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Exec, Who Raised ESPN and Launched NFL RedZone, Explains the Future of Sports TV

Steve Bornstein, President and CEO of the NFL Network, attends the 23rd Annual Broadcast and Cable Hall of Fame Awards at the Waldorf-Astoria on Monday, October 28, 2013, in New York City.

Evan Agostini | Invision | AP

You may not have heard of Steve Bornstein, but you have almost certainly seen the sports content he has helped create over the past three decades.

Bornstein, who returned to the media in 2021 to reshape the sports landscape again, recently spoke with CNBC’s Jabari Young about what we can expect from sports broadcasts in 2022 and what he learned while working at ESPN and NFL.

First, a little history of his success. Bornstein joined ESPN in 1980 as executive director of programming and eventually became its president. During his tenure, the network launched SportsCenter, NFL Primetime, and channels such as ESPN2. He joined the National Football League in 2002 and played a vital role in launching the National Football League’s internal network. which he publicly fought for a place within the cable ecosystem and the RedZone channel.

And in August, 69-year-old Bornstein joined London-based data and technology company Genius Sports as president of North America. Genius provides data for setting bet lines for sports gambling services such as DraftKings, FanDuel and Caesars. The firm offers data to create next-generation statistics for on-screen graphics during sporting events. In 2021, he struck a nearly $ 1 billion data exclusivity deal with the NFL and acquired Second Specterthat uses cameras to collect real-time player data for $ 200 million.

Companies are spending billions on sports league data rights and are using that information to increase fan engagement. So Genius, which joined the NYSE this year after a $ 1.5 billion merger, hired Bornstein to help it expand.

“I watch Genius Sports and see ESPN from 1981 or 1982,” Bornstein said. “Your fate was not clear back then, but you could have influenced it.”

“At Genius and Second Spectrum, we’re leveraging big data and artificial intelligence in sports and applying them to practical applications that make game consumption more compelling,” Bornstein said. “I think this is the next wave of how people consume content,” he added.

New technologies to keep viewers engaged

Earlier in December, before I asked for this interview, I heard Bornstein speak at the Sports Business Journal conference in New York. He was enthusiastic and insightful when discussing how more innovative sports leagues are than the television networks that show games.

It used to be the other way around, ”said the former president of CBS Sports. Neil Pilson, who recalled his failed attempt to convince former NBA Commissioner David Stern to use digital technology in the early 1990s.

But in 1998, when Bornstein was running ESPN, the network added a digital overlay that shows viewers down first. This is the yellow line that you see on the screen during NFL and college football games. Bornstein’s new firm has another idea that could keep viewers in the loop.

Genius posted to CNBC video demonstrating “Romo Vision” by CBS Sports, which uses technology provided by Genius to show an NFL game animated on screen right after it starts. It is named after former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, now a CBS NFL analyst.

Romo Vision is designed as yellow line first down was to keep viewers interested longer. To do this and get the data flow, Genius set up cameras around the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Heinz Field for a CBS broadcast on December 5th.

Bornstein and I talked about Romo Vision and, more broadly, today’s sports media landscape and how it is changing.

Jabari Young, CNBC: Watching Romo Vision reminds me of John Madden’s video game. I felt like I was looking at a diagram of a real piece that I would be using while playing. I remember you said at a sports conference that this is the future and a way to keep the audience’s attention. So, I would like to start with this. What’s the problem with networking when it comes to game presentation?

Steve Bornstein: When you say networks, do you mean traditional broadcasters?

Yes.

I look at it from the other side. This [Romo Vision] Basically, this is the next iteration of content consumption, right? And we’re going from one to many broadcasting models, and that’s basically what cable and ESPN is – what broadcasting is – we’re going to tune the channels. I don’t know if it’s going to be one-to-one or one-to-many, but I think this is how it starts. We are going to customize your video viewing experience so that you are most interested in it. For example, if you are watching a game and do not know all the players, to add graphics that identify all the people who work in the field is a very interesting experience and people say good things about it.

So you think this is video customization – the ability to modify your feeds. Is this the future?

He’s also trying to take – we have all the data from sports, because sports in particular lend themselves well to data – whether it’s baseball, basketball, or football. There is a lot of information, and the funnel is almost so large that we are trying to figure out what data you need. We did it on ESPN with [the yellow line]… Fox did it a lot more when they did Fox Box – mostly constant counting and screen time. These are the innovations that made [NFL games] more fun. We now have the ability to have all this data that is being collected – how can we use it for an application that is interesting and engaging to the consumer? This is what we do and what you saw on CBS. We’re just scratching the surface.

What should happen in the next decade in relation to the consumption of sports?

We learned an interesting thing when we launched the RedZone channel. There is a widespread belief that this would somehow negatively affect the games you played on Sunday afternoons because consumers were going to end up watching the RedZone channel and not the games that were televised on CBS and Fox. We found that eventually all the boats were lifted. The RedZone channel not only performed extremely well and exceeded all expectations, but also Sunday telecom operators noticed an increase in their ratings. We discovered multi-screen mode. The next generation of sports consumers will be multi-screen people. For me, that’s where it all goes. What we need to do in Genius is to improve those experiences.

I asked what should happen, but what will actually happen in the next decade?

This is a fair question that is difficult to answer (laughs). I think content gamification will continue. What this gamification is and what it looks like is still being written. But that answers your other question about why I came to Genius Sports. I think they are at the forefront of understanding what fans want from the gamification of sports content.

Does Meta, formerly Facebook, played a role in how it will look?

I’m sure this is the case, but I think it is probably much further down the line. The reality of this is much more difficult to achieve than it is to imagine. I look at the metaverse as an opportunity and obviously people who are evolving who are more into esports than traditional sports.

An ingenious sport.

The genius of sports

Take me back to when you first started at ESPN. Is there some fundamental media factor that you still use while playing the lead in Genius Sports?

Yes, and it’s pretty simple. The model at ESPN – and it took us a while to get to her – was that we wanted to serve fans everywhere. I think this is still the most important element of ESPN’s success – they put fans first. We are trying to do this here at Genius. What they want? How do they want to manipulate this data to make it more interesting, interesting, and interesting?

And the NFL network? What have you learned in the NFL, what are you bringing to Genius?

The NFL Network is incredibly important content for the consumer. There is no sport in this country that excites people more than American football. You had this incredible library at NFL Films and all this content they produced every week. How could you stretch it out and bring it to a 12 month experience? So we invented content that didn’t exist before – whether it was a scheduled show or a prime time project – and it all took the stories the NFL had already told and made them more accessible to people. So the lesson I learned from my NFL experience was that when you have all these compelling stories, you need to tell them. And then we created news outlets where you can tell them whether it’s RedZone on Sunday afternoons or primetime NFL movies on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. [with HBO’s “Hard knocks” show and Paramount+ “Inside the NFL.”] Basically, it was all a gripping story about content that people were interested in. We brought this to the people.

Steve Bornstein at NFL TV Studios the day before the presentation, November 2002. The National Football League launches its own television program, hosted in Los Angeles by Rich Eisen.

Carlos Chavez | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

How big a role will sports betting play in this gamification?

It will be a pillar, but look, gambling and sports betting have been around for as long as sports. So I don’t see this increase or decrease in the foreseeable future. Nothing new, we’re just shedding light on it. Now we can tax, and society can get a share of it. But the profit motive hasn’t changed, and people’s willingness to place bets hasn’t changed. What has changed is that we have realized this and hopefully can come up with smart ideas that will make it more enjoyable.

Final thoughts on sports leagues

Genius took two key steps in 2021 with deals with African National Basketball Association Operation and Canadian Football League. Agreements enable Genius to innovate and test gamification concepts and multi-screen capabilities such as Romo Vision.

When it comes to future fan experiences, how people watch sports games on TV, and how they will interact with leagues, tell me what comes to mind when I mention sports venues. Let’s start with the NBA.

Things they make courts really interesting. They can get a first-person view of people, which is pretty unique. People usually don’t have the opportunity to experience it. I think this could be true.

What about the WNBA?

Also. But what they proved about the WNBA is that people care about it. It was very important – just because people are playing this game does not mean that they are not indifferent to it. But they developed character, always had talent, and now tell stories that people are passionate about. It touches people and makes the sport popular.

Major League Baseball? (MLB is still under lockdown at the time of publication.)

(Laughs.) Different thoughts come to my mind. Baseball is still an important element of entertainment consumption in America, but it must address many issues related to the game. Then do it better.

NFL?

It is still the greatest entertainment in North America. This is the platinum standard by which all other content is judged. They are doing a tremendous job of bringing things to the field and will continue to improve it. What we can do is improve this experience. I don’t think we are drastically changing it. We take a great product and let people enjoy it everywhere, not just in the stadium or at home on a big TV.

What about Major League Soccer?

The MLS is becoming an increasingly important part of American sporting consumption and the 2026 World Championships here will cheer up all boats.




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