2016 Pro Football Hall of Fame Watch – The Top 50 Active Resumes

Surefire first-ballot players:

  1. QB Peyton Manning
  2. QB Tom Brady

These two stand far and away on top of the pack, and their lead has become a yawning chasm. If this is the end of the line for Manning, it will leave Brady standing alone in this category, and it may take at least a few years for anyone else to join him…

Borderline first-ballot players:

  1. RB Adrian Peterson
  2. QB Drew Brees
  3. QB Aaron Rodgers
  4. DT Kevin Williams

…by which I mean, maybe one or two more years of Adrian Peterson performing as he has. His career is all the more remarkable for how short most running back careers have been recently. In general, this year marks the point at which the current generation of players officially grabbed the brass ring and started positioning themselves for potential first-ballot induction. As such, the list is going to get a bit awkward the next few years until the All-Decade Team of the 2010s is named, which’ll be before any of the names on this year’s list are up for consideration; there’s considerable evidence the Hall of Fame voters weight All-Decade teams fairly heavily when deciding who to induct, with All-Decade players ending up inducted more often than not. As such, there’s increasingly going to be a divide between players who’ve played long enough to make the 2000s All-Decade Team and those who haven’t and are waiting for the 2010s Team to be named. I’m assuming Peterson and Rodgers are making that team, but the divide really makes itself felt in the next category; starting next year I may attempt to start predicting who makes the All-Decade Team and re-sort the list accordingly.

Surefire Hall of Famers:

  1. TE Antonio Gates
  2. CB Charles Woodson
  3. WR Calvin Johnson
  4. DE Julius Peppers
  5. CB Darrelle Revis
  6. TE Jason Witten
  7. LB DeMarcus Ware
  8. DE Dwight Freeney
  9. WR Andre Johnson

I’ve seen talk that Charles Woodson not only might go in first ballot, but might be in the running for best cornerback ever. Yeah, no. Even with Champ Bailey retiring a couple years ago, it’s only this year he even became the best active defensive back by resume, as his resume remains comparable to Troy Polamalu (Woodson has one more Pro Bowl selection with his swan song this year, but the AP at least named Polamalu a first-team All-Pro an additional time). Polamalu should get in the Hall of Fame in his first few years on the ballot and the same is true for Woodson, but best-ever they are not. As for Calvin Johnson and his own retirement talk, he should get into the Hall without too much delay (realistically I think his resume is on par with Gates), but the shortness of his career is likely to cost him a first-ballot spot.

Borderline Hall of Famers:

  1. WR Larry Fitzgerald
  2. WR Steve Smith
  3. WR Wes Welker
  4. DE Jared Allen
  5. RB Jamaal Charles
  6. RB LeSean McCoy
  7. RB Arian Foster
  8. OT Joe Thomas
  9. DE J.J. Watt
  10. TE Rob Gronkowski
  11. S Earl Thomas
  12. QB Ben Roethlisberger
  13. CB Patrick Peterson
  14. RB Marshawn Lynch
  15. DE Haloti Ngata
  16. WR Antonio Brown
  17. QB Eli Manning
  18. WR Brandon Marshall
  19. QB Michael Vick
  20. P Shane Lechler
  21. OT Jahri Evans
  22. DT Ndamukong Suh
  23. QB Philip Rivers
  24. KR Devin Hester
  25. K Adam Vinatieri

Because this list assesses players’ resumes if they retired today, it’s only this year that J.J. Watt, who may well prove to be one of the greatest defensive players ever, and Rob Gronkowski amass resumes good enough to even have a chance at the Hall. See the Class of 2020 list to see what can easily happen to players with Hall of Fame-caliber talent that cut their careers too short. Vinatieri remains an interesting situation: very few non-quarterbacks have been propelled into the Hall of Fame on the strength of their Super Bowls… but Vinatieri could be one of them, despite being a kicker, a position with only one other representative in the Hall at all.

Need work:

  • RB Chris Johnson
  • LB Navorro Bowman
  • T Jason Peters
  • S Eric Weddle
  • S Eric Berry
  • DT Gerald McCoy

A couple other players have similar resumes to McCoy and Doug Martin, but those two actually improved their resumes this year, so I can avoid having anyone “back” onto the list just because of players retiring. Probably I should have just thrown on one or two special-teams players, maybe a fullback like Mike Tolbert.

Young stars (exclamation marks indicate players with resumes already strong enough to be among the top 50):

  • LB Von Miller (5th year)
  • WR A.J. Green (5th year)
  • CB Richard Sherman (5th year)!
  • RB DeMarco Murray (5th year)
  • LB Justin Houston (5th year)
  • QB Cam Newton (5th year)!
  • WR Julio Jones (5th year)!
  • QB Russell Wilson (4th year)
  • WR Josh Gordon (4th year)
  • LB Luke Kuechly (4th year)
  • RB Doug Martin (4th year)!
  • LB Bobby Wagner (4th year)
  • RB Le’Veon Bell (3rd year)
  • C Travis Frederick (3rd year)
  • WR Odell Beckham Jr. (2nd year)
  • G Zack Martin (2nd year)
  • DT Aaron Donald (2nd year)
  • DE Khalil Mack (2nd year)
  • RB Todd Gurley (Rookie)
  • CB Marcus Peters (Rookie)

Exactly two rookies made the Pro Bowl in their own right this year, and they also just so happened to be Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year.

Players to watch for the Class of 2020:

  • S Troy Polamalu
  • WR Reggie Wayne
  • LB Patrick Willis
  • DE John Abraham
  • RB Maurice Jones-Drew

After last year’s potentially three-first-ballot class, this year should provide some breathing room for players that have been waiting to get in. I’m not sure Polamalu has a good enough resume (or a long enough career) to get in first ballot, but he should get in within a couple of years, so any reprieve is short-lived. No one else is assured of getting in, although Willis’ own short career will make a very interesting case study, as he was shaping up to be a surefire Hall of Famer before his abrupt retirement but now looks decidedly on the bubble. Perhaps more than anyone else, he epitomizes why Rob Gronkowski and J.J. Watt only this year became even borderline Hall of Famers. (I’m not actually sure Wayne will be eligible this year, as he remained on the Patriots’ roster into September before being cut. It’s always fun to see where the Hall of Fame considers a player’s career to have “actually” ended in these borderline situations where a player never played, and wasn’t on a roster during the actual season, but was on the roster for just long enough for you to make an argument either way.)

Does ESPN Have a Fixed Cost Problem?

Recently ESPN President John Skipper was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal about the numerous challenges facing the company in the age of cord-cutting, as became apparent over the past year. Here’s a telling excerpt from the interview:

WSJ: A lot of your sports rights deals are locked in for years. Given how pay TV is changing, how will that affect your negotiations with the leagues?

Mr. Skipper: It’s too soon to predict. Sports is a growth business. I think it would be foolish to predict that sports rights (prices) will decline. We hold more sports rights than the rest of the sports media combined. All we have to do is use all those rights to create continuing growth in revenue to cover them. To date, we’ve demonstrated that we’ve been able to do so, and I’m highly confident we will continue.

WSJ: Do you have any wiggle room with your league partners to adjust payments if things change and cord-cutting really picks up? Would you want that flexibility?

Mr. Skipper: We don’t have any contingent payment plans. We have rights agreements with defined payments. It’s probably not practical. I wouldn’t particularly entertain it if people came to me and said, “Gee, I’d like to do a deal with you, but if the economy’s worse I’d like to pay you less.”

Of course, there’s a big difference between a sluggish economy and cord-cutting: a sluggish economy is, in theory, a temporary phenomenon. Cord-cutting is a permanent shift in the way we consume our entertainment, and while declaring it a fad that’ll end once my generation has kids might be a good way to try and delude Wall Street into keeping investing into the business, deluding yourself into thinking that to the point of making long-term decisions based on that assumption would seem to be suicide. Indeed, BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield, perhaps the loudest voice on Wall Street casting doubt on ESPN’s long-term viability in the age of cord-cutting, identifies this as the single biggest fatal flaw that could come back to bite ESPN later:


Most of these sports, of course, ESPN “overpaid” for under a very different set of assumptions, that of the sports TV wars and the need and desire to keep valuable sports out of the hands of Fox and Comcast (the latter of which Greenfield has acknowledged elsewhere). In retrospect of course, the best approach for ESPN might have been to let Fox and Comcast have valuable sports to shore up the cable bundle, but to some extent they did that, particularly by tag-teaming with Fox on a number of rights. In the case of the NBA deal, Adam Silver quoted ESPN a price that Fox and Comcast were willing to pay, and ESPN could either pay that price, or wait for the exclusive negotiation window to end, at which point either the price would go up, Fox or Comcast would steal the rights away from ESPN, or both. Perhaps in retrospect ESPN should have let Fox or Comcast steal the rights and have them take the financial hit, but that would mean ESPN wouldn’t be able to sell NBA games (its most valuable non-football content) as part of any hypothetical future direct-to-consumer offering, and more to the point, Fox or Comcast would. As much as ESPN might suffer from accelerated cord-cutting, as it stands they’re much more able to monetize the rights they do have than Fox or Comcast, and those two companies might be poised to suffer much more (especially Fox), though their regional sports network interests might help offset that. It’s worth noting that ESPN consciously left a number of potential rights deals on the table, most notably NASCAR, in order to save up for an NBA deal, so it’s not like ESPN had the right to spend like Midas before; after all, even before cord-cutting became a household word, Disney was vigorously fighting a la carte bills in Congress. (And while ESPN and the NBA haven’t launched the OTT service that was part of the deal yet, its very inclusion as part of the deal suggests ESPN has taken at least some steps to shore up its empire against cord-cutting.)

Skipper argues that his company’s deals allow them to increase revenue, both by selling ads against the content and by using it as justification to raise subscriber fees further. So long as the cable bundle continues to exist, that’s true, even in the face of cord-cutting: the more audiences that find indispensable content locked up with ESPN, and thus find ESPN itself indispensable, the more indispensable ESPN is to cable operators, the more indispensable the cable bundle as a whole is to people that might otherwise consider cord-cutting, and the more audiences find value in any offering that has ESPN in it. Of course, I would argue that because of how much non-sports fans have been subsidizing sports networks, sports networks are probably overvalued compared to if they had to stand and fall on their own merits, so if the cable bundle completely broke up ESPN’s revenues would have no choice but to decline – the commonly-quoted $30 a month ESPN would supposedly have to charge to break even on an over-the-top offering is based on how many people would subscribe to ESPN in an a la carte world in the abstract, divorced from price, or at best at the $8 a month price ESPN and ESPN2 charge cable operators now, without regard for how many people wouldn’t be able to afford it at $30 a month. But realistically, the cable bundle isn’t going to break up tomorrow; Dave Warner estimates that, given ESPN’s continued carriage fee hikes, it wouldn’t even start making less money than the prior year until at least another year from now, and those losses wouldn’t become catastrophic until 2019 or 2020 at the earliest. By that point it’ll be time to renegotiate the Major League Baseball and Monday Night Football deals, allowing those deals, at least, to be brought up to date with the new reality, if ESPN’s able and willing to keep them at all, though it’ll be stuck with the NBA and college sports deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year until mid-decade and running the SEC Network into the 2030s.

But even if cord-cutting reaches the point that ESPN finds itself caught between deals signed under a very different environment and a present-day environment that doesn’t allow them to monetize it, there’s one more factor that could allow them to renegotiate many of those deals or may have justified the negotiation of contingency plans that go beyond a “sluggish economy”: sports entities would be just as upset about a contracting ESPN as ESPN is, even if they’d still be collecting the same money.

The College Football Playoff is the example I always bring up on this front. When the BCS first signed its blockbuster deal moving the Rose Bowl and college football’s national championship to cable in 2008, they made a lot of noise about how people wouldn’t be deprived of the games because ESPN was in the vast majority of homes and those homes it wasn’t in tended to fall outside of valuable advertising demographics, were disproportionately less likely to watch the games to begin with, or otherwise wouldn’t represent any big loss for ESPN and the BCS. That’s not a given anymore; my generation lies right at the heart of the cord-cutting movement, and as I alluded to earlier, not every sports fan, even those that find ESPN indispensable, will be able to pay $30 a month for it. I have always said that no major sports competition wants to go the way of boxing, with all the fights anyone would care about on premium cable and pay-per-view, and $30-a-month a la carte ESPN would be even more of a luxury than HBO, indeed would cost twice as much. There’s no way college football would want its national championship hitched to that wagon (assuming they actually want the playoff to succeed); the entire sport’s mindshare would plummet.

So if cord-cutting started accelerating to the point where ESPN is in only a third of households, I would imagine the CFP would want the playoff moved to ABC, and in return ESPN would be able to win lower rights-fee payments. Similarly, the NBA could win more regular-season and playoff games on ABC in exchange for lower rights fees, and the same might go for college conferences although there would be more restrictions there (in football, most of them are probably already on ABC as much as they realistically can be, except for the SEC which has exclusivity with CBS). This process is already starting: witness the move to simulcast this year’s NFL Wild Card playoff game on ABC, as well as the much-hyped move of regular-season NBA games to ABC Saturday Primetime, even if they’re coming out of ABC’s Sunday slate at the moment.

Of course, this depends heavily on broadcasting itself continuing to remain viable, and I’m not sure it should continue to be necessarily free if it does. Still, the fact remains that the cord-cutting revolution is going to put a big hurt on all media companies, and ESPN might be able to weather it better than most, and have a better chance of getting out from under the rights-fee payments Greenfield worries about than the text of the contracts might suggest. A big bellwether is going to be the Big Ten negotiations that should wrap up sometime this year; the most likely outcome seems to be ESPN and Fox sharing the rights, and for ESPN to leave them on the table entirely would effectively be admitting that Greenfield is right and ESPN has paid too much for sports rights overall and is now trying to ratchet them down quickly in the age of cord-cutting, to the point of letting competitors have a property as valuable as the Big Ten, which may be second only to the SEC among college conferences. At the same time, it would be foolish to simply ignore cord-cutting and the prospects for its continuation when valuing the Big Ten rights, so if ESPN and Fox pay in the same vicinity of what they would have paid in the pre-cord cutting era, it might be less a mistake in and of itself, as Greenfield might see it, as a sign that ESPN still believes its rights portfolio will prove to be worth what they’ve paid for it even if cord-cutting accelerates. On the other hand, if they pay substantially less but still leave the Big Ten walking away with a decent chunk of change we’ll get a better sense of the real value of sports rights when they aren’t inflated quite so much by the cable bundle. But if they pay a fraction of what might otherwise have been expected, maybe even behind inflation compared to ESPN’s existing deal and what Fox is paying for the conference’s football championship game? That’s when it’ll be time to panic, both regarding the struggles ahead for ESPN and the house of cards (no pun intended) all of sports has come to be built on.

How Poor Ownership Rules Will Help the Incentive Auction Cripple Broadcasting

I have argued in my comments with the FCC (especially here) that the commission should, at the very least, hold off on the broadcast incentive auctions until it completes its ownership review and determines what the rules will be for the post-auction landscape; the fact that the auction process is currently slated to begin at the end of March, but the FCC doesn’t plan to wrap up its ownership review until June, is to me just one more piece of evidence that the FCC is trying to shove the auction down broadcasting’s throat before people catch on to just how valuable it can still be. Recently I saw something that puts in stark relief just why this is so, and makes me realize just how much the incentive auction could terminally cripple broadcasting.

A week ago the RabbitEars site I’ve written guest posts for in the past posted a rundown of what companies and stations have signaled their participation in the auction. Most of it was information available elsewhere and much of it I had seen earlier piecemeal, but it was still stunning to see it all in one place. Three of the four major broadcast networks have plans to participate in the auction to some degree, and most of the other largest station owners are at least considering either a channel-share or full-fledged participation. I might have been willing to accept the incentive auction if the only stations surrendering spectrum turned out to be a small handful of operations that weren’t doing much of worth anyway, causing the whole thing to come crashing down and forcing the FCC to reassess, but that possibility now looks decidedly remote.

One thing many of the big station group owners considering participating have in common are their heavy interests in duopolies. In many large markets, CBS owns both its own station and a CW or independent station; Fox owns its own station and a MyNetworkTV station; and NBC owns its own station and a Telemundo station. Any of these companies could easily surrender one station and effectively keep running it on the signal of the other station, as could Univision in markets where it owns both its own station and a UniMas station, or companies like Sinclair that could effectively make its “virtual duopolies” legal by merging them into a single signal, something that’s already started. Indeed, a company like Sinclair could, completely legally, control four times the amount of spectrum as a smaller outfit that elected to channel-share; the only downside would be that they would have must-carry rights for only two of them, but if they had valuable enough content on the channels that would mean little as they could pressure cable operators to carry them anyway. Big station group owners, in other words, could come away from the auction with that much more of an advantage than they have now.

Since a single station could either take up an entire channel’s width or share with another station, and because wireless providers are going to be voraciously gobbling up as much spectrum as they can to the point of potentially taking different amounts of spectrum in different markets, the effect would be to “lock in” the competitive landscape that’s in place now, regardless of how priorities might change, if for example the FCC decides the post-auction landscape should be governed by ownership rules based on the amount of spectrum controlled instead of the number of “stations”, or if Congress passes legislation that has the effect of weaning broadcasting off its dependence on retransmission consent and thus makes it more viable for a small station owner to exist and compete with larger owners. But by that point, the structure of how spectrum is divvied up will effectively favor whoever owns multiple stations, for whatever reason, right now, effectively making it impossible to break up today’s oligopolies; if someone decides they have a better programming concept than what’s on the air right now (and our vision for broadcasting allows it), it’s not clear there will be any room to launch a new station, and I doubt a station that’s taking up a full channel’s width can be subdivided and turned into a channel-share operation even if the incumbent owner is willing to do so and even if the programming in the leftover space used to be a separate station to begin with – at best, the new owner might find themselves having to rent the space from the old. Even if the current consolidation trend continues, it’s going to be much harder to make it work after the auction, when existing station combinations are neatly combined onto a single signal, but potential new duopolies could be on very different parts of spectrum or even sharing with different stations, and it may be impossible to turn one signal in and reap the benefits from owning one licence.

That’s just one way the incentive auction could make it much harder for broadcasting to compete and claim its full value should it realize just what that value is; it’s not clear broadcasting ends up being viable at all given the interference potential of the variable band plan and the effect the lack of flexibility will have on broadcasting’s ability to improve its reach that’s currently based on unrealistic expectations of what equipment people would be willing to acquire and what the future use of broadcasting actually is. It is one of the bigger ways, however. Perhaps more than anything else, it contributes to the sense that as far as the FCC and most parties that aren’t broadcasters themselves are concerned, the incentive auction is about carving out a little niche for those legacy fossils that aren’t willing to take our gracious check to cease their wasteful, spectrum-hogging, outdated activities, allowing them to keep going as long as they want to and as long as it remains viable, but with the expectation that it’s only a matter of time before they end up bailing out too. If this assumption turns out to be wrong, if those legacy fossils turn out to be performing a critical service that the auction has left underprepared and inefficiently organized and that people that might not have given it a second look or even gotten out of the business now want a part of, it’s going to be very difficult if not impossible to correct for it. The FCC has promoted the auction by proclaiming it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, that there will not be another auction once this one is over. But that also makes it the FCC’s one and only chance to set the post-auction landscape, and right now they look set to make a number of huge mistakes on that front it’ll be impossible to correct later – and I fear it may already be too late to convince them of such.

The Sling TV-style service ESPN really fears (and why Sling TV has what it has)

According to SNL Kagan estimates from last spring (listed here), here are the most expensive channels on cable (not counting broadcast retransmission fees or regional sports networks):

  1. ESPN ($6.61)
  2. TNT ($1.65)
  3. Disney Channel ($1.34)
  4. NFL Network ($1.31)
  5. Fox News ($1.12)
  6. USA Network ($1.00)
  7. FS1 ($.99)
  8. TBS ($.85)
  9. ESPN2 ($.83)
  10. Nickelodeon ($.73)

The heavy presence of sports channels on the list, topped by ESPN having several times the figure of the next most expensive network, may be the most obvious thing that jumps out at you, but there’s something else remarkable about this list. I mention in the book that the vast majority of channels on your cable lineup are controlled by nine companies, but seven of the ten most expensive networks are controlled by just three companies: Disney, Fox, and Time Warner, who also represent two of the four major broadcast networks and the largest owner of regional sports networks. An eighth, NFL Network, isn’t controlled by any of the Big Nine. The remaining six members of the Big Nine account for just two of the ten most expensive networks, USA and Nickelodeon. Add Comcast to that group of three and you have three major broadcast networks, most of the country’s regional sports networks, and eight of the top nine most expensive national cable networks, not to mention HBO, with Showtime owned by the remaining broadcast network.

Last month I suggested that ESPN actually benefits from having as many companies as possible invested in sports, keeping them tied to the cable bundle and preventing any attempt to defect from it from being much use for sports fans. But only those four companies – Disney, Comcast, Fox, and Time Warner – have any serious investment in sports on cable, with CBS the only other Big Nine member with any stateside presence in sports at all. I talk about the Big Nine, but the reality is there’s a divide within the Big Nine between the Sports Four-and-a-Half – which as it happens, make up the most valuable members of the Big Nine according to the Fortune 500, in rough order of the level of their investment in sports aside from Comcast being propelled by its cable-operator business ahead of the rest – and the remaining members with no presence in sports. What would happen if those four companies – Viacom, Discovery, AMC, and Scripps – decided to defect from the cable bundle themselves, on their own or individually?

Let’s do some back-of-the-napkin math. Let’s start by assuming that the average American sees $50 of their cable bill go towards programming costs. Just getting rid of every network that’s not Nickelodeon on the list above takes out $15.70 of that total. Take out another 87 cents for ESPNU, NBCSN, and Golf Channel (based on numbers here). Take out another $5 for retransmission fees for broadcast stations, and another $3 for regional sports networks. Take out another $2.28 for another seven networks listed here, and around 10-20 cents for each additional network owned by one of these five companies in over 75 million households, so about 14-ish – let’s say that comes out to $2.15 so we get a nice, round number of dollars. That comes out to $29 in savings, over half of that $50 figure. That would mean a service from those four companies could cost as little as $21, about the same as Sling TV, though realistically in order to make up for the consequences it would charge at least $25. On the other hand, that figure also includes networks not owned by any of the Big Nine, as well as networks in under 75 million homes (which is still a substantial majority of homes), and it also undercounts the total for markets with multiple RSNs not counting college conference networks and might undercount the retransmission haul as well (not to mention the price for the remaining networks being taken out), so it’s possible the true figure might come down below $20. Viacom is the only company not already present in Sling TV, so if you take that as a baseline our service might cost as little as $10 just from taking Sling and removing the Disney networks, and if necessary Viacom has both the most expensive single network and a suite performing weak enough small cable operators are increasingly comfortable going without it and shareholders are questioning Sumner Redstone’s mental fitness to run the company, so jettisoning them would probably shave at least $2.40.

Whether $10, $20, or $25, what would that give the consumer? Well, there’d be an eclectic mix of documentary and lifestyle programming from the Discovery and Scripps networks. If you kept Viacom in the mix you’d have kids and family programming from Nickelodeon and Discovery Family, plus popular reality and other shows from MTV, VH1, and Spike, some of which might complement the Discovery/Scripps selection. Viacom would also have a back library of TV shows and it and AMC would have a decent movie selection, though maybe not on-demand, while AMC might also contribute some popular British shows from BBC America. And of course you’d have The Walking Dead and other popular and critically-acclaimed original shows from AMC, plus other original shows from OWN and the Viacom networks including South Park. Other than sports, the main thing you’d be lacking would be news or anything from the last decade that wasn’t originally produced for one of these networks (the main exceptions probably being on Comedy Central), and if you’re looking for anything specific associated with a network owned by one of the Sports Five you’d be out of luck, but as a complement to other services that exist such as Netflix and Hulu it could be a decently valuable collection, especially if you can price it substantially lower than Sling TV’s $20, and/or if Viacom brings enough value to the table to make up for the loss of the Disney and Turner networks.

Perhaps more important than the raw price, however, would be the fact anyone signed up for such a service would not be paying any form of sports tax. Unlike Sling TV, our service would allow anyone without a lick of interest in sports to get valuable cable content previously unavailable outside of a cable bundle without subsidizing a single sports network of any kind. That means even if it’s less popular than a Sling TV, if it gained any kind of traction whatsoever it would be a much bigger existential threat to the cable bundle and ESPN’s business model than anything else that exists so far. For the record, in the piece I linked to in my post a month ago about how a standalone ESPN would break up the cable bundle, the analyst in that piece specifically talks about a service consisting of precisely these four companies plus Turner, priced at $15 a month, suggesting $10 for these four companies alone is quite reasonable.

When talking about the cable-bundle business model, sports writers often note that just as non-sports fans subsidize sports networks, so do sports fans subsidize networks like AMC.  Of course, this attempt at equivocation, even if it comes down to a single sentence in an article, seems way overblown; if you believe the total amount being spent on the cable bundle reflects fair market value for whatever each consumer gets out of it, then if some networks are getting more than their open-market value others are getting less, and it seems likely that by and large, sports networks fall into the former category and most non-sports networks the latter. But in this area, the notion that non-sports networks are receiving some value from remaining attached to the cable bundle, and being subsidized by its sports fans, seems to be an important one. It is quite telling that while only two of the Sports Five are associated with Sling TV, three of the non-sports four are part of it. How much do Discovery, AMC, and Scripps continue to value remaining tied at the hip with ESPN, or at least keeping the cable bundle stable? Were they already aligned with Sling TV and either ESPN felt obligated to join them or Dish felt obligated to recruit them? Conversely, if ESPN came first, did they have any say in what other companies would be part of Sling TV? And how long until the calculus changes and these companies decide they have enough to gain to be worth defecting from, and thus potentially destroying, the cable bundle? Right now ESPN and the non-sports four need each other enough to be tied at the hip even into their ventures into OTT, even more than the companies with sports investments, but one day the time will come where ESPN needs them more than they need ESPN – or worse, they come to see their association with ESPN as a liability – and that may well be the day the cable bundle dies, or is at least terminally injured.

Cable Television Regulation for the Twenty-First Century

In its highfalutin’ ideals, the Internet is dedicated to the notion of delivering a world of information to all for free, accessible for all to contribute to, available whenever and wherever you want it. Cable television, by contrast, delivers only the content the cable company sees fit to provide you, the vast majority of it from nine companies and laid out on a rigid linear-television schedule, and forcing you to pay for all of it to get just the few programs you want. It is, in short, the antithesis of net neutrality, and as I laid out earlier, the cord-cutting debate is effectively a clash between the outdated vision for the provision of content and the new vision sweeping it aside.

It is therefore tempting to conclude that traditional, wired linear television has not only outlived its usefulness but needs to be actively destroyed to preserve the ideal of net neutrality, that any future it might have is only in schemes such as Comcast’s “Stream TV” that use the existence of linear television over traditional wires to circumvent net neutrality by providing preferential treatment to certain types of video content. But as I’ve chronicled, at least in the wireless context, linear television can not only play a key role in network management, traditional broadcast linear television can actually benefit net neutrality by allowing those tools to be accessible to as many potential programmers as possible and delivering it to everyone regardless of carrier.

Not all of these benefits can be directly transferred to the wired context. Most obviously, wired connections are inherently dominated by whatever company owns the wires and processes the connection; they are inherently going to have some control over what content can use the linear television wires. And if you believe that at some point, everyone is going to be fed by a direct fiber-optic connection, fiber-optics sees no benefits to linear television at all; each customer has its own fiber leading directly to the node and the rest of the system without being impacted by anyone else’s activity. Unless, that is, it’s set up in something like a passive optical network, which reduces the cost and amount of fiber needed to go into business by splitting one fiber to serve multiple endpoints, effectively delivering each customer’s content to every customer on the same splitter. It requires end-terminals to sort out what content belongs to which customer and encrypting content to prevent eavesdropping, but if I were running such a network I would look into a way to actually foster eavesdropping for live streaming video, so if someone is watching a game on ESPN3, anyone else on the same splitter that wants to watch the same game can ride on the first person’s stream, freeing up network capacity for everyone else.

This hints at what the future of wired linear television might look like on both coaxial cable and fiber-optic networks, blurring the lines between online and linear content so thoroughly it may be impossible for the end user to tell which is which; some WWE Network content might be delivered linearly, while in some areas a network like Logo might be delivered via IP. It doesn’t have to look like Stream TV, but it might have to adopt some of the less savory elements of T-Mobile’s Binge On, finding some way to identify live streams so they can be isolated and delivered once. It may also be beyond the capability of some providers to pull this off dynamically, certainly while minimizing lag; linear delivery may be something that has to be arranged ahead of time in some way. The key, then, is to figure out how to foster such a system while preserving the principle of net neutrality.

Last year I sent a Congressional committee 13 pages of comments explaining what principles I felt should underlie any revisions to the Communications Act to update its treatment of video for the Internet age. More recently my thoughts have coalesced with regards to how to regulate wired television to bring it into alignment and consistency with the principle of net neutrality and existing rules governing the Internet. To that end, here’s what it might look like:

  • No content delivered via linear television, particularly that not delivered over-the-air, can be withheld from delivery over the Internet, whether by the ISP or the content provider. This is a basic way to avoid using linear television as an end-around around net neutrality rules, and it also demonstrates an important difference between linear television now and going forward: it is no longer a prerequisite for the delivery of content. ISPs may no longer find it necessary to carry a linear television service at all. Really, the notion that cable operators are just a backdrop and infrastructure system through which programming is carried, which has little to no role in what programming it is, is one that probably should have taken hold several years ago as digital cable obviated the condition of scarcity that had governed the pay-TV industry, and certainly once Internet streaming became competitive; it’s still impossible for a cable operator to carry every would-be linear network, but the notion that your ability to watch a channel anyone would actually watch would be determined by what pay-TV operator you subscribe to seems not only quaint and outdated, but antithetical to net neutrality. In this vein:
  • If linear television is carried over any wired network, it should be controlled at the infrastructural level. I’ve seen suggestions to increase competition for Internet service by decoupling control of the infrastructure from the service delivered over the pipes, recognizing the natural monopoly the pipes themselves represent while still allowing ISPs to compete freely (i.e., without utility regulation) for the service delivered over them. If so, the same principle underlying broadcast television applies: the content allowed to benefit from linear television should be the same for everyone regardless of carrier. Any distinctions between the content available in different areas should be a natural result of the existence of different networks, without individual ISPs controlling what content you can and can’t watch and how easily you can do so.
  • Keep the existing must-carry rules. Ideally, broadcast television serves as a means to deliver the most popular content quickly and efficiently to a variety of devices. It’s reasonable to think that the same content would also be most popular over a wired connection. This rule would establish some degree of parity between wired and wireless video, ensuring the same content that benefits from linear television for the one gets the same benefit on the network with more capacity, and recognizes the original purpose of cable TV to deliver broadcast stations to areas their signals couldn’t reach. The increase in capacity may mean it’s actually not necessary to add any further linear channels beyond those provided by broadcast stations, but it’s reasonable to think video consumption would be higher, and be at higher quality, over a wired connection. If there is a need for further linear channels:
  • Forbid any monetary transactions as a condition of linear carriage between an ISP (or infrastructure authority) and a content provider, especially per-subscriber or per-viewer fees. Content providers may only charge consumers directly, though they may use any scheme they wish to do so as long as the ISP (or infrastructure authority) is not directly involved. This rule ensures that potential network strain is the only factor going into what channels are carried linearly, and should render retransmission consent unnecessary and contradictory. Net-neutrality foes and general free-market advocates may look at this rule and think it’s cutting off “innovative” business models, but because in this model linear television is a means for smoothing over the transmission of content that is being made available through the Internet anyway, one that should reduce the costs to both parties relative to the alternative as the number of viewers goes up, there should be no relationship between the costs of maintaining a linear feed and the number of subscribers an ISP has that would have access to the feed or the number of people using it; the costs of providing the feed should be the same regardless of how many people are on the network or can view the feed, indeed that’s entirely the point of linear television in the 21st century. The cost of providing and acquiring the content (an issue concerning the consumer) should be a separate issue from the cost of delivering it (an issue concerning the content provider and ISP). There is therefore no good reason to charge ISPs anything other than a flat fee (and even that’s questionable; small ISPs wouldn’t be too hurt by being unable to amortize the cost across more customers because they’d have less need for linear TV to begin with, but any sort of payment scheme might create the same imbalance that made retransmission consent necessary), and for an ISP to charge a content provider would amount to exactly the sort of “paid prioritization” net neutrality advocates fear so much.
  • Impose effective protections against discrimination and an effective dispute resolution process. Again, the only factor that should go into whether any programming is or is not offered linearly is its raw popularity, and any content popular enough to warrant it should have the opportunity to use it regardless of their level of resources or connections. This does not mean disadvantaged groups or public entities should have a blanket right to a linear stream; again, a linear channel is not a prerequisite for the delivery of content, and in some cases what they’re looking for no longer even needs to be video. In many cases these entities seek to take advantage of the modern cable-bundle model to acquire production and distribution resources on par with more well-heeled groups they might not be able to attain if they were forced to stand and fall on their own merits. It may be desirable to introduce new programs to benefit minorities and open up the possibility of using franchise fees on ISPs to fund the production of video and other content by public entities (similar to today’s “public, educational, and governmental channel” system), but linear television is irrelevant to that discussion and shouldn’t be hijacked to attain those goals.
  • The quality of a linear stream must be the same across all platforms and an ISP (or infrastructure authority) must not degrade it. Because an ISP does not have to carry a channel (except for a broadcast station) for its customers to have access to the programming on it, there is no reason for an ISP to reduce the quality of a stream in order to fit in more streams. If a content provider offers its stream at too high a quality and causes all ISPs to balk at carrying it, that’s a market signal to reduce the quality of the linear stream. There is one exception to this rule: because the main purpose of over-the-air broadcasting is to reach mobile devices, it may be beneficial for broadcasters to offer wired services their content at a higher quality than they broadcast it over the air.
  • Consider imposing restrictions on how many streams one entity can control 24/7 (or otherwise beyond particular events) on one set of wires. Ideally, impose some degree of parity in ownership restrictions between broadcast and wired linear networks. In particular, ISPs should be severely restricted in how many linear streams over their own wires they directly control the content of. In general, consider moving to the Canadian system where the FCC has as much latitude to regulate cable networks as they do broadcast networks.

These rules provide a baseline to move wired linear television away from being a marketplace defined by 1990s rules and market realities and towards becoming a tool that enables the benefits of both linear television and the Internet to be available to all, consistent with the ideals of net neutrality. They hold the potential to usher in the dawn of a new era of consumer choice that frees Americans from the paradigm of having one’s entertainment options dictated by the cable company and enables them to choose from a menu of options that provide value to them. It’s my hope that this provides a framework for policymakers to rethink the wired television landscape and for the American public to imagine what it might look like.

The Cable Industry’s Fight to Define What the Video Revolution Is Really About

An important step in the dissolution of the distinction between linear television and online video content was taken (or at least started) this week when FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler called for the introduction of a new standard to make cable TV content available to devices other than the cable company-provided boxes most people pay handsome monthly rental fees for, allowing people to watch both pay TV content and streaming video on a single box.

Immediately, the cable industry tore into Wheeler’s proposal, forming something called the Future of TV Coalition to be the public front to its opposition. Most of the critiques I’ve seen of their criticisms don’t seem to go much further than just dismissing it as whining about potentially losing their lucrative set-top-box rental fees, but that may be because it comes off as completely unhinged, seemingly attacking a completely different plan than what consumer groups and Wheeler are advocating and making points the proposal has already addressed or that make no sense, a strawman bearing no resemblance to what’s actually on the table. They claim the proposal would allow tech companies to cut up and resell pay TV content as their own, but it makes no sense and there’s no reason to believe that people wouldn’t still pay their cable company to deliver content, only having a choice in what device would deliver that content. They claim the proposal would allow tech companies to muck with channel ordering and numbering in violation of contractural agreements, when it would be trivial to require any interface to leave the channel lineup alone (or at best to leave any reordering to the consumer). They claim the proposal would mandate the installation of an additional box when the proposal specifically advocates a software-based solution, the whole idea of which is to allow the provision of pay-TV content on boxes that already exist (including cable companies’ own boxes) or on no box at all. They claim the proposal would strip out security and privacy protections when the whole point of it is to arrive at some sort of solution to deliver those protections and credentials to independent boxes for them to process just as today’s cable boxes do.

Though the cable industry has publicly supported past and present efforts to open up the set-top box market, and claims to be all for opening up access to a wide variety of devices, they spend a lot more time bashing the FCC’s proposal than suggesting their own alternative, despite claiming not to know exactly what the FCC’s proposal is. Instead, the closest they come to suggesting an alternative is to repeat the word “apps” over and over. The commission’s proposal, they claim, is unnecessary because Tim Cook says “the future of TV is apps” reflecting the “apps revolution” of consumers, programmers, and cable companies embracing the “apps-based model” making “apps” available to millions of devices and apps apps apps apps apps.

If it seems odd that consumer groups, tech companies, and the FCC would be against television delivered through apps, given the entire backdrop under which this whole thing is taking place, that’s because they aren’t; indeed, the proposal specifically names “app developers” as being among those that would have access to the necessary data to effectively and securely deliver pay-TV content. So it’s not clear what the cable industry means by the “app-based approach” that wouldn’t include the very concept they’re contrasting it to. What they seem to be trying to say is that the FCC doesn’t need to do anything at all, because the existing apps available already deliver pay-TV content to the sorts of devices that would benefit under the proposal (not that that would keep them from pushing expensive cable box rentals on people) – though it’s not clear what kind of apps they mean, because they alternately cite both TV Everywhere apps provided by programmers as well as cable companies’ own apps, all in order to support letting the market do its work rather than an actual, concrete proposal. Certainly what they say sounds reasonable enough at first glance, but what sort of “apps-based approach” do they actually advocate, and what exactly is the problem consumer groups and the FCC have with it?

Well, according to the report released by the FCC’s Downloadable Security Committee, cable companies’ proposal would involve delivering content to devices using an app and user interface provided by the cable company, leaving consumer groups concerned about precluding other entities from innovating with their own user interfaces. Of course, forcing people to use a single app to access all linear cable TV content is precisely the opposite of what the “apps revolution” is actually about: decentralizing access to content and allowing content providers to offer their wares to consumers directly, with an experience they can control themselves.

The cable industry seems to believe, or wants the FCC or public to believe, that cable companies’ services themselves are the product, rather than the content offered through those services, even though that content is mostly the same from one cable company to another. This belief is betrayed in their listing of the top “video subscription services”, which lists the streaming services Netflix and Hulu alongside the top cable operators and satellite providers, as though Netflix and Hulu’s primary competition were cable companies themselves, not, as Netflix itself has identified, content providers like HBO. Perhaps cable companies’ greatest fear isn’t losing the billions of dollars in set-top box rental fees, but that in divorcing them of that the FCC might recognize that the real “future of TV” is one dominated and identified by content providers, with cable companies merely providing the backbone through which that content is delivered, and that they might accelerate that future by providing the tools for their wares to be offered through an experience completely divorced from the cable companies’ control. To be sure, content providers might feed this misconception; the contractural concerns such as channel placement cable companies worry about the FCC’s proposal undermining are rooted in a notion of a single lineup of numerical channels defined by the cable company, and perhaps a proposal that makes it irrelevant is one that should be considered and adopted. Content providers would no longer be able to get cable companies to try to force-feed their content by placing it near content that’s actually popular, but even their own TV Everywhere apps (which would seem to have little reason to exist on smart TVs and devices like Roku as it stands) would stand to benefit by being able to access the cable company’s linear feeds directly, strengthening their own brand by making it easier for those apps to become the primary gateway to their content.

The cable industry is right that the “apps revolution” is changing the way we watch TV. The reason they’re opposing the FCC’s proposal so strenuously is that they know it holds the potential to make it all the more successful at it.

Towards a New Broadcast Television Compact

A common line of argument used to support policies that hurt broadcasters is that broadcasters received their spectrum for free. Cable companies complaining about how slanted retransmission consent supposedly is towards broadcasters claim the government requires them to carry all broadcast stations on the basic tier – broadcasters, they point out, who receive their spectrum for free. Whenever broadcasters complain about the many, many problems with the incentive auction, they are told they received their spectrum for free and they should count themselves lucky they’re receiving anything for it now. The government itself, in the form of the FCC and Congress, justify imposing regulations on content, such as decency restrictions and the E/I and public interest requirements, as part of the deal broadcasters have: they received their spectrum for free, and this is what they must do in return to serve the public interest.

That deal is the one that was struck all the way back in the Communications Act of 1934, and even back in the Radio Act of 1927 that established the FCC’s predecessor and put television under its purview back when it was still just an experiment. The idea back then was that, since no one could truly “own” the airwaves, the government would grant licences to stations to broadcast over them to serve the public interest, paid for by ads and available for anyone with a receiver to tune in for free. This was in contrast to the model taking shape in most other countries, especially Europe, where the government controlled most broadcasting and ran, or at least supported, the dominant broadcaster(s). America, by contrast, allowed the private sector to control the airwaves for free, so long as they used it to serve the public interest and made it available to everyone for free.

This worked well for a time when broadcasters had a monopoly on video content outside the movie theater, and when there were only three major networks providing programming. Some questioned the quality of the entertainment programming, but broadcasters provided high-quality news and affairs programming, and while the First Amendment meant the government couldn’t outright crack down on criticism of the government – it’s doubtful Walter Cronkite would have been able to criticize America’s involvement in Vietnam if he worked for a government broadcaster – the public-interest obligation and government licences allowed the FCC to crack down on stations that attempted to use their valuable spectrum to disseminate propaganda, which it used on several Southern stations that broadcast an anti-civil-rights message.

It began to break down, though, with the dawn of cable television networks. Since cable networks didn’t use the public airwaves, Congress decided it fell outside the FCC’s purview, meaning they didn’t have to follow any of the restrictions on content applied to broadcast stations. Rather than repeal those restrictions, though, Congress added more of them, especially in response to complaints over the “30-minute toy commercials” that took over Saturday mornings in the 80s, which only hastened the slow demise of Saturday morning children’s television completely as the shows kids actually wanted to watch moved to channels like Nickelodeon. The existence of “narrowcast” channels like Nickelodeon and ESPN themselves were increasingly not possible on broadcast television even as the digital transition expanded the number of channels available; subchannels had to earn their public-interest and E/I keep even if they had no interest in forwarding them or were trying to compete with networks that didn’t have to follow them. The idea, presumably, is to ensure some channels are furthering the public interest, educating and informing the public while serving as a safe haven from the sex and violence on cable, but by forcing every broadcast station to meet that standard, while expecting them to compete for advertising dollars with cable networks not so constrained and requiring them to offer their wares for free, Congress and the FCC are effectively forcing every broadcast station to follow the public-television model to some degree.

Perhaps that might be a fair price to pay for broadcasters’ “free spectrum”… except that as I’ve chronicled time and time again over the past few years, the technology of broadcasting is valuable in its own right as the Internet takes over the distribution of video, as the best, most efficient way to deliver content to a bunch of people trying to watch the same thing at the same time, especially to mobile devices where using over-the-air spectrum is the only way to deliver content, over-the-air spectrum that is inherently more constrained than a wired Internet connection. The FCC is about to auction off broadcast television spectrum to wireless carriers that need it, to the extent they need it at all, to deliver video, and AT&T and Verizon are working on technologies to use their own spectrum to effectively build their own broadcast networks, which will likely deliver much the same content between them but force you to sign up for one of their carriers to receive it. It would seem the public interest today is served by some sort of platform-, device- and carrier-agnostic service to deliver video, especially video people want to watch at the same time, without running up against data caps, but as it stands no one would want to buy a broadcast station for the purpose of such a service – it’d be useless for something like Game of Thrones that would run afoul of the decency standards, and they would need to meet the public-interest and E/I requirements even if they have no interest or ability to do so, and even if such content would have no reason to have a place on a linear television schedule, not to mention that they would need to operate such a service on the back of advertising (or donations) alone, unless they wanted to take retransmission consent, and if they did why are they running a broadcast station and not a cable network?

Clearly, the old broadcast television compact is outdated in an age where broadcasting is expected to compete with platforms not bound by it, and if we want broadcasting to continue to survive and thrive for years to come, we need a new compact. We need a service that serves as a complement to the Internet at large and a means to further our goals for it, a vision of over-the-air broadcasting as a fundamental part of the Internet, not merely an alternative as broadcasting was expected to be for cable. What we need from broadcasters today is to serve as a platform for any content that wishes to minimize the cost, whether to itself or to Internet providers, of reaching a large number of people, a means of ensuring a high-quality stream for all customers regardless of provider or the content producer’s resources while minimizing the demand for spectrum, simultaneously a control on and release valve for the big wireless carriers.

This platform can’t be placed under the control of those big wireless carriers or wired Internet providers, but to the greatest degree possible, should be open to whoever wishes to take advantage of it. The principle of the free market should apply here; neither the government, Internet providers, or a single large corporation or group of corporations should control what content gets to use this platform, but rather it should be decentralized among as diverse a collection of voices as is possible. Because the existence of this platform is valuable in its own right, there is plenty of reason to offer it to those already taking advantage of it for no greater cost than the opportunity cost of not surrendering it to wireless providers and without further strings attached, and doing the same for new entrants if there is enough spectrum available for all of them, but if there is enough demand to warrant auctioning off new channels the government can certainly do so.

The principle of the free market, and of fostering a vital technology within the overall system for the distribution of content, also means that requiring certain kinds of content on every channel, and certainly prohibiting certain kinds of content that might otherwise warrant taking advantage of the platform, makes no sense and at best bears no relevance to the goal or the technology; leave the furtherance of whatever specific public-interest goals interest groups want to the public stations and let the free market reign on the remaining stations. And as much as it pains me to say this, it also means letting go of the notion that broadcast television needs to be made available to consumers for free. If a pay-per-view event or something on a subscription service would still attract a large enough audience to warrant taking advantage of the broadcast platform, it should be able to do so, although the government may want a piece of the resulting fees. I have no doubt that in most cases the free market will reward content targeted at the broadest possible audience with the lowest barriers to entry.

The success of any platform depends on its attractiveness to the most popular content that can take advantage of it, which usually means the largest players in the space. Right now broadcasting is only marginally popular by that standard, even though it is tailor-made for popularity. We need to let go of outdated regulations holding broadcast back in order to create the video distribution system of the 21st century, and that means not being led astray by the 20th century vision of broadcasting that spawned them.

TGTSTG Bonus Content: The Saga of the Longhorn Network

ESPN and Fox had saved the Big 12. Their commitment to pay the Big 12 the same with 10 schools as with 12 schools, coupled with virtually the entire college football world outside the Pac-10 converging to try to prevent conference realignment Armageddon, enabled Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe to offer Texas, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma enough of a financial inducement to stay in their conference and not defect to the Pac-10. Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds effectively said as much, though not in so many words. Though a Longhorns network was “really important” to the school, and a move to the Pac-10 would have precluded that by forcing the school to surrender their rights to the conference for their own network, it wasn’t the “deal-breaker” to back out of the deal. Chris Plonsky, who headed the school’s women’s sports, similarly said that the ability to start a network wasn’t the “linchpin” that kept them in the Big 12, but it was a “very important variable”. Certainly it was a key element allowing the math to work out, and was widely perceived as the bedrock on which the foundation of the entire conference would be built going forward. Unlike other conferences that could plausibly claim to have an all-for-one, one-for-all mentality, the Big 12, it was just made clear, existed only because Texas allowed it to exist, and Texas allowed it to exist because it could collect much more money than the conference’s other schools, with many millions staked on a Longhorn network, an entire network dedicated to one school and potentially beamed directly into the campuses of many of its conference rivals, that would prevent the Big 12 from even considering going down the conference network path their peers were headed down. But Texas, despite having one of the biggest brand names and fan bases in college sports, was about to learn starting their own network would not be easy.

If anyone was as disappointed in the outcome as Larry Scott and the Pac-12, it was probably cable operators and satellite providers across the country. The formation of a handful of superconferences at least would have kept to a minimum the number of networks each of them would have tried to launch. Now, however, Texas, Oklahoma, and even Missouri were each talking about launching their own networks, and it wasn’t clear whether or not SEC or ACC schools would try to follow suit. There seemed to be a sense that launching a network was an automatic ATM guaranteed to let the money flow in. Cable operators wanted to make clear that things were not that easy and that they would take steps to protect their bottom line, and potentially, their customers’ bills. And they intended to make an example out of a Longhorn network.

Perhaps sensing the uphill battle ahead, Texas planned to invest no money in the enterprise and carry no risk if it failed. It would find a partner that could help with distribution and was willing to shoulder all the risk. Fox seemed to be the early leader in the clubhouse; it held most of the rights a new network would need and could conceivably use FSN’s existing deals with cable operators and satellite providers to get the network widely distributed right from the start. Fox also had experience partnering with the Big Ten on the Big Ten Network, something the other major contender, ESPN, had no experience in. But ESPN was able to make a renewed push to score the rights to, and full ownership of, the Longhorn Network. It would have to launch the network from scratch and go through all the bruising battles with cable operators, but as it turned out, if Texas did have to launch the network from scratch, it couldn’t ask for a better partner than ESPN.

The road was very bumpy to start. Even before engaging in high-level negotiations with cable operators, the network had an early misstep when ESPN decided it would be a good idea to air high-school football game, only for other schools to wonder whether that might violate NCAA recruiting rules or otherwise give Texas a recruiting advantage above and beyond that represented by the network itself. That, coupled with ESPN securing the rights to a conference football game, caused some to wonder whether the conference was on the brink of collapse again, and helped push Texas A&M and Missouri to jump ship to the SEC.

Meanwhile, ESPN went to distributors asking for 40 cents a subscriber, expensive for a cable channel but chump change compared to major-conference and regional sports networks (BTN started out charging 70 cents). Nonetheless, as the launch approached the network was far apart in talks with Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, and Comcast, in part because of the uncertainty surrounding high school and conference games, and in DirecTV’s case, because they wanted to wait for conference realignment to settle down (A&M was actively engaged in negotiations with the SEC as the network launched). It did have a deal with Verizon, but lacking a deal with TWC meant most people in Austin and a substantial proportion of people across the state wouldn’t be able to watch Texas’ 2011 home football opener against Rice. With even Verizon’s deal not kicking in until about a week after the network launched, the Longhorn Network opened in just 20,000 households. For all the controversy the network had engendered, almost no one, even within Austin let alone the state of Texas, could see it, and in a prelude to the CSN Houston and SportsNet LA showdowns to come, cable and satellite operators were remaining steadfast; by June, TWC and DirecTV weren’t even talking about carrying the network.

The network added AT&T U-Verse in time for the 2012 season, but the network was starting to look like folly; Oklahoma had gone deep into negotiations with Fox on a branded network, but what eventually emerged was merely a block of programming on Fox’s existing regional sports networks, while football coach Mack Brown, always uncomfortable with the level of access LHN wanted, seemed to imply that the distractions and added intelligence LHN provided may have contributed to Texas’ slow start that season. By 2013, it looked like LHN would enter a third season still without coverage on the largest distributors, casting a shadow over ESPN’s efforts to launch the SEC Network.

But just as the season prepared to begin, ESPN finally reached an agreement for Time Warner Cable to carry the Longhorn network. In March 2014, Disney reached a wide-ranging deal with Dish Network that included carriage for the Longhorn and SEC Networks, with DirecTV doing the same in December. What, exactly, changed to cause such a breakthrough, and whether it was a concession more on ESPN’s part or with distributors, may never be known, but one thing that is clear is that ESPN’s leverage with its panopoly of other networks was key to securing deals, certainly with satellite providers. Would the Longhorn Network have been able to overcome its early struggles to secure deals with distributors with any other partner, or certainly if Texas had opted to go it alone? It’s a question worth asking, and it helps explain why the ACC is still thinking about pursuing a network as a conference rather than individual schools looking into their own networks. Ultimately, the Longhorn Network’s success, as qualified as it is, may have more to do with the power of ESPN’s brand than Texas’.

Note: I’m probably not going to finish this initial series of Bonus Content posts this week; among other things, I still need to help put the finishing touches on the paperback. Hopefully the entire series will be done by the end of next week with whatever other posts I want to put together coming out over the rest of the month.

A Last-Ditch Case for Moving the Raiders, Not the Rams or Chargers, to Los Angeles

It’s looking increasingly like Los Angeles’ long national NFL-less nightmare is coming to an end. A week ago, the Chargers, Raiders, and Rams all filed paperwork to move their respective teams to the Los Angeles area. The Los Angeles Times reports momentum is building behind a proposal to have the Chargers and Rams share a stadium in Inglewood backed by Rams owner E. Stan Kroenke. Chargers owner Dean Spanos is sticking by his own proposal for a stadium in Carson shared with the Raiders, but there seems to be a lot more momentum behind the Inglewood project among the league’s other owners.

Which is good! The notion that half the AFC West would be playing in the same stadium always seemed kind of harebrained to me; that works in the NBA where the only division and conference divisions are geographical, but it smacks of absurdity in the NFL, where New York, the Baltimore-Washington corridor, and most two-team states are evenly balanced between AFC and NFC. It would also cause a television nightmare forcing a large number of crossflexes and/or primetime games to allow LA to see both teams (though they are the only two Pacific-time teams in the division, so Denver and Kansas City could play early when hosting one of them). I’m not convinced LA can actually support two teams, but if it is the second team was pretty much always going to be the Rams.

I also understand why the Chargers and not the Raiders are the AFC team with momentum behind a move to LA. All three markets have turned against the publicly-funded stadium charade and have done little to nothing to help any of the teams secure a new stadium in their home market, and don’t seem to have much support even among fans; in all likelihood, at least one of the teams was going to have to go back to a still-unsettled stadium situation. The Chargers have long seemed further apart with San Diego on a new stadium than the Raiders have with Oakland, and the Raiders have long been the black sheep of the league thanks to their rowdy fans; even LA politicians don’t seem to want the Raiders to return to LA.

But it’s at least conceivable that the NFL might still have a future in San Diego or certainly St. Louis. I’m not sure the NFL has a future in Oakland. The Times suggests that any deal that kept the Raiders in Oakland would include streamlining the process for them to move somewhere else, namely San Diego, St. Louis, or the 49ers stadium in Santa Clara. If it were the Chargers forced to stay put, St. Louis would be their only option. Only the Raiders can make the Bay Area a two-team market; for any other team, it’s not worth it. If a team is going to leave a market for another market, only for a team from a third market, already under consideration for moving to the second market, to fill the void in the first market, what was the point? Why not move the third market’s team to the second market to begin with?

Moreover, the Raiders’ problems seem deeper than those of the Chargers or Rams. The Raiders probably need a change of stadium more than any other team; they’re the last team to share their stadium with a baseball team, and that stadium is a literal sewage dump. Qualcomm Stadium and the Edward Jones Dome have their own problems, but by comparison with the Raiders, they smack of just another couple of owners upset that their stadiums don’t allow them to wine and dine the 1% enough. Even beyond the stadium situation, the Raiders seem to be slowly divorcing themselves from the Bay Area. A few years ago, a brawl between fans at a preseason game between the Raiders and 49ers resulted in the termination of the Raiders-49ers preseason series. Without a geographic rivalry preseason game, there’s barely any point to sharing a market.

While Angelenos themselves seem to want the Rams to return more than any other team, the Raiders certainly place second in terms of teams with roots in the area; the Chargers may have been based in LA their first few years in the AFL, but today’s Angelenos have no connection to them despite the best efforts of the Spanos family, while Ice Cube made an entire documentary a few years ago about the degree to which the Raiders became part of the identity of the city during their relatively brief time there. More than the importance of the Raiders to LA’s identity, though, is the importance of LA to the Raiders’ identity. As much as the suit-and-tie executives running the other teams or calling the shots in LA politics may not like the Raiders’ image, it’s one of the few remaining marks of authenticity in an increasingly corporatized league, and the Raiders would not be the Raiders outside Oakland or Los Angeles. The Raiders’ identity is wrapped up in their working-class roots and West Coast, California attitude; moving them to San Diego or St. Louis just because those cities are free would betray that (San Diego is enough of a vacation spot to undermine its other virtues), and moving them to Levi’s Stadium with its wall of luxury boxes also would mark the corporatization of the team, even if it happened against the Davis family’s wishes. (Besides the fact it would likely mean teams called “San Francisco” and “Oakland” would be playing in a stadium located in neither city, an outcome nearly as absurd as two AFC West teams in the same stadium.)

To be clear, I would, all things considered, be fine with the Chargers and Rams moving to LA, certainly compared to an all-AFC move, but I do think it would likely result in one of the teams angling to leave within a decade. But please, NFL owners, don’t let your quest to take advantage of the loyalty of NFL fans to appeal to corporate suits at all costs and desire to still have a “relocation magnet” city (which the deteriorating situations with these teams suggests is becoming a less potent tactic anyway) blind you to the facts on the ground. For once, let common sense reign. If you move two teams to LA, please, at least give serious consideration to restoring the status quo ante 1995.

TGTSTG Bonus Content: How European Soccer Conquered America (With Fox’s Help)

Chapter 3 of the book devotes three sections to soccer, and that was cut down from my initial draft of that part of the book. Because of the number of different important competitions represented, soccer presented several different examples of the fight between different sports outfits to pick up rights, and the most obvious example I found of how smaller, more niche sports and competitions benefitted from the competition. Even if soccer weren’t enjoying a boom in popularity, there would probably be a lot of it available on sports networks in the digital-cable era, especially given how much of it airs at times when no American sports are on. But my initial draft of the chapter would have spent a lot more time on the soccer boom itself, and just how much Fox Sports World/Fox Soccer Channel, and later ESPN’s World Cup coverage, contributed to it.

If I had to guess, I doubt anyone at Fox had any high-minded notions of increasing soccer’s popularity in the United States when they launched Fox Sports World. They just wanted to get their piece of the digital cable boom and supplement the Fox Sports Net group of regional sports networks they were building, and international rights Fox already held was an easy way to build such a network. Besides the rights Fox owned itself, the Prime network that was FSN’s foundation had aired a weekly hour-long highlight show of matches from England’s Premier League until losing the rights to ESPN in 1996, as well as airing the 1995 FA Cup final live, and operated a Spanish-language RSN in the Los Angeles area Fox converted into the (nationwide) Spanish-language version of Fox Sports World. To be sure, Fox ran an ad campaign for the network centered around its soccer coverage during the 1998 World Cup, less than a year into the network’s existence (until ESPN put the kibosh on cable companies and ABC affiliates running ads for a competitor), but Peter Ligouri, head of marketing for the division that included Fox Sports World and FSN, claimed the ads were targeted at people who were already familiar with the world-class leagues Fox Sports World aired. “We are not trying to grow the sport, we are trying to showcase our inventory,” he said. Even within Fox, it must have seemed doubtful anyone would be interested in FSW’s programming other than expatriates looking to keep up with the action back home.

Two years later, though, people at Fox were already starting to change their tune, as a quote from FSW’s then-general manager in the book shows. Fox Sports World’s programs, later Fox Soccer Channel’s programs, may have been shot out of broom closets at public-access budgets, but besides exposing many would-be soccer fans to action never before available in America (or in many cases, outside their home country) before, it served as a place where they could get soccer news and information at a time when the Internet was in its infancy, and became the hub of an entire soccer community, one destined to change the course of American soccer history. Their impact was already being felt in the aftermath of the 2006 World Cup, when they expressed outrage with ESPN’s lead announcer, Dave O’Brien, a baseball announcer with limited soccer experience. As a result, part of John Skipper’s strategy for the 2010 Cup was to build an announce team consisting entirely of British announcers known for their work on the Premier League – mostly people that had appeared on ESPN’s coverage they had already begun sub-licencing from Fox.

Jon Miller, who helped create the NHL’s Winter Classic and became President of Programming for NBC Sports after the Comcast acquisition, tells a story about getting up early on a Saturday morning to play golf, only a year or two after the 2006 World Cup, and seeing the surprising sight of his son, having come in late the previous night, up barely five hours later watching Manchester United play. His other son also got up early to watch Liverpool games, and he saw other neighborhood kids get up at the crack of dawn to watch the Premier League. “I said to myself, ‘There’s got to be something here to this.’ If you don’t learn from your kids you’re making a big mistake,” he reflected several years later. It was his first inkling of just how powerful a property the Premier League could be, and how successful it was already being for Fox Soccer, which would soon become Nielsen-rated and put numbers on the Premier League’s stateside popularity.

MLS, which had attempted to court youth soccer players at its launch, pivoted to embrace a more European model of soccer fandom based on older fans with more of a connection to the team. Seattle Sounders FC was a pioneer of the strategy; it reached out to local bars and restaurants at its launch and capitalized on many older fans’ connection with the team’s prior incarnation in the NASL, and was rewarded by shooting to the top of the league’s attendance charts, pulling in attendance figures higher than most MLS stadiums even held in capacity (many of them “soccer-specific stadiums” built in the preceding decade) and that would put them in the middle of the pack in the Premier League. By 2015, when the new New York City FC club created a new intra-New York rivalry, both sides did their best to try to imitate the European model of soccer fandom – in both its best and worst aspects: in August, fans of NYCFC and the older Red Bulls threw sandwich boards and curses at each other and sang taunts straight out of the English playbook. Thanks in part to increased interest in the league and the increased rights haul from the most recent television deal, MLS has also become a more attractive destination for players from around the world, even some in the prime of their careers, particularly from Latin America.

As for Fox Soccer, the international soccer fanbase it helped build not only proved its undoing, it ended up turning on its creator, the result both of its increased power as the fight for sports on cable heated up and the increased attention soccer was getting from people higher up the chain of command. Towards the end of Fox Soccer’s run, Fox began making a number of moves to target the general American sports market that succeeded only in alienating the hardcore soccer community it had built, the most infamous of them being an attempt to groom Gus Johnson as “the voice of American soccer”. Johnson had become a cult figure with his exuberant calls in the NCAA basketball tournament, but putting him on high-profile Champions League, Premier League, and FA Cup matches with next to no soccer experience only led to him becoming nearly as reviled as O’Brien among soccer fans. The Johnson experiment and other ill-fated moves, and a general perception of falling behind ESPN in production quality, meant many soccer fans weren’t all that broken up to see Fox Soccer go. Fox Soccer, the chief vector for the increasing popularity of the sport in the United States, had ended up collapsing under the weight of the very phenomenon it helped spawn.