As we approach the end of the year we see the arrival of the season for reflecting on the past and predicting the future, and in the sports media business there’s always something going on that make the business of predictions exciting; whenever big rights deals come up for renewal the possibilities seem endless for what might happen, and as the legacy television industry struggles to come to terms with the advent of cord-cutting moves taken now will have ramifications for decades to come. John Ourand’s annual prediction column in the Sports Business Journal is generally good for a mix of bold predictions, assessment of the current landscape, and surprisingly odd analysis for someone so well-connected. 2021’s column was more accurate than I thought it would be, but 2022’s column had more misses than hits, especially in the most prominent areas, though I can’t say my assessments fared much better. Here, then, is my take on Ourand’s predictions for 2023:
Amazon wins Sunday Ticket bid: This was proven wrong within a week of Ourand’s column coming out with the announcement that Google’s YouTube would become the primary home of Sunday Ticket starting next season, and even though the report that Apple was pulling out of the bidding and leaving Amazon and Google, the latter of which wasn’t even thought of as a contender with ESPN thought to be the closest thing to a third bidder for most of the process, as the only remaining bidders, hadn’t come out yet when Ourand filed his column, somehow Ourand still saw fit to claim that “Google has yet to show that it will overspend for sports rights and doesn’t start here.” Oops. To be sure, on top of Google not being thought to be a major contender for sports rights, the deal also saw a lot of head-scratching as there didn’t seem to be any way for Google to make money off of the $2 billion/year deal given how much they’d have to charge for Sunday Ticket; it seems to mostly be about building a relationship with the league, goosing YouTube TV subscriptions (Sunday Ticket will also be available through the separate Primetime Channels service, but only YouTube TV subscribers will get DVR functionality), and marketing the NFL to its user base.
Google’s deal with the NFL does not include a stake in the league’s media operations which the league was trying to bundle with Sunday Ticket. Ourand didn’t think Amazon’s deal would initially include a media stake either, but that Amazon “eventually will agree to a joint venture with the league that oversees those media assets.” I might have bought that a deal with Amazon or even Apple that didn’t include a stake in the league’s media operations didn’t preclude such a deal from happening later, but Google has few if any production facilities of their own, and my interpretation of the Google deal was that the league was giving up on selling a stake in their media operations at the moment. What became apparent as the process dragged on was that the league had given CBS and Fox the same guarantees about the restrictions on and minimum price for Sunday Ticket that they’d enjoyed throughout the DirecTV era without appreciating how streaming services’ incentives are very different from DirecTV’s. Apple, Amazon, and Google may seem to have more money than God, but even Apple couldn’t justify paying the league’s asking price for the sort of Sunday Ticket service they were selling, and started setting conditions late in the process that I’m not sure the league would have agreed to even if they could. I feel like this deal is really a proof-of-concept for how a streaming Sunday Ticket deal would work so they have something to go off of in returning to CBS and Fox next chance they get and see if it would be worth it to loosen those restrictions to create a more attractive service for the likes of Apple and Amazon. In that sense, selling a stake in the league’s media operations would be getting far too much in bed with a single partner without giving Apple or Amazon a fair chance to build the same sort of relationship.
ESPN, Turner exclusive NBA window lapses: The NBA’s current TV deal is so old that I talked about the discussions leading up to it in my book. With FS1 having launched recently at the time and NBCSN still a going concern, it was thought that the NBA was the best positioned to cash in on the then-raging sports TV wars. In the end, the NBA was able to ask Fox and NBC how much they were willing to pay and bring those figures back to ESPN and Turner, who were gladly willing to match those figures before the rights could hit the open market.
There is reason to think that the negotiating window could elapse without a deal this time. For one thing, streaming services are a bigger deal these days. For another, there’s David Zaslav’s comments about Warner Bros. Discovery potentially not needing the NBA, and even though that may just be public negotiation, I think it is indicative of how the very different linear television landscape affects ESPN and TNT’s willingness to pay the sorts of rights fees the NBA has grown accustomed to expect from them.
Ourand thinks the league will eventually carve out an additional package of games for NBC and Peacock on top of ESPN and TNT, but while NBA fans would be salivating at the return of “Roundball Rock”, the most beloved sports TV theme in American history, to NBA games, I’m skeptical; ESPN shut down the creation of a third package last time around, and while the NFL has lots of partners because it’s too important for any entity interested in sports to go without and the league likes to be in bed with as many partners as possible, and MLB has lots of partners because it’s seemingly allergic to its national TV packages making sense to the viewer, I don’t think the NBA has any real reason to go with more than two linear TV partners. I do think the NBA will follow the other major sports in giving a package of exclusive games to a streamer, but any games that aren’t simply packaged with the linear TV games for distribution on ESPN+ or HBO Max will probably go to a pure streaming outlet like Amazon or Apple.
NASCAR renews with Fox, NBC: Last year Ourand thought NBC would walk away from the sport and leave ESPN to pick up the pieces; this year he seems to have flipped to NBC staying in NASCAR, possibly for reasons similar to what I laid out in last year’s post. Either way, the point that NASCAR has more need for its races to reach the widest audience possible than most sports because of the sponsors adorning the cars is well taken, though it could easily be construed as NASCAR needing to establish a streaming presence to reach younger generations that don’t subscribe to cable bundles. I would expect all races on Fox, NBC, and their respective cable outlets to be simulcast on Tubi and Peacock, and I’d be shocked to see more than one Cup Series race a year to be exclusive to Peacock. It actually wouldn’t surprise me to see ESPN and CBS attempt to make inroads on Fox‘s half of the package, even though Fox arguably has the deepest relationship with the sport despite having no history with it before NASCAR took over all TV rights to races in 2001, due to their stronger streaming presences.
ESPN, Fox share expanded CFP rights: The idea here is that the CFP would expand to 12 teams in 2024 and ESPN’s existing agreement with the CFP would allow them to keep airing the semifinals and championship through 2025-26, but that ESPN and Fox would split the first two rounds for the first two years. I’m surprised to see anyone bring up the notion that that might be possible, as opposed to the existing CFP agreement giving ESPN rights to the whole thing for the time being. Ourand thinks Warner Bros. Discovery, Amazon, and other companies would be waiting to pounce on CFP rights once they fully come on to the open market, but a relatively simple ESPN/Fox split, with ABC re-entering the market for top-tier college football postseason games, makes the most sense to me. The CFP is too big a deal not to maintain linear television as its primary outlet, and they have no reason to enter a deal with WBD which has no existing college football presence.
Amazon gets Pac-12 rights: The Pac-12 is the last Power 5 conference whose rights are not locked up for the foreseeable future. Ourand believes the Pac-12 won’t be satisfied with what ESPN is willing to pay them relative to the Big 12 and will instead sell almost all their rights to Amazon for slightly more than what ESPN and Fox are paying the Big 12, with a handful of primetime games being carved out and sold to CBS. The value of the Pac-12 may be significantly diminished since losing USC and UCLA, but I think ESPN still sees value in the “Pac-12 After Dark” window, as much as Pac-12 fans may seethe at having games played in West Coast primetime on a regular basis, and will ultimately pay up to keep it, though that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily take over the bulk of the rights. Besides, as long as the Pac-12 still has Oregon and Washington they’re clearly a step ahead of the Big 12 in my view. I would expect ESPN to pick up rights to up to two games a week, including at least one Saturday Night Football game a year, with the rest going to Amazon or another streaming service.
NWSL goes to Apple: Coming off a run of consecutive Women’s World Cup titles for the United States including going undefeated and untied in 2019, and with another World Cup coming later in the year, the NWSL has seen impressive popularity and viewership figures on CBS, and might end up supplanting the WNBA as the premier women’s professional team sports league in the United States. However, their CBS deal has probably undervalued them. Despite considerable interest, Ourand believes traditional media companies will still not pay as much as the NWSL wants and will send the league to a deal with Apple complementing Apple’s MLS deal. I’m a little more optimistic about legacy media’s willingness to pay for NWSL rights, especially ESPN, but I also think Apple’s resources and potential synergy with MLS might still give them the edge.
ESPN renews with UFC: This deal doesn’t end until 2025 but Ourand believes ESPN will reach a handshake deal with the UFC by the end of the year to keep rights from hitting the open market. My impression is that UFC fans aren’t entirely happy with ESPN+ as the primary distributor of UFC PPVs, and this was before the recent news surrounding Dana White, but I’m not sure I’m in a place to necessarily criticize this. In the streaming era, it’s unlikely any other outlet would set things up much differently, and in that light ESPN has the best combination of linear outlets and streaming capabilities for UFC, even if ESPN hasn’t wholeheartedly embraced the sport in the way fans might like. (Though the idea of an arrangement with NBC, USA, and Peacock does seem intriguing.)
LIV Golf cuts a U.S. broadcast deal: Pretty much any outlet doing business with LIV Golf would face a PR nightmare, and it’s easy to see Fox getting cold feet regardless of how you see its politics affecting its ability to do business with the Saudis… but the CW? Really? I get that Nexstar likely has a very different vision for the network than CBS and Warners did, but that would be a very odd move. I’m not sure I see LIV finding its way onto a broadcast network at all (*maybe* Scripps Sports, about which more in another post), and I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of them setting up shop on YouTube again.
Netflix does not get into sports: By this, Ourand does not mean that Netflix will continue to take the stance that sports doesn’t make sense for them. Just the opposite: with Netflix launching a new ad-supported tier, Ourand believes Netflix will dip its toe in the water of live ad-supported events with things like reality shows and comedy specials before actually jumping into live sports in the years to come. Once upon a time I might have been skeptical that Netflix would ever jump into the sports pool at all, given how its rise benefitted in no small part from its lack of a “sports tax”, but with the introduction of an ad-supported tier and other business shifts from the company in recent years sports increasingly seems like a better fit than it used to be. Time will tell if this turns out to be what kills the golden goose.
DirecTV renews with Sinclair’s RSNs: Surprisingly, this relatively quick segment is the only area that really touches on the beleaguered regional sports network market. The idea here is that DirecTV needs the RSNs to be able to keep saying “if you call yourself a sports fan, you gotta have DirecTV”, while the Sinclair RSNs essentially wouldn’t exist without DirecTV carriage. Of course, fans of the Pac-12 or Dodgers, or (before they bought a stake in the RSN in question) Houston-area sports teams, couldn’t have DirecTV for years thanks to their refusal to carry Pac-12 Networks and SportsNet LA, and the primary reason for DirecTV’s perceived sports focus, Sunday Ticket, will now at best be a thing only for commercial establishments. DirecTV may feel that scaling back their sports focus and taking a harder-line stance on carriage fees for sports networks may be the way to go in this day and age. But Sinclair’s reasons for getting a deal done are as strong as ever, and the company’s recent deal with Fubo TV, despite that company’s own struggles, as well as the turmoil in Diamond Sports Group’s management ranks, suggest that the company is willing to meet whatever demands carriers have to get coverage and at least try to keep the networks afloat. DirecTV may be able to convince Diamond to give it something of a sweetheart deal to maintain the RSNs’ spots on DirecTV’s lineup.
Tom Brady will not be in the Fox booth in 2023: He may decide to retire, or he may not. If he does retire, he may jump into the booth and start his broadcasting career right away, or he may never call a down. But if he doesn’t jump into the booth, I don’t think it’ll be because, as Ourand puts it, “Kevin Burkhardt and Greg Olsen have jelled into a top team”. Granted that Burkhardt and Olsen haven’t called a Super Bowl or even an NFC championship game yet, so we don’t really know for certain how they’ll perform during the biggest moments, but the opinions I’ve seen on the 506sports Discord are that they don’t really have the chops to be the #1 team, and while they have enough chemistry together not to be broken up, that may just mean they both get demoted back down to the #2 team while Brady gets paired with Joe Davis, who the regulars there are higher on, and while I haven’t seen much of either team and am not the best at judging announcers anyway, I’m not sure I can disagree. At the very least, it would be very odd for Fox to essentially sacrifice Troy Aikman at the altar of the potential arrival of Brady, all but chasing him off to ESPN and cutting a deal to let Joe Buck go with him, and then turn around and tell Brady that they’ve changed their mind and won’t be paying him the millions of dollars they promised, without him even getting a chance to prove his chops, because they like their stopgap team better.
…wait, that’s it? No “I need to make sure at least one of my predictions comes true” shot at an overhyped technology? Does this mean maybe 2023 really could be the year for VR after all?