Sky’s the Limit

| May 3, 2017

By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor
TALKERS

 

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Not all Major League Baseball (MLB) parks are configured uniformly, which is just one minute facet of the game’s infinite, endearing nuisances.

Optimum fan viewing in several MLB venues is directly behind home plate in higher-altitude settings, appropriately termed “sky view” boxes.

To some degree, serendipity exists in the name of a greater-Phoenix area-based (Scottsdale) broadcast technology and national sales entity that dispenses services to a plethora of professional and college/university sports organizations, as well as to Arizona News Radio and California Headline News.

Highly involved in satellite distribution; network automation; affiliate relations; inventory management systems; and national audio sales, Skyview Networks is a full-service company to advertisers, syndicators, and broadcast networks.

Sunny satellite notion

Genesis of the “Skyview” moniker can be traced to 1985 when the company’s founder and president Ken Thiele began doing traffic reports for Phoenix radio and television stations. The service grew to 28 facilities and was expanded to Las Vegas, Nashville, Memphis, Louisville, and Tucson. “The name ‘Skyview’ has been something that has just always been involved,” Thiele reflects. “When we started to do satellite distribution, we thought the name was [still relevant].”

A personal friend of his – Al McCoy, “The Voice of the Phoenix Suns” since 1972 – can be attributed with actually pushing forward the Skyview concept. “He reached out to us in 1995,” Thiele confirms. “At that time, the Phoenix Suns’ network was delivered by phone coupler. Al was a visionary in the sense that he felt the games really needed to be on satellite. Since we had done traffic reports, he asked if we knew anything about satellites. I said no problem – even though I didn’t know anything about it. In early October, an engineer friend of mine and I hopped on a plane to Washington, DC to attend a satellite conference, where we purchased a satellite uplink and 35 downlinks.”

Whereas the company’s traffic division was acquired by Metro Networks in 1995, the deal did not involve Skyview’s satellite operation. “After we spent a couple of years with Metro, we took them through a growth phase and launched ‘Metro Source,’ a newswire service,” Thiele notes. “It grew to a little over 2,000 radio stations and we were actually doing the up-linking for it here [in Phoenix]. Back in 1995, we were using a Comstream system that had a 19-dot associated data stream. With that little thread of bandwidth, our developers were able to create the necessary code, aggregating all the content Metro was generating into a browser that would be distributed to several thousand radio stations. It worked out very well for [Metro Networks founder] David Saperstein, who took the company public with that story. Eventually, his company was acquired by Westwood One for a little over $900 million.”       

CES confab culminated in colossal ramifications

Following months of negotiations, Cumulus Media acquired Citadel Broadcasting in March 2011 for $2.5 billion in cash and stock.

There were frozen-in-time services Cumulus still needed to provide to ABC, ESPN, and Radio Disney. “I worked closely with [ESPN vice president of video and audio platforms] Kevin Plumb as it approached that three-year timeline that they had to unwind those deals,” Thiele details. “We worked with Kevin on ESPN and getting them shifted over to their own uplink and distribution systems.”

Three years after that Cumulus Media/Citadel transaction, Thiele received a highly fortuitous call from Plumb, who asked if Thiele was going to attend the Consumers Electronic Show. “I didn’t plan to, but Kevin said he wanted me to meet someone, so I flew to CES. He had a conference room above the floor and he introduced me to [ABC News Radio vice president and general manager] Steve Jones.”

Straightaway, the two hit it off and as Thiele recounts, “We talked about his needs at ABC and we had a deal arranged eight months later. Steve does tremendous things for radio and he has such a deep passion for it.” 

Full menu or opt for a la carte

Within the professional and collegiate sports worlds, Skyview Networks is vastly well-known, but the company is seeking to float its nameplate wider in hopes of achieving a higher profile. “We flew above the radar with our ABC deal,” Thiele proudly states. “We want to get a message out there to content creators, whether it be national syndication or focusing on content, that we provide a distribution platform and a sales force to help monetize what they create.”

Inventory management software upon which Skyview Networks runs all of ABC’s networks has the proficiency to regionalize – or even localize – spots over those 1,500 radio stations. “In a very short period of time, we can distribute 10,000 spots and traffic information all on an overnight routine, with the ability to get verification of compliance reports that come back to us,” Thiele explains. “That ensures integrity in the network as we look at a system and come up with a solution in both software and hardware to create efficiencies that didn’t exist before we started to tackle it. It is not unlike what we do for play-by-play sports.”    

Categorizing Skyview Networks as a “one-stop solution provider” benefitting clients by being a “turnkey experience,” Thiele amplifies on the verbiage by conceding “solution provider” is an overused, if not nebulous, term. “It’s like ‘amazing’ – everything in the world is ‘amazing,’” he jokes. “As far as ‘solution provider’ is concerned though, we have eight full-time software developers on staff. Their whole purpose is to look at how things were previously done, as well as how we can possibly improve upon them to better monetize the content that our clients are producing and that we are tasked to manage.”

Notable, daunting competition in the radio network space exists in the form of such resource-intensive behemoths as Westwood One and Premiere, although Thiele opines, “They do not have the software and systems that we can provide to create the efficiencies for the teams. Skyview is the only one that can deliver a custom-form experience to its clients.”

Arrangements that the Thiele-led organization have in-place include some sort of pact with each MLB team; however, Skyview Networks does business with franchises from the other major sports leagues as well. “Our relationship is ‘Skyview Direct’ to each of the teams,” he accentuates. “It didn’t used to be that way. When we started in 1995, it began regionally in what we would call the Southwest. That was how we packaged and sold things.”

Those, however, were extremely challenging times when Thiele launched state news networks in California and Arizona. “We could do news generation and it would not conflict with our sports distribution,” he emphasizes. “We have the satellite bandwidth available so that was just part of our evolution. Since we now deal with teams from all sports – whether it be with sales, distribution, or inventory management – a club does not need to take everything we provide. It can pick and choose whatever services it likes in an a la carte manner.”

End of guesswork

When the company first started creating inventory management systems for major league baseball, teams had sophisticated Excel spreadsheets upon which they were managing millions of dollars of radio inventory. “They brought us in to look into what they were doing and to come up with a customized solution tailored for MLB play-by-play, which is not sold like [traditional radio advertising],” Thiele points out. “It does not perform in a linear fashion like ‘regular’ radio. Play-by-play baseball can go in many different directions, such as dealing with pitching changes, rain delays, and games extending into extra innings.”

Regarding the latter, for example, advertisers from the first inning would be inserted into the tenth frame, when applicable. “We looked at that and we asked if they really wanted to that,” Thiele recollects.

Turns out they had to do it, since there was no structure to take advantage of extra-inning contests. “We wanted to know how many in-game pitching changes they experience over the course of a 162-game season and they gave us their best guess,” Thiele discloses. “We were able to quantify it by saying there were 120 pitching changes and they were able to experience 90-seconds worth of available advertising in each of those instances. We created a system that keeps track of all this flexible inventory that exists in a broadcast. It doesn’t just guess about putting advertisers in there or [giving bonus spots], it actually allows them to sell packages of inventory very specifically to advertisers.”

From the outset of the season, such sponsors get available inventory and the system monitors it over the course of the 162-game MLB schedule. “We realize that, for play-by-play sports to air on radio stations, we need to make it affordable for the affiliates that make up the network,” Thiele acknowledges. “We can set up a web-based automation system that allows a radio station to carry 162 games, without having a board operator there, yet still be able to play all the commercials they are contractually [obligated] to air. We can very quickly and very precisely affidavit it. Internally, we have the technical capabilities to service the unique needs that we come across for both the news and play-by-play sports.”

Knocking it out of the park

Live-reads have evolved into a major source of revenue for virtually every MLB organization but, Thiele cites, they didn’t have any way of proving fulfillment, “So we came up with a logging system, which allows us to provide scheduling services that transmits all that information into the broadcast booth for the team. It explains where that live read is to be read – or – if an event activates it.”

Back-to-back homeruns – commonly referred to as “back-to-back jacks,” might motivate an advertiser such as San Diego-headquartered fast-food chain Jack in the Box to tie-in with a free or discounted ‘Jumbo Jack’ hamburger in such instances. “Since we are feeding it with our satellite, we can log [the live-read] – which is captured with a pre-roll recorder; the 30 seconds before it; and 30 seconds after it,” Thiele beams. “It saves it into a game-day file folder, which then becomes searchable, so it adds value to the teams, as well as to the broadcast content. They can be downloaded or attached to an email and provided to the client.”

Another innovation, Skyview’s “Skycap,” was created for the National League west’s San Diego Padres with Thiele remarking, “Utilizing six cameras, it has the ability to record an entire in-arena or in-stadium event. At the end of the game, it puts all the events and elements that occurred into a game-day file folder. No one had ever captured that experience before and been able to show it to an advertiser. Something that a team’s chief financial officer loves is that, we can now play out all the commercials for the broadcast with our system.”

Within minutes after a game has ended, the team has an affidavit-of-performance. “In the past, they would have to wait for stations to provide that fulfillment,” Thiele declares. “We are all about creating some form of efficiency for each club’s department [with which we work]. This all began on the inventory management side with the opportunity given to us by [another MLB client] the Arizona Diamondbacks.”    

Paradigm persists 

Still adhering to a barter-for-services structure rooted from the days of Thiele’s traffic watch company, privately-held Skyview Networks reiterates a “follow the dollars” motto. “We use that same [barter] business model for both our sports and news products,” he elaborates. “Sure – we will take some cash, but most of our compensation comes in the form of advertising time. Since we deal with [numerous] professional and college sports teams, we sell that inventory on a national platform so we don’t really get into the local dollars and compete [against] our clients. It is pretty much on a national level.” 

Approximately 75 staffers comprise the Skyview Networks workforce, which includes ten fulltime sellers in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Florida, and the Scottsdale home office. “If someone tracks down a lead such as The Guitar Center in Minnesota, we green-light them to get on a plane so they can be in front of the client,” Thiele reveals. “If we have to drive six hours to make a pitch or a presentation, we green-light that as well. The strength we have on a national level is something ABC saw and liked about us. You can find other companies out there doing national network sales, but they really do not have all the other systems that need to be integrated with the sales department to make sure the marketing campaigns execute correctly.”

Rather than simply selling 30-second and 60-second units, Skyview’s sales team does considerable amalgamation with Thiele asserting, “There are normally other items in there that we activate with radio that are well-incorporated. We cross over between ABC Radio and ABC-TV to tap into their on-air personalities. We partnered with [ABC-TV ‘Shark Tank’ personality/ ‘Queen of QVC’ entrepreneur] Lori Greiner to create an advertising campaign. She was the voice of Kabbage, an online loan service. It is that sort of thing we are looking to do to really provide a high-level of customization and create the success on the advertising side of things.”

Coaching tips 

Totally unexpected on Thiele’s part is the set of circumstances that led the 1982 Arizona State University alum, whose degree is in aeronautics, to a prominent radio industry position. After graduating from ASU, he expected that he’d land a job with an airline.

Many pilots at that time though were coming out of the military and Thiele grants, “They definitely had far superior training than a civilian – so it was kind of a closed market. I took a position with an aircraft company that produced kit-built helicopters. There were 150 boxes with 15,000 parts – 500 hours later, you had a helicopter. It gave me an opportunity to travel a great deal and, in that job, I met the person [Dave Chamberlain] who would become my business partner. He worked weekends on a rock radio station and I did early-morning traffic reports.”

It occurred to the two that radio stations source their weather in one location and they could do the same thing with traffic reports. “We took the business plan we wrote to a bank and were given $250,000 to buy a helicopter and some broadcast equipment,” Thiele reviews. “We rolled out with five stations and we sold the reports with 10-second commercials. I had never been on the radio before and the individual who put the broadcast equipment in my helicopter is still by my side today – over 30 years later.”

Undeniably experiencing a learning curve in what would become his new career path, Thiele underscores, “The title on my badge is ‘technical geek.’ I have a passion for sports and I am surrounded by both hardware and software engineers. It is kind of fun in the sense that when we talk about baseball, I literally place a baseball in the middle of the conference room table because I have to explain it to guys who are not used to talking about sports. They are more accustomed to talking about the last great code they wrote or some new invention they created. It’s trying to bridge the shapes and colors of baseball into the lines of code that the developers need to write to be able to do what the teams are really looking for.”

Equally divided between a technology company and a national sales force is the progression Thiele sees his company taking. “It is a unique skill to be able to put together national advertising marketing campaigns for agencies in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago,” he maintains. “I have found myself being drawn toward that side of things. Our ABC partnership has opened up so many opportunities. They would have locked me up for being crazy 22 years ago to think any of this could be achievable. I never imagined that I would be introduced to the level of people we meet on the ABC television and radio sides.”

Perhaps the most significant challenge he faces is keeping up with the pace to remain balanced and focused. “Our ultimate commitment is that we have to generate revenue,” Thiele stresses. “Technology is great – but if we don’t generate the revenue – all the technology just sits on the bench and it never gets out into the field.”

Total team effort

Each Monday at 10:00 am, Skyview Networks’ management executives review any “pain points” that may exist inside the company; fulfillment department issues are discussed at the same time every Tuesday. “We talk about spot distribution; compliance; and buying of additional advertising for marketing campaigns,” reports Thiele, who sits in on a meeting with developers at 1:30 pm each Thursday. “There are one-off meetings as well that are specific to projects such as AdLink, which has the ability to take in two unique internet feeds. It has all the same features that our smart satellite receiver has, but does it terrestrially and can do HD video. That is a new product that will be rolling out. The real enjoyment that I have is to get back out in the field as much as I can with the teams or with Steve Jones, who is just a brilliant man.”

Notwithstanding the tremendous amount of time that Thiele spends around baseball in his profession capacity, he genuinely enjoys going to games as a fan and is attempting to visit each MLB park. “I hear great things about the [Atlanta Braves’ new facility, SunTrust Park] and I hope to visit it next month. One place I easily get to and enjoy tremendously is the home of the San Diego Padres [Petco Park]. The Pittsburgh Pirates [PNC Park] and San Francisco Giants [AT&T Park] have great parks, as well. I’m excited to be going to the All-Star Game in Miami [July 11 at Marlins Park].”

Quick to credit those with whom he works for creating “such a wonderful culture” inside the Skyview Networks organization, Thiele enthuses, “They are passionate about who they are and what they do. Whatever their skill sets are, it is not a ‘job’ or ‘work’ to them: It is something that they look forward to doing each day.”

Particularly given that Skyview is not a “10,000-person organization,” essentially everyone there has the prospect of making a difference. “I ask that they give it the best they can,” Thiele politely insists. “It is no different [from] the players on the field. Everyone has a slot, responsibility, and chance to perform. They are the ones responsible for helping us to grow.”

Selective in the company’s new hires, Thiele candidly comments, “There is a very involved process and it is not just one person doing the interviewing. It is a team of people inside the organization to make sure that each person fits in with our corporate culture and will be successful. It was a great moment to see our general sales manager, Jeanne-Marie Condo, cry when she received a Rolex for 20 years with the company. She has been here for 22 years and has done an amazing job. I would take an earful from her mom, who would call in 1995 and 1996, lecturing me that I should not waste her daughter’s career. Now, however, she is so proud that her daughter is sitting atop one of the top three syndication companies in the United States. We have got to get to number one. People don’t ask for ‘tissue,’ they ask for ‘Kleenex.’ I want to have that same sort of brand [recognition].”

Email managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@TALKERS.com  

Category: Features