This month, we welcome Dennis Roche, President, Access Sports Media, New York
- Access Sports Media was earlier known as Access 360 Media until August, 2012. Why was the name changed?
The company was called Access 360 Media, and it consisted of two businesses: a mall digital signage platform and a live sports sight, sound and motion business. Last spring, we decided to sell the mall business to concentrate on our leadership position in the sports space and it made sense to focus the name. ‘Access’ is a good word for a media company name so we added sports to it.
- I understand that the company was founded in 2003. By whom? I understand that it was in difficult shape when you joined it in April, 2012. What were its main problems and what interested you in joining it?
The company was founded by a group of executives from the digital and sports world. In those days, the model was to pay for the installation of screens and pay large minimums to partners for distribution. A few years ago, the owners made a smart pivot with the business model: creating a platform to run the concourse screens of live sports venues by installing one server but plugging into the existing AV infrastructure. This allows the current set up over 400 screens per venue with minimal installation costs and full sight, sound and motion ad delivery.
Access has great heritage. We were a founding of company of OVAB (now the Digital Place-based Advertising Association) and we were in the original Nielsen fourth screen report in 2008 – and continue to be in it.
In recent years, three expense issues in some combination have affected all digital out-of- home companies: excessive capital expenditures to install screens, excessive venue guarantees, and onerous salary overheads. When I joined Access, it was dealing primarily with issues caused by the latter two.
Our mall business was in a very competitive space, we were not the leader, and, while we had a high quality network, we were overly reliant on one partner (Simon Malls) which isn’t a great dynamic, regardless of what business you are in. We either had to spend to get big or move on decided to sell and move on.
Our sports business, however, started with something very powerful: a diverse set of high profile partners, unique offerings, and a leadership position in delivering the upscale live sports audience. So with the sale of the mall business, I recommended that we focus on building and growing the sports platform. For me personally, Sports is an exciting space and Access has a leadership position.
- I know that you decided you sell Access’s mall network to Adspace Digital Mall Network in August so as to concentrate in one vertical. What other steps have you taken to bring Access Sports Media to a better position?
First, we improved the way we talk about our video proposition. We are measured by Nielsen but weren’t talking about it. Our audience compares very favorably to a live sports TV audience, as well as upscale male cable; we have a higher concentration of men 18-34 and adults 18-34, than any TV network. We are second only to Fox Deportes (Fox Sports in Spanish) in concentration of men 18-49.
Further, Scarborough very precisely measures who goes to our venues and the data is compelling – an upscale audience that is a major consumer of a wide variety of technology, consumer packaged goods, and leisure products.
We also added services such as Minor League baseball, social media, and college football and basketball to our product offerings.
- Is the company now in a profitable position? I know that Columbia Capital is the majority shareholder. Is there any thought of taking the company public at some point? Why or why not?
One of the benefits of the all the rationalizing is the company is now in a very good position financially. As for the next steps – our main focus now is organic growth around our sports platform which is best done as a private company. Columbia Capital and Mission Ventures, our other investor, are successful funds and are prepared to invest in the company as we find opportunities to do so.
- At the moment, you have digital screens in professional, minor league, and college sports venues. As such, what is the potential – and your strategy – for growth?
The future of this industry is companies establishing clear leadership positions in their verticals. The audience for sports is extremely valuable – a young male audience that is very difficult and expensive to reach on television. We are currently the only player in the digital out-of-home space in live sports, and we plan on expanding our reach in the vertical.
- In September, you added Access Sports Connect. Tell us about it and why it’s important?
Social media is the number one way sports fans get their sports news now. Our partner teams have massive social platforms – Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc – that can be leveraged by marketers in a way that works for both brands and the fan. One of the challenges for brands using social media is being relevant while not being too contrived or overly promotional. Sports allows brands to stay on message while adding to the fan experience. We combine social with our other media to deliver a very integrated program.
- How many screens do you have in each of the professional, minor league, and college sports venues? Do you sell advertising according to each of these sectors separately? Is most of your advertising national or local/regional? Please give us some details?
We have over 20,000 concourse screens across our professional sports venues and average over 400 per venue, while also representing scoreboard inventory for pro teams. In the minor league business we represent the scoreboard inventory in over 100 Minor League parks; the college network is over 5,000 screens across 60 basketball and football venues in partnership with College Gametime Network. Clients can buy programs nationally or by local market, and integrated across platforms.
- While I understand that you offer brands product placement, game day events and promotions, in-game features, and on field activation/first pitch as well as the in-venue screens, you aren’t involved in menu boards or Jumbotrons. Why not? Wouldn’t that give you the full package?
We absolutely represent Jumbotrons. We just did a big promotion with National Geographic’s Big Cat Week that utilized Jumbotrons, and in the past, we have done programs with Procter & Gamble, Volkswagen, and many others.
- Tell us about your software management system and the reasons behind it, please. And what exactly is your ‘ad insertion’ program?
We run an ad insertion system that allows our team partners to run promotions in-game; we are providing a service that would cost a lot of money were they to do it on their own. Diversified Media Group is our integrator who has assembled our system using a variety of custom and contracted software. The content during the game is the live event with an IAB standard ad unit next to the game feed; we run full screen promotions, unique content, and advertising when the game isn’t on. We have a pre-game that lasts an hour that features team promotions and longer form content.
- I believe that you are measured by Nielsen. What does this give you? Are you considering any other kind of measurement as well?
Nielsen allows us to compare our audiences to other video platforms. Certainly the most important trend in the industry is audience-based planning and buying across video delivery systems. We are looking at adding to our research initiatives in the coming year, but aren’t ready to get specific.
- I understand that you are allowing some initial programmatic buying or opening at least some of your screens for automatic advertising auction buys, working with Vistar. How is that working out? Have you attracted any new category of advertisers?
We have begun running ad campaigns through Vistar and they have been incremental for us. I believe this is an important part of how the category will evolve. If you look at how the on-line digital landscape is set up, the big players all have their own sales forces that work with major clients and design big packages. But programmatic buying plays a role for smaller clients, smaller programmers, local advertisers, and remnant inventory. The digital out-of-home category should evolve in the same manner.
I like the way programmatic buying builds in flexibility. One campaign we ran was for one night. I love the idea of clients realizing they could buy our inventory for just a weekend series, or a Thursday night for a movie release, or a Monday night for a product launch.
- What do you see as the major pros and cons of working with auction buys? And if it means lowering prices, is the industry mature enough to afford that?
My impression is that every vendor in this space has pockets of inventory they would like to sell and advertisers they can’t cover, and vendors will be able to monitor sell out rates; as sell out rates increase so will CPM. I do believe the industry is ready to take on that challenge.
The other thing about programmatic buying is it creates different entry points in the ad community. It brings the category to the attention of the digital buyers, and makes it easier for video-centric advertisers to place it. It expands the pie of who is looking at the space.
A major issue will be factoring in the commissions and compensation to the exchanges and the agencies. Vendors won’t want to pay commission on business that has been running historically and where they have been doing all the heavy lifting on the sell side; all that does is add further to expenses – the idea of this approach is to reduce selling expenses not add to them. At this moment that is a very fluid situation and one that will shake out over the coming 12-18 months.
- How do you see this affecting the jobs of ad agency buyers?
It makes it easier! Our category should be 50%-100% bigger than it is now. And we don’t want to do 50%-100% more work to make it bigger, or have 50%-100% more people involved selling or buying. For buyers, it also allows them to compare digital out-of-home across platforms.
- What do you see as, say, three of the biggest problems and challenges in the digital out-of-home industry today?
I think two really stick out the most.
First – The category needs to move from the ‘ambient/experiential’ sale/bucket to the audience sale in terms of video planning and buying, and that involves both vendors and agencies continuing to work in that direction. You can’t get exponential growth by only selling ‘cool/different/creative’ -driven programs. It is too labor intensive for both vendors and agencies with too many decision- makers involved. Our audiences are now measured and compare favorably to TV and online video and belong in that mix. We will always do creative relevant executions, but audience needs to be the lead and the evaluation and buying process is much simpler.
Second – In pockets of the industry, venue minimums are still too high to support the business models – some of which is caused by competitors bidding up rights fees beyond the economics of the business – but that still causes issues.
- And what do you see as, say, the three biggest opportunities?
The industry is starting to consolidate and the focus on a smaller group of players with scale will allow the industry to drive the audience/video trend at the agency level;
Costs around software, hardware, and delivery continue to go down even as the quality of services go up, which should provide relief in terms of overheads;
And this is a hope – I think the improving economy, along with the continued very low cost of capital, will provide for opportunities around increased ad revenue and improve the economics of investment and consolidation for players in the industry.
- Where do you foresee Access Media Sports by mid-2015?
Well, hopefully, we will be a lot bigger – more sports, venues, etc.. Hey, maybe one day we’ll get involved in selling ads in English Premier League venues. My wife and I have four boys and we all became Queens Park Rangers supporters last year – and then they got relegated! That doesn’t happen in America. If your favorite team does poorly, they come out the next year in the same league and just try again. Between QPR going down and my alma mater, Georgetown, getting knocked out the NCAAs too early, it was a tough spring for sports in our household.
So now I root for all the teams that have Access Sports as a partner. Someone is always going to be doing well, so it makes it easier.