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All-digital 120 Sports kicking off streaming network

Getting your surreptitious sports fix on date night may never be the same again.

Chicago-based 120 Sports is set to go live Wednesday with a steady stream of video highlights, pumped-up hosts, flashy graphics and score updates, making it a lot like other national sports cable networks — except for the cable.

The all-digital 24/7 network aims to be an online reinvention of ESPN's "SportsCenter" for multitaskers with mobile devices and short attention spans.

Equity partners Time Inc. and Silver Chalice, a digital media company led by Bulls and White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, have teamed with MLB.com and the NHL and NBA to deliver video-driven sports reports with social interaction and related factoids in two-minute segments, hence the name, 120 Sports.

"We want to create a daily habit, where you'll check us multiple times a day and have as long a viewing session as possible," said Jason Coyle, 43, president of 120 Sports.

The network will stream live from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 3 to 11 p.m. Sunday. A morning show is also in the works, according to executives. During downtimes, 120 Sports will offer video on demand, giving fans a chance to catch up on the big stories of the day.

No cable subscription is required, and a free app unlocks the full service on tablets and smartphones.

The live schedule puts it up against prime-time TV, but Coyle said it's more complementary than competitive, with 120 Sports steering users to play-by-play action on other networks.

"If you're not in front of a television or you don't have a television, we are a great primary experience," Coyle said. "If you're sitting in front of your television, we're going to help you navigate the whole sports landscape."

Coyle, a Harvard Law School graduate who co-founded Silver Chalice in 2009 with Reinsdorf and White Sox executive Brooks Boyer, declined to disclose startup costs or operating budgets for 120 Sports, but he said expenses have been held down by in-kind contributions from the equity partners.

"We've been able to put our investment on the camera," Coyle said. "And all those places where you don't want to spend money, like back-end services, we've really taken those out."

The ad-supported network will feature six one-minute commercial breaks every hour on the fours during live programming. National advertising sales are being handled by Silver Chalice and Sports Illustrated, owned by Time Inc., the magazine publisher that recently spun off from Time Warner. Sponsorship packages include wraparound promos and brand integration.

The network announced Monday that it has four primary sponsors — Verizon, Geico, Nissan and Transamerica — and according to Coyle, is nearly sold out at launch.

Though Coyle would not disclose the sponsorship budgets, he said advertisers have bought into the as-yet-unproven concept.

"You can imagine what type of package would make us keep this as a free offering," Coyle said. "It's a significant investment."

Part of the appeal is undoubtedly the hard-to-reach millennial target audience, for whom social engagement, cord-cutting and multiscreen viewing — the essence of 120 Sports — is second nature.

"We built it in a way that we know is going to appeal to young adults," Coyle said. "We're starting with that millennial, 18-to-35 audience."

The network is leasing a sprawling 17,000-square-foot building at Harpo Studios on the Near West Side, in space once occupied by Rosie O'Donnell's short-lived talk show, which was canceled by the Oprah Winfrey Network in March 2012.

Its landlord changed in May, when Chicago-based real estate developer Sterling Bay acquired the entire Harpo Studios campus, keeping both Harpo Productions and 120 Sports as tenants, at least through 2016.

Redesigned from the ground up, the 120 Sports facility features production rooms, a greenroom for guests and a main studio/man cave, replete with exposed brick, big-screen TVs, a pinball machine, sports memorabilia and a bar.

Office chairs and cubicles are the only holdovers from the Rosie era, according to executives.

There are social media and application control rooms where staffers create the interactive picture with data, social chatter and other related displays.

At the heart of the network is a windowless closet filled with computer servers, dutifully manned by a couple of guys in chairs.

Some 130 staffers have been hired since the network was announced in February. Many have track records at other sports networks, with geographic diversity a prerequisite to avoid a home-team mentality.

"We wanted to have a work base that is diverse in every way — diverse in the sports they follow, diverse in the teams they follow — to prevent any sort of bias," said Matt Carstens, executive vice president of 120 Sports, a clear echo of critics who say ESPN stands for Eastern Seaboard Programming Network, with an affinity for all things Boston and New York.

The network has been doing full, live dry runs recently for beta testers and a select inner circle. Last week, they featured former ESPN host Michael Kim, former Young Turks online sports host Rick Strom, two-time Super Bowl champ Bryant McFadden and reporter Laura Britt, who has shaved seconds off her time in the 40-yard hallway dash to deliver frequent live updates on air.

On Tuesday, the network announced it had expanded its roster with former NBA All-Star and Chicago native Antoine Walker and former MLB All-Star pitcher Danny Graves, who will serve as analysts.

As much as it may look like a cable sports network, 120 Sports has no plans to migrate onto ESPN's turf.

"You can watch television and (120 Sports) on the same set with a click of a button," Coyle said. "For us, our rights are only digital, our purview is only digital, our audience is only digital. We're not looking to compete against TV."

Where TV may have to play catch-up with 120 Sports is in its mobility.

Last week, when Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers threw a no-hitter, 120 Sports, albeit in test mode, alerted users, then carried the final outs live.

Sorry, honey, have to take this. It's Clayton. Right back.

rchannick@tribune.com

Twitter @RobertChannick

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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