30 Years After Whiffing On ESPN, Time Inc. Starts Digital Sports Network

Time Inc., parent company of Sports Illustrated, has launched a new digital sports network that will seek to "plug into the soul of digital and move at the speed of Twitter," according to the network's president, Jason Coyle. The venture is called 120 Sports, and on first glance it seems like a grownup's idea of what the kidz want.

The New York Times has the full scoop on 120 Sports, which at this point appears to be an online repository for sports highlights that are provided by leagues partnering with the new network:

The network represents the first time that the sports leagues are coming together to create their own media offering—nearly 35 years after ESPN created its pioneering and profitable sports network. In addition to Time Inc., 120 Sports' equity partners include Major League Baseball Advanced Media; the National Hockey League; Silver Chalice, a digital sports media group started by the Chicago Bulls and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf; and Campus Insiders, a collegiate sports site. The PGA Tour also is expected to be announced on Wednesday as an equity partner. The National Basketball Association, Nascar and several collegiate conferences are also contributing content to the venture.

You may have noticed that one league, the one sports fan care the most about, is conspicuously absent from that list of partners: the NFL. NBA fans already have an endless YouTube catalogue of highlights to peruse, and MLB fans can watch on dozens of other sites—MLB's included—the same highlights that 120 Sports will provide. NFL highlights are the holy grail, and it's going to be hard for a site like this to compete without them. As it stands now, 120 Sports doesn't seem to be offering anything that can't already be found elsewhere, save for some pre-roll advertisements and three dudes yakkin' about sports around a bowl of cheese balls.

What's funny about this is that Sports Illustrated, whose parent company is now throwing untold sums into an internet-based but otherwise old-fashioned highlight show that will try to compete with the Worldwide Leader, once had an opportunity to buy ESPN. Here's a wince-worthy passage from The Franchise, Michael MacCambridge's history of the magazine:

But Time Inc. was not a company renowned for its vision in the mid-'80s. Just as SI capitalized on one opportunity, it wound up passing on another. Months after SI went to all color, Texaco, which had recently bought out ESPNs parent company Getty, put the cable sports network up for sale. The energetic young executive Bob Miller had just taken over for Howlett as publisher, and he urged Time Inc. president Dick Munro to make a bid for the network. ESPN hadn't made much of a dent in the national consciousness yet, but Miller liked its potential. He felt it could be bought and renamed, perhaps as the SI Channel, and it could become an electronic conduit to the magazine. Ex-SI publisher Kelso Sutton, by then the head of the publishing group, was also in favor of it, but couldn't get the approval to make the purchase. ABC finally bought it for $237 million.

"We could have had ESPN," said Sutton. "I remember being in a meeting with Gerry Levin, and both Gerry and I were keen on buying ESPN. There were a lot of other things going on in the cable business at the time; we were acquiring cable subs, we were making big capital investments. Cable was growing like crazy, which is another reason why sports grew."

In essence, SI and Time Inc., having missed out on the ESPN of 1985, will try to atone by re-creating online the ESPN of 1995. As Bob Bowman, chief executive of MLB Advanced Media, tells The Times: "In the disruption business, you have to step on toes."

*We've changed the headline at the urgent request of former Deadspinner Jack Dickey, who writes for Time.com and who takes great pains to clarify that 120 Sports will not live under the editorial umbrella of Sports Illustrated, despite the fact that the words "Sports Illustrated Network" appear at the very top of its homepage.

[NYT]