College athletics at the highest level are a big business, and wildly popular. According to a 2015 survey conducted by Harris Interactive, around 47% of Americans follow college sports, and nearly 31 million attended a college sporting event in 2016.
In Arkansas, where there are no major professional sports teams, interest in college athletics is particularly widespread, and the subject of most fans’ concentration is dominated by one school — the University of Arkansas.
If the programming involves the Razorbacks, it draws eyeballs. And that’s just what Van Comer is expecting one year from now. Comer is the longtime general manager of Fort Smith-based CBS affiliate KFSM-TV, Channel 5. Comer signed a contract Aug. 16 for a marketing agreement that will, among other things, give KFSM the rights to televise the UA football and basketball weekly coaches’ shows, beginning with the 2018-19 school year. Financial terms were not disclosed, but Comer said the initial term is for three years.
“But we want it to go on indefinitely,” he said. “The partnership is structured in such a way that it should last long into the future. I have been the general manager [at KFSM] since 2000, and I have always wanted that piece of programming at Channel 5. We are excited about the opportunity and looking forward to it.”
Beginning next year, KFSM and its sister station, KXNW-TV, will replace KNWA-TV and its sister station, KFTA-TV, as the channels where viewers in Northwest Arkansas and the Fort Smith metro can watch the weekly coaches’ shows.
KNWA/KFTA carried the UA coaches’ shows for more than a decade. Its contract was up for renewal and other bid packages were considered, according to Razorback Sports Properties (RSP) general manager David Shoemaker. RSP is the local partner of North Carolina-based IMG College, which handles multimedia rights and marketing services for more than 200 schools around the country, including Arkansas.
“It was simply an opportunity for us to create a partnership [with KFSM] that worked well for both sides, and that includes a lot of stuff,” Shoemaker said. “There will be a lot of co-promotion of special events like the recent Kickoff Luncheon and National Signing Day events next year.
Lisa Kelsey, the general manager of KNWA/KFTA, provided the following statement to Talk Business & Politics-Northwest Arkansas Business Journal: “Our stations will continue to support our Razorback family with the largest and most experienced sports team in the state of Arkansas. Unfortunately, this was a business decision for IMG.”
NO CHANGES THIS YEAR
For the 2017 football season, Shoemaker emphasized there are no broadcast changes for the weekly coaches’ shows. The one-hour program featuring Bret Bielema airs on Sunday nights during the regular season on the following stations: Little Rock-based ABC affiliate KATV (10:30 p.m.), NBC affiliate KNWA (11 p.m.) and FOX affiliate KFTA (9 p.m.). The show will also be available regionally on Cox Sports Television on Wednesdays at 6 p.m. and on FoxSports Southwest on Tuesdays at 4 p.m. The 30-minute basketball coaches’ show featuring Mike Anderson will follow the same Sunday schedule.
Shoemaker acknowledged there are some “challenges” in sticking to the broadcast schedule during the fall where KNWA/KFTA is concerned. Those challenges are dictated, ironically enough, by professional sports programming and games that run long, specifically, the National Football League and Major League Baseball on Sunday nights. Games that run long start a domino effect and push back the late local news, which in turn pushes back the start of the coaches’ show. It wasn’t the determining factor in awarding the coaches’ shows to KFSM, but it was a factor.
“Right now with [KNWA/KFTA], the football coaches’ show occasionally gets bumped back to a later start on KNWA because of NFL football, and it occasionally gets bumped back a little on FOX because of the [MLB] playoffs,” he said. “Working with KFSM will get us around some of those challenges.”
Comer said a significant part of the KFSM offer was putting the coaches’ show in a more attractive time period for viewers. The football coaches’ show will air each Sunday at 10:30 p.m. on KFSM — without professional sports programming to deal with during prime time — and at 9:30 p.m. on sister station KXNW.
“We had an opportunity to make our best offer, and that’s exactly what we did,” Comer said.
With KFSM, IMG College will also get a larger audience, according to the latest ratings by Nielsen Media Research. KFSM has historically been the highest-rated station in the Designated Market Area, an 11-county area that includes nine counties in Arkansas and two in Oklahoma.
The Nielsen ratings book average from November 2015 to February 2017 showed KFSM with a 4.0 rating on Sundays in the 10:30-11 p.m. time slot, and with a 17 share. Both were the highest in the market. A rating is a percentage point of all television households. For example, a 4.0 rating means a station is reaching 4% of all households. Share is a percentage of the homes actually watching television. For example, a television station with a 17 share indicates that 17% of the homes watching television are watching that particular station.
Comer said he’s been in discussions “for a long time” with IMG about KFSM becoming more involved with the Razorbacks. He said the network will increase its reporting of Razorback athletics starting this season. KFSM is also in the process of branding its coverage as “Hog Central,” which would be consistent with KATV, a Sinclair Broadcast Group-owned station which also carries the UA coaches’ shows in central Arkansas.
Fans attending football games at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium this fall may also notice more KFSM advertisements on the video scoreboards atop the north and south end zones. Arkansas has six home games scheduled in Fayetteville, beginning Sept. 9 against Texas Christian University.
“The university does so much for this area, so for us to be able to step in as a media sponsor and get involved at this level, it’s a good moment for the station,” said Comer, who is a UA season ticket holder. “We’re going to do our best to promote the coaches’ shows and get [more] involved with the Razorbacks.”
The KFSM marketing agreement is between its parent company — Tribune Media Co. — and IMG College. The deal involves Tribune, even though the company is in the midst of being acquired by Sinclair Broadcast Group in a deal worth $3.9 billion. The transaction was announced earlier this year and is anticipated to close and fund in the fourth quarter of 2017.
IMG has owned the Razorbacks’ multimedia rights since 2008. Through the Razorback Sports Properties entity, IMG secures support for the Hogs in a variety of ways including corporate sponsorships, signage, at-event hospitality, radio and television programming, official athletic website advertising and game programs.
On Aug. 14, the UA announced it had signed a 10-year contract extension with IMG through 2028. Financial terms were not publicly disclosed, but according to industry publication SportsBusiness Daily, it’s worth $137 million.
“Obviously, we have greatly increased the financial commitment to the university,” Shoemaker said. “It’s great for them, and from an IMG perspective, our willingness to make that type of commitment shows you how excited we are.”