The major news of the past week in sports arguably had nothing to do with any game that was actually played, or any athlete. It was ESPN making a bid for the rights to the BCS that would have put all five games – including the Rose Bowl they already have a contract through 2014 for – on ESPN, not ABC. It may be too late to do anything about it even if Da Blog had some audience, as Fox’s deadline is already up today and they aren’t matching the offer. Only serving as a backdrop to that news is ESPN signing up for British Open rights and NASCAR’s Heidi Game. I didn’t have much to say on the subject for Da Blog last week, so this post will largely serve as a commentary to the commentary already posted on Sports Media Watch and Fang’s Bites. And Eye on Sports Media, but only the part about the NASCAR “AFHV Race” has been posted yet.
But I do have some original thoughts on the matter:
This is the exact opposite of what should be happening.
Yet any observer should have seen it coming from a mile away, just not this soon.
Before I begin, let me just make a note: This post has nothing to do with your opinion on a college football playoff, or whether moving the BCS to ESPN helps or hurts the playoff cause. As much as the BCS may stink, it’s the system we have, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to make sure it’s as strong as possible except when it comes to a playoff, because when the BCS is strong college football is strong.
Remember back in August, when I got all hot and bothered about the digital transition and talked about how antennas are still around and better than ever, and conscientious consumers who have no need for cable channels had no reason to keep subscribing to cable or satellite? And how the digital transition made it possible for broadcast television and its multitude of subchannels to potentially give cable a run for its money?
Ideally we’d be seeing already a depowering of cable and a bulking up of broadcast’s muscle. The BCS should be scared to death of the potential lost audience and stature brought by moving to ESPN, if not by the potential ridiculousness of most of the major college football games and – for the moment – four non-BCS bowls airing on broadcast but the biggest bowls of them all airing on pay TV, where about 10% of the audience now (and that number, while it will shrink in the short term, is only going to grow) won’t be able to see them. And 10% is not trivial; the National Championship and Rose Bowl are the only two bowls that regularly draw that much of the total audience between broadcast and cable.
But in that same post, I also mentioned that no one has an interest in telling you to ditch cable and/or the dish. The cable companies don’t have an interest, the providers are too small, peripheral, and one-time to have a credible interest, the regulatory agencies have had eight years of not having an interest, even TV stations themselves have no interest even as they advertise the transition, advertisements that are mostly about not losing the customers they have.
That last point might not necessarily be the case, certainly for the broadcast networks (unless they nip a piece of their stations’ retransmission-consent deals), because this might be for their very survival.
Really, the only reason ESPN airs any sports bigger than the WNBA is because they have an unfair natural advantage over broadcast networks. They collect a piece of subscriber fees from cable companies and broadcast networks do not. These days, almost all sports is little more than a loss leader for the Big Four networks (except maybe the Super Bowl and Olympics), there only to serve as a platform to promote other programming. (For this reason, there may come a day where to stay on broadcast, a sporting event would need to rate higher than primetime programming. For that reason, there’s a part of me that’s wondering what the chances are/would have been for the CW or My Network TV, two networks that struggle even to break 2 ratings with their best programming, to swoop to the rescue here.) Judging by a comment on the SMW post, that might not even be because of production costs (although other than news, sports is the only thing networks produce themselves), but simply because the rise of cable channels like ESPN has hiked rights fees to the moon. (If broadcast networks want to keep doing sports, they might want to do what I suggested in the last paragraph and take a piece of stations’ retransmission-consent deals.)
(In my opinion, neither ABC nor especially Fox really gave the BCS enough of a big-event feel to serve its promotional purpose. Except in years like the one when USC and Texas met, March Madness feels bigger than the BCS, even when the BCS National Championship is consistently higher rated. I suggest the BCS Championship Game be moved to a weekend to allow for a semi-lengthy pregame show. Of course, part of the problem is also that there’s no playoff to build anticipation to the championship game.)
Sports Media Watch considers a world in which just about every major sporting event could potentially move to cable. If this goes through, it would have to be only a matter of time before the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs moved exclusively to Versus or ESPN in the United States, and the MLS Cup would probably also make such a move. Those are the boneheaded, obvious moves. Had the IRL made its recent deal with Versus after the BCS made their move, they might not have blinked twice about moving the Indy 500 to cable as well. Tennis’ majors might, for the most part, become cable-exclusive. Those are still boneheadedly obvious considered in the context of the British Open deal.
No, SMW raises a boogeyman that – whether Paulsen realizes it or not – has been around virtually since the instant ESPN landed its first NFL deal: the prospect of people having to pay to watch the Super Bowl. It hasn’t happened yet, but paying to watch the BCS is surely a giant step. With everything the BCS is higher rated than, this creates the very plausible scenario of the World Series, NBA Finals, March Madness, Daytona 500, horse racing’s Triple Crown, and the other three golf majors – and maybe even early rounds of the NFL playoffs – moving to cable as well. Leagues that have to worry about losing an antitrust exemption from Congress, such as the NFL and MLB, might reluctantly turn down such an offer, but the BCS is only five bowls so it doesn’t have to worry about such a thing. You might think the NCAA would be thinking of their students but an inexorable drive to ESPN has been happening there as well (the Women’s Final Four was on CBS not that long ago). I don’t even know if the NBA has an exemption to worry about.
Paulsen ends with: “While sporting events on broadcast still draw the highest ratings, the relative success of Monday Night Football and baseball’s League Championship Series on cable is evidence that the majority of the television audience can find marquee events on any network. At this point, broadcast television no longer needs sports, and vice versa.”
Um, no, sports does still need broadcast television thank you very much. If the BCS moves to ESPN, it’s only one step in a long-running expensivization of sports, from rising ticket prices (and evidence that if sports teams charged market rate prices would be WAY higher) to the rise of ESPN and beyond. If sports keeps raising the price of admission for everything as far as it will go, especially in poor, blue-collar areas like Detroit, it will lose its soul. It will stop being a point of civic pride for people of all means and become a form of entertainment for the rich. If the BCS moves to cable it will surely dilute ratings for the entire season (the next two seasons’ MLB ratings on Fox may be a referendum on this, given the drama that played out in the ALCS on TBS); why follow the play for free when you can’t afford to see the climax?
And broadcast television still needs sports, if not for its own sake as a vehicle for advertising other programming then symbolically. The death of sports on broadcast is the death of broadcast, period. One need only see the role of the NFL in the rise of Fox to see the impact sports can have – or more ominously, the decline of NBC between losing the NBA and gaining the NFL (a decline that admittedly may or may not have anything to do with those two events). But more practically, if broadcast can’t compete with cable for sports rights, who’s to say it can compete with cable for anything else? Already news divisions at the Big Three are in decline from competition from cable and the Internet. If sports follows suit, could entertainment be far behind? Could better-heeled (and less-censored) cable networks like USA and TBS and especially HBO and Showtime lure away top talent and prized shows? If broadcast television’s only financial advantage is to the consumer, soon it might not be worth that much. As they say, it’s all about money.
I should note that unlike Fang’s Bites, I don’t believe ESPN is trying to actively kill sports on ABC. When Fang wonders how much Disney prized MNF as a property for ABC that it let it go to ESPN, he conveniently swallows the ESPN propaganda and ignores that what ESPN is airing now isn’t really the inheritor of the MNF legacy. The NFL wanted to move the main primetime package to Sunday nights and ABC wasn’t willing to give up its Desperate Housewives–Grey’s Anatomy one-two punch on Sundays it had at the time. The MNF on ESPN now is really a continuation of ESPN’s prior Sunday night package, not the legacy of Frank, Howard and Dandy Don, which now lives on NBC with Al Michaels. (As a commenter on Fang’s post points out, for ESPN to have lost the NFL entirely would mean losing a significant part of its value and thus the decision had little to do with MNF’s value to ABC – which would have been diluted tremendously – and everything to do with its value to ESPN.) If ABC were not part of the same family as ESPN they may well have made the same decision.
And keep in mind that ABC added NASCAR racing, Heidi Race or no, after losing MNF, and although it never has any shot to run the Daytona 500 in any given year it does air the entire Chase for the Sprint Cup, something NBC wasn’t doing. And for all that Saturday is a wasteland, it was also after losing MNF that ABC gave up whatever it could have made by programming even the old “Wonderful World of Disney” in that time slot to air college football, succeeding well enough (and incidentially, according enough of a big-event feel) that some people want other networks and other sports to follow suit (where before it would have just been me). ABC has given up the British Open and ESPN isn’t giving it a return to the BCS, but in the latter case Fox is giving up on the BCS as well, and it’s telling that CBS and NBC aren’t stepping in.
But here’s the thing: the departure of sports from broadcast affects you even if you’re a cable subscriber. Right now, ESPN charges cable operators more than any other network. The top ten cable networks in terms of price charged to cable operators are also populated primarily by sports networks, and this is a big hang-up in the NFL Network’s dealings with cable operators. Those costs get passed on to you, and they are attributable to the value of sports in so many manifold ways to so many people, but especially the NFL. Your cable bill could shoot to the moon if ESPN acquires a property potentially bigger even than MNF.
And in this, there may be a silver lining – as well as a warning to the BCS and something of a duty. The FCC has been pushing for the institution of “a la carte” selection for cable channels, on the grounds that people should not pay for channels they don’t watch. Small cable channels have been pushing back against such a requirement, arguing they couldn’t survive in such an environment, but they barely survive anyway and they could gain some new viewers who were not willing to pay for large packages or whose cable operators can now add more channels because they don’t have to pay for every subscriber, watching or not, for each one. The real losers could be the larger cable channels like ESPN, which lose the services of people who aren’t watching them and can’t substantially raise prices or they’ll just lose more people. That will mean less money and less resources to provide better sports coverage, but perhaps more to the point, it will mean less money to spend towards rights fees (and less of an audience if some people decide they won’t get ESPN for the sake of one or two games). ESPN could still have some natural advantage, but broadcast networks will be able to play on a more level playing field – and that’s when everyone will be able to win again.