Scripps looks to win with women’s sports on ION

Broadcaster E.W. Scripps is taking a sports-first approach, and specifically looking to score with women’s sports on its ION network, at this year’s Upfront.

Scripps Chief Revenue Officer Brian Norris said women’s sports “isn’t just having a moment, women’s sports is a movement.”

“This exploding movement in women's sports is fueled by the passion of the fans, who are demanding that the marketplace pay attention to the sports and the athletes that they love,” he said during a presentation shared with StreamTV Insider (STV).

It’s good timing too, with attention on women’s sports getting a recent boost thanks to a competitive NCAA March Madness tournament. The playoff set a nearly 30-year viewing record for women’s basketball during an ESPN telecast when Iowa faced off against LSU, and again reached record basketball viewership (since 2019 for men's or women's and college or pro) Sunday when South Carolina beat out Iowa in the championship, alongside high-profile athletes like Iowa Hawkeyes’ Caitlin Clark, who is expected to head to the WBNA.

Norris, in an interview with STV, acknowledged it’s the right time and said brands are really leaning in. The revenue chief noted that every advertiser and agency partner Scripps has spoken to “are looking for more and more ways to reach audiences through sports, and specifically the emergence of women’s sports.”

Scripps is looking to capitalize on the movement, having already made women’s sports a strategic priority and investing to promote leagues. That includes two dedicated franchise nights, with Friday nights on ION featuring Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) games starting last year. This year during the 14-week season, ION will, among other games, air eight matchups for the WNBA’s Indiana Fever, where Clark is expected to be the number one overall draft pick. And Norris said Scripps is “doubling down” on women’s sports with its Saturday night showcase of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), which launched March 16, featuring doubleheaders every weekend and 50 nationally broadcast games in total. 

Games air on ION, a top five broadcast network that’s available on TV via over-the-air (OTA), cable and satellite, and through virtual MVPDs, as well as across connected TV and streaming platforms as a free ad-supported streaming TV (FAST) channel. All ION content, including live WBNA and WMLS games, is available for free on streaming via FAST, a category where Scripps saw 93% viewing growth in 2023 across its larger portfolio of network apps and channels.

Scripps’ sports efforts are led by the Scripps Sports division, which launched in late 2022.

As Scripps heads into the Upfront, it’s touting success from its sports focus already. Norris cited a 26% increase in league TV viewership for the WBNA in year one directly from the addition of Friday night games on Ion, reaching nearly 6 million viewers. Scripps is also boasting diversity, where sports fans are both men and women, and Norris said the Friday night spotlight delivered a 49% African American audience. Live matchups aren’t the only aspect of sports investment as the broadcaster is also funneling dollars into live studio content for related sports programming.

And women’s sports bring plenty of opportunity for advertisers, where Norris said there’s been strong interest and new brands are coming into the fold. That includes in categories that Scripps otherwise hasn’t necessarily performed well in, as well as a long-tail of advertisers including small and medium-sized business. Since women’s sports haven’t historically had as much marketing might, there are chances to get in on sponsorships – as opposed to some legacy sports, where Norris noted there might never be an opening position to sign on as a presenting or half-time sponsor. Whereas brands getting in early on women’s sports stand to reap benefits, he contended.

“They realize that the viewership is going to be so high for women’s sports, and so they’re getting an incredible advantage of being able to be first movers with us,” Norris said.

Connecting live sports and general entertainment

With all live sports from ION available on free linear streaming channels, Scripps is pitching appeal of its cross-platform linear programming to advertisers.

According to Scripps, the company’s linear viewers are watching live TV at a 95% rate, around 7% above that of the cable average for adults 25-54, whereas almost all CTV viewing is on FAST channels. The company said extending a Scripps linear campaign with CTV delivers advertisers an incremental unduplicated reach of 68% versus linear alone. Scripps counts networks and FAST channels with content tailored for specific audiences, including African American-focused Bounce TV, Grit TV, and Court TV. 

In its push for the ION network, Scripps is also drawing attention to its carriage of acquired general entertainment content including crime procedurals like “Criminal Minds,” “FBI,” “NCIS,” “Blue Bloods,” and “Law & Order: SVU,” among others. These are meant to complement live TV on the network and the company is boasting an engaged and diverse audience.  According to Norris, Scripps’ entertainment portfolio delivers a 46% multicultural audience, reflecting a 31% advantage over cable. And based on attention metrics from TVision, Scripps’ viewers show 36% higher attention engagement than the average for cable entertainment.

Coinciding with and to support the women’s sports push and NWSL and WBNA franchise nights, ION is launching a brand refresh and year-long multi-faceted marketing campaign to draw viewer attention and increase consumer awareness of Scripps’ offering marrying popular procedurals and live sports on the network.

“Part of the rebrand is really to create the connective tissue between the procedurals and sports, doing it through this lens of connection,” Norris said.

Non-biased news

Scripps is also pitching non-biased news that avoids the pitfalls of polarizing programming that can sometimes cause advertisers pause, as they don’t want to be associated with negative commentary or emotions.

The broadcaster has wide news operation, counting 39 local TV station newsrooms and 14 national news bureaus.

Norris acknowledged a common “knee-jerk” reaction from advertisers when it comes to news, where they want to stay away from running ads against polarizing and opinion commentary. What Scripps brings to the table, he said, is pure hard news alongside lifestyle elements and longer-form storytelling, where advertisers are less averse.  

“We think that we're well positioned from a news standpoint, once we let…the advertising market understand what our value proposition is,” Norris said.  “And our value proposition isn't to divide the country. We are just there to give information, share information and let our viewers come up with their own opinions.”

Measurement agnostic

In terms of transacting for this year’s Upfront, Norris said Scripps is “measurement-agnostic,” where it’s taking the lead from advertisers and agency partners.

Early indications, according to the revenue chief, are that advertisers are not “drawing a line in the sand in terms of fully executing on alternative currencies this Upfront.” That said, if an advertiser and agency is interested in transacting on new or alternate currencies, Norris said Scripps is prepared to do so.