Putin’s Sports Network Goes Live – Wall Street Journal

Anchors and commentators of the new Russian sports channel Match pose for the media at the presentation of the channel in Moscow on Oct. 29.
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Moscow

In the late 1970s, in the American state of Connecticut, a hockey official got fired, took out a $9,000 cash advance on his credit card and convinced an oil company to help him launch a sports network called ESPN.

By contrast, Russia’s new 24-hour sports network had a quintessentially Russian origin: Kremlin Decree Number 365.

President Vladimir Putin signed that decree in mid-July, laying the groundwork for a dedicated federal sports network called Match TV. Putin hailed the network as a way to display “spectacular competition” and “popularize a healthy way of life.”

The network launched this week, free of charge, and it faces a dilemma. Russians aren’t really into watching sports, at least not their domestic leagues, in part because the nation’s best soccer and hockey athletes go to other countries to play for higher-paying, higher-quality teams, and also because network sports entertainment remains in its infancy.

At best, Match TV is starting on the one yard line. Russia is a nation without traditions like Sunday Night Football, tailgating or college sports. Until now, Russia has lacked the marketing apparatus to make fandom a way of life and transform athletes into celebrities.

Match TV scored a hit with its broadcast of a Manchester United game out of Manchester, England.
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For decades, Russia excelled mightily at Olympic sports. But the sports-industrial complex—the broadcasting, the marketing, the merchandizing that fueled the growth of sports in the U.S.—didn’t fully emerge in Russia, even after communism fell.

“The American viewer has a variety of choice,” says Match TV general producer Tina Kandelaki. “We haven’t had that kind of choice, but in that sense, we’re really lucky, because we’re starting with a blank page, which is always more interesting.”

Match TV belongs to the media unit of state energy giant Gazprom. To help endow Match TV with the slick production values of American network sports, the company recruited American sports producer Charles Coplin, a 52-year-old former executive for the NFL, NHL and ABC Sports.

“The objective here, which has been embraced by my colleagues at Match TV, is to start creating and producing a product that’s a whole new dialogue with sports fans in Russia—that glamorizes it, explains it, informs it and creates passion,” Coplin said in an interview.

It’s a challenge. Russian commentators, for example, historically have announced soccer matches solo. When Match TV put a pair of commentators in the studio at CSKA Moscow’s Champions League match in Manchester this week, and added a heavy dose of friendly banter, one Twitter
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fan asked jokingly if they would start making out. Another puzzled over all the “brotherly love.”

Other efforts paid off. When the network went live to sidelines after the game, and the Russian commentator shot a question to Manchester United
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goalkeeper David de Gea in Spanish, Russian viewers erupted online with delight.

What gives Match TV executives hope for domestic-sports viewership is that Russians in large numbers watch international competitions such as the Olympics and world championships. The most-watched sporting event of 2015, viewed by 11.9% of all Russians, was the Ice Hockey World Championship final between Russia and Canada, according to TNS Global. That’s still a far cry from the 38.7% of Americans who watched this year’s Super Bowl, according to Nielsen.

In the hopes of gaining momentum ahead of the 2018 World Cup—as well as drafting off the wake of the Sochi Olympics—Russian officials rolled out Match TV with haste, developing studios, logos and shows in a matter of months.

The World Cup “will become a driver and catalyst for changing people’s interest in watching sports,” said Gazprom Media CEO Dmitry Chernyshenko, who ran the Sochi Olympics organizing committee.

Match TV general producer Tina Kandelaki and Alexei Miller, deputy chairman of the board of Match TV parent Gazprom, at a dinner marking the launch of the  sports channel.
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Sports are a critical tool in Putin’s mission to shore up Russian national pride. They’re also part of an active personal image—from shirt-less equestrianism to birthday-party hockey—that resonates with Russian voters.

“In Russia, ‘healthy lifestyle’ is a trend. It’s in style,” says Yuri Dud, the editor of Sports.ru and host of a show on Match TV. “The trend comes from the head of state, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.”

Match TV is pairing its ESPN-style commentary, news and analysis with daytime self-improvement programming to promote healthy lifestyles. A recent episode featured segments on how to make smoothies, how to prepare for winter exercise and what to do if you’re a guy with a unibrow.

From the start, the channel provoked controversy with the appointment of Kandelaki, a former celebrity television host, socialite cover girl and PR maven for Kalashnikov firearms. She cuts a glamorous figure and regularly posts her morning fitness regimen on Instagram for one million followers.

Vasily Utkin, editor of Gazprom Media’s predecessor sports satellite network, took umbrage at her appointment and said no one in Russia spoke about sports more “tritely, lamely and detestably.” She at one point called him a “fatso” in what turned into a Russian media firestorm. The two have since mended fences, and he’s now on the channel.

In its first week, the channel ran documentaries on high-jump champion Yelena Isinbayeva and champion snowboarding couple Alena Zavarzina and Vic Wild. In addition to the Champions League match, it aired the WBC heavyweight boxing match between Alexander Povetkin and Mariusz Wach live from the Russian city of Kazan.

Already, a select group of sports diehards has come down on the channel with all manner of criticism—the logo spins too much, the studio is too red, the sound is too soft. Kandelaki, the general producer, says Match TV is only a newborn, a work-in-progress. There always will be a million opinions, she says, but producers must stick to their vision.

Gazprom Media hasn’t disclosed Match TV’s full budget. The company has devoted 6.5 billion rubles ($103 million) to rights for the coming year and already has high-profile deals with the Champion’s League, Bundesliga and English Premier League. It has permissions to air certain NFL games, including the Super Bowl, and is looking into acquiring NHL and NBA rights.

While trying to prepare enough content to feed a 24-hour beast, Kandelaki is searching for an interviewer with enough gravitas to pose tough questions to famous athletes. Coplin wants to introduce prepared editorial story lines, elaborate replay packages and on-the-fly animated graphics. For both of them, Match TV is the beginning of what they hope will be a cultural revolution.

“In three months, I can’t imagine Match TV wouldn’t be on in every bar, in every gym,” Coplin said. “I’m most excited to see Match TV become an integrated part of the daily culture in a way ESPN is in the United States.”

Write to Paul Sonne at paul.sonne@wsj.com

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