.”
In ’94, AOL was the third-ranked online service, trailing the much better-funded Prodigy and CompuServ. I believe Prodigy was funded by CBS, IBM and Sears while CompuServ was owned by H&R Block. But, since AOL happened to be located in the greater Washington, DC area (HTS was in Bethesda, MD and AOL was then in Vienna, VA), we contacted AOL to discuss a possible marketing deal with HTS.
We had a good meting with AOL in the Aug / Sept ’94 timeframe, but they were not interested in a deal at the time for a couple of primary reasons — 1) at the time, they only did deals with national companies, not regional companies and 2) they did not have a Sports channel (AOL called its content sites “channels” back then). But, they said they enjoyed the meeting and that I / we should stay in contact with them.
Although was a bit of a hiccup, we still wanted to forge ahead with developing ways to market and differentiate HTS from the other 22 RSN’s in the country. I invited my friend, David Joubran, who was working for small consulting shop called NDC, to see if they might be able to develop an internet site for HTS. I wanted us to the first RSN with its own website. This did happen in ’95 (David went to launch his own very successful consulting business, Acumen Solutions).
It was in the late Jan / early Feb timeframe that I received an interesting phone call from Anne Levy, who I had connected with so well at Bell Atlantic. She asked me if I was happy at HTS — she also asked if I might have an interest in working for a somewhat small technology service that was going to launch a Sports division. It turns out that Anne was going to leave Bell Atlantic and join AOL as the Director of Business Development for AOL Sports. She was paired up with Randy Dean, who was named the General Manager of AOL Sports. Randy is a terrific guy (who I had great respect for despite his deep affinity for UNC basketball)!
I had an interview with Randy and Anne in Feb / Mar ’94. I must say it was a nearly perfect meeting. The three of totally hit it off immediately. And, for whatever reason, I seemed to come up with the right answers to nearly everything they were asking about — as well as talking about this Sports space might look like in the coming years. It was a great feeling and I was excited about potentially having the opportunity to go work for AOL.
But, I did really like the TV space and the I loved working with the HTS family (what a wonderful group of co-workers — it was a fantastic team). But, I wanted to try something different. The primary thought that really drove my decision-making was to “go for it.” I thought I could go work for this company, AOL, and become deeply immersed in “Internet Sports Marketing.” The thought was that I would go to AOL for three years or so — then I could go launch my own business as a multi-media sports marketer (with a background in Sports PR, Radio, TV and online / internet services). I thought very few people could offer that type of marketing mix in ’98 – ’99.
But, who would have ever guessed that AOL would go on this meteoric rise throughout the latter half of the 90′s — culminating in our merger / acquisition of Time Warner, the largest media company in the world? And, I loved my time at AOL so much that I ended up staying there for 14 years (’95 – ’09). It was an incredible run and I’m so grateful for the many, many friendships and relationships developed — not just internally at AOL, but also externally with so many clients in the US and globally. There are many people that I’m grateful for and indebted to for helping me “think outside the box” and encouraged me get out of my comfort zone (radio and TV) to take the leap into working in the digital space (I have mentioned some of them in this blog posting and will reference others later on). My next blog will start to talk about my initial few months at AOL Sports.
(As noted in the previous blog, these thoughts are mine only — I’m sure I won’t get all names and dates correct — this is just a personal blog with thoughts and musing about the Digital Revolution in Sports.)