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.

TGTSTG Bonus Content: How Comcast Went from Cable Company to Sports Power

As promised, this week I’ll be posting supplementary material consisting of content excised from the book before publication or that I just didn’t have time to write before getting the book out the door, as we prepare for the book’s availability in paperback. This week I’ll try to have one outtake from each chapter from 2 to 8, in order; in coming weeks I hope to have further outtakes ready, some on topics that didn’t fit the structure of the book.

Though his father Ralph may have been the founder of Comcast, Brian Roberts was not groomed to take over the company at an early age – though not for lack of his trying. The elder Roberts attempted to gently steer his son away from the business, but Brian remained persistent and began working for Comcast full-time in 1981, shortly after graduating from his father’s alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance. It took a decade for him to prove himself to the point of being named the heir apparent in 1990, when he became president of the company.

Both before and after that point, Roberts found time to pursue his other passion: squash. An All-American at the sport, Roberts helped lead the United States to silver medals at the Maccabiah Games in 1981, 1985, 1997, and 2009, winning the whole thing in 2005. As my book chronicles, sports was a big driver for the cable industry from the beginning, even before the launch of ESPN, with boxing on HBO and Braves games on TBS, and many cable companies had interests in regional sports networks and other sports programming interests. But during the late 90s and early 2000s, as cable companies such as TCI and Cablevision surrendered their RSNs to Fox and as they chafed under ESPN’s post-1998 rate increases, Comcast under Roberts’ leadership set out to build its own sports empire that would make it as much a beneficiary of the latter-day sports boom as a victim.

During the decade from Brian Roberts’ ascension to the president spot in 1990 to when his father transferred him his voting stock in 2000, Comcast was involved in the launches of Speedvision, the Outdoor Life Network, and the Golf Channel, and acquired the Philadelphia Flyers and 76ers in 1996 to launch its own Philadelphia-area RSN along with the Phillies, soon acquiring a second RSN in Home Team Sports in the Washington, DC area. As chronicled in Chapter 6 of the book, after Roberts spearheaded the acquisition of AT&T Broadband, Comcast set out to expand its RSN empire by selling stakes in its RSNs to teams, using the template laid out by YES Network to its advantage. But Comcast had its eyes on a far bigger prize.

In 2004, with Disney CEO Michael Eisner under fire for questionable performance and decision-making, Comcast launched a hostile takeover bid of the company worth $54 billion in stock and assuming nearly $12 billion of Disney’s debt, with ESPN, whose agreement with Comcast was slated to expire the following year, widely figured to be a key motivator of the deal. But the offer popped Disney’s stock price above what Comcast’s offer valued it at, Comcast refused to raise its offer, and less than three months later the offer was withdrawn.

Rebuffed in its attempt to own ESPN, Comcast began to focus on competing with it. Comcast held talks with the NFL about forming a new sports network, possibly in combination with other cable companies, or putting NFL games on OLN, and the NFL hadn’t yet decided to put its Thursday night package on its own network – and Comcast was considered the favorite among non-league bidders – when the NHL fell into Comcast’s lap. Though the casual sports fan may have scoffed at the notion of the NHL moving to the Outdoor Life Network, Comcast had already been talking about transitioning OLN into a general sports network, potentially competing with ESPN, and while there were few paying attention to the sports television business at the time that weren’t in that business, those that were had at least an inkling of Comcast’s plans.

By 2009, though, any dreams of OLN, now Versus, competing with ESPN had become a distant memory. At least publicly, Versus President Jamie Davis disclaimed any notion of trying to compete with ESPN, instead focusing on “super-serving” fans of those sports Versus held the rights to. Though Comcast had never been as bombastic about competing with ESPN as Fox would be, nonetheless Comcast had learned firsthand how difficult it could be, especially after failing to get NFL or (in 2006) MLB rights.

NBC Universal was a prime target for another takeover attempt. It was never particularly on-brand for owner General Electric, with most other broadcast and cable networks owned by companies focused on being media conglomerates, and 2009 seemed like a particularly ripe time for GE to get out of the media business. It was the aftermath of the BCS deal, broadcast advertising had been battered in the Great Recession, and the retransmission consent market had not yet heated up. NBC in particular had become a laughingstock, mired in last place for years and going through the Jay Leno Show fiasco, and the Universal movie studio wasn’t much better. Cable networks, though, backed by the stability of their subscription fee revenue streams, were thriving, with NBC Universal’s outlets like USA, SyFy, and MSNBC gaining in viewership. By most accounts, it was those cable networks, which would give Comcast control over more of the content it would deliver over its pipes, that was Roberts’ main target when he set out to acquire NBC Universal, with the broadcast network being heavily de-emphasized and potentially spun off if regulators put up objections strenuous enough to seeing one of the Big Four broadcast networks owned by over-the-air broadcasting’s nominal competitor.

But for those in the sports field, it was NBC’s broadcast operation and its bucket of sports rights, led by the legendary Dick Ebersol, that seemed to be the most valuable part of the deal. Ebersol’s expertise at producing top-notch productions of big events, especially the Olympics, would raise the quality and prestige of Comcast’s sports operations, and NBC would both be able to share its existing sports rights with Versus and provide much-needed muscle, and an attractive broadcast outlet, to acquire higher-profile rights for the network, while Comcast could integrate its regional sports networks in Chicago, Philadelphia, the Bay Area, and Washington, DC with NBC’s owned-and-operated stations in those markets. In turn, having an all-sports cable outlet and its subscription fees would in turn help NBC acquire rights it might not otherwise be able to score; Ebersol made comments both before and after the deal closed suggesting he had long looked wistfully at ESPN’s subscriber-fee income and welcomed the opportunity to play with a sports network that could take advantage of it. For many, a merger would create the most credible competitor to ESPN yet, at least until Fox’s Fox Sports 1 plans came to light. Just how valuable sports really was to Comcast in making the deal became apparent shortly after the deal closed in early 2011, when Ebersol began making sweeping changes to both sides of the newly-formed NBC Sports Group, including promising a name change for Versus – it would eventually become the NBC Sports Network, leaving no doubt as to the impact the merger had on Comcast’s sports operations – and re-branding NBC’s golf coverage as “Golf Channel on NBC”, much as ABC’s sports operations had become “ESPN on ABC”.

But barely four months after the deal closed, and less than three weeks before the International Olympic Committee was set to accept bids for Ebersol’s beloved Olympics, Ebersol abruptly resigned after he and Comcast were unable to reach terms on a contract extension and following much friction between Ebersol and Comcast, especially over how much they were willing to pay for sports rights, in the interim. Without Ebersol and his passion for the Olympics and relationships with the IOC, it was widely believed Comcast would be less willing to bid as much for an Olympic contract, especially given how much money the last contract was losing, and ESPN and Fox smelled a golden opportunity to steal the Games. CBS and Turner, which had previously met with the IOC but had little interest, even started talking about making a joint bid, though didn’t make the trip to Lausanne, Switzerland. The IOC had told bidders it expected to at least match the $2 billion NBC had paid for 2010 and 2012, but with NBC’s losses and Comcast expected to be more responsible, ESPN and Fox prepared to give the IOC lowball offers.

Three days after Ebersol’s resignation, Roberts and Steve Burke, the man he’d installed at the head of NBC Universal, as well as Mark Lazarus, Ebersol’s replacement, met with the people that had been working on NBC’s presentation to the IOC. The executives sat through the presentation that had been prepared and listened to the employees tell them what the Olympics meant to them and to NBC. By the end of the meeting, the employees were fully reassured of Comcast’s commitment to the Games.

The final presentation included a video of NBC employees talking about their Olympic memories and what the Games meant to them, which had IOC officials tearing up. It had also, apparently, moved Comcast executives. When the sealed bids were opened, ESPN and Fox offered up bids in the $1.4-1.5 billion range for two Olympics, not much higher than Fox’s bid from last time, which had IOC officials wondering whether Fox was even serious about pursuing the property. Comcast, on the other hand, bid nearly $2.4 billion. The IOC also gave networks the option of bidding on four Games, an option ESPN didn’t even take; Fox bid $3.4 billion for that package, but NBC paid a billion more than that in the bid the IOC ended up taking.

Comcast would end up bringing back Ebersol for the 2012 Games in an advisory capacity, and unexpectedly announced a stunning, no-bid 12-year extension of their agreement in 2014, ensuring NBC and Comcast will continue delivering the Games into American households into the 2030s. But other than the Premier League and a brief, two-year spell with MLS, NBC has acquired few other sporting events it didn’t already have the rights to before the merger; ESPN and Fox beginning to tag-team on sports rights made Comcast’s climb even more uphill than it was already, and the advent of Fox Sports 1 meant a more attractive alternative to ESPN for sports leagues. There are still hopes for NBCSN to acquire the NFL’s Thursday Night Football package, but they have become increasingly distant since the NFL’s broadcast-centric negotiations awarded it to CBS in 2014. NBC knows just how hard it is for them to compete with ESPN for sports rights. But at the very least, they’ve ensured that Comcast has some sports muscle of its own to flex with other cable operators.

Does ESPN LIKE the “Competition” from Fox and NBC?

Before I left for Seattle for a week and a half, I had reason to start thinking about the possibility of our household becoming a cord-cutting household, because as we were wrapping up the book my Dad mentioned that he had thought about cutting the cord, and maybe that he should cut the cord, but something was keeping him from pulling the trigger. What immediately leapt to my mind (besides the fact that our “TV” is not only SD, but an old-fashioned tube with dials that’s older than me and has decayed enough to be really fuzzy, especially with our cable box letterboxing literally every channel) was the fact he’s a pretty decent-sized sports fan, and an absolute soccer fanatic. (This is one reason Chapter 3 of the book spends three sections on soccer.) His favorite team is Italian, his second favorite is the Seattle Sounders, and near as I can tell his third favorite is Barcelona. So you might think he’d be able to get by with a subscription to Sling TV, which carries beIN Sport for games from Italy and Spain and ESPN3 for any Sounders games that aren’t nationally televised. His second favorite sport is basketball, specifically the NBA, and Sling TV works very well for an NBA fan, since it carries both ESPN and TNT (but not, apparently, NBA TV, despite what I say in the book).

But in order to catch every Sounders game, namely a substantial percentage of the biggest ones (such as playoff games and games against rivals Los Angeles and Portland), he would also need access to MLS’ other English-language TV partner, FS1, which he would also need to catch most of his favorite European teams’ UEFA Champions League games, most of the World Cup, and half the baseball playoffs (which is another sport he follows). Since the Sonics left Seattle and he’s spent more time in LA, he’s become attracted to the Clippers as they’ve actually become good and lost their incompetent, racist owner, and regularly turns the TV on to their non-nationally-televised games on Fox Sports Prime Ticket, another Fox Sports outlet he would need access to. And while he’s not that big a fan of the Premier League, he has taken to watching a good number of their games given their wide availability under NBC’s contract, so he wouldn’t mind getting NBCSN as well.

While none of those channels are on Sling TV, all of them are on PlayStation Vue, the streaming service Sony introduced last year, and Los Angeles is one of PS Vue’s few launch markets (as the presence of Prime Ticket indicates). But a year ago, when Sling TV was announced, I mentioned that it was preserving the cable bundle, not breaking it up, and PS Vue is that much more so – once it adds the Disney networks, as it’s slated to do soon, it will have channels from all nine of the companies I mention in Chapter 7 as controlling most of your cable lineup – so it hardly represents breaking free of the cable bundle or in line with the real spirit of cord-cutting, as Cord-Cutters News recently pointed out. A package of channels containing beIN Sport and Prime Ticket would set him back $59.99 a month, $54.99 a month under a promo offer, assuming those prices don’t go up when the service adds ESPN, and he still wouldn’t be able to catch non-nationally-televised Galaxy or Laker games on Time Warner Cable SportsNet, let alone Dodger games on SportsNet LA. Time Warner Cable, by my calculation, will be charging him about $125 once their rate hikes take effect, while offering the Internet speed he’s currently getting standalone for $45 for the first 12 months; throw in a $10 fee for modem leasing, and under all promotional offers he’d be paying $110, the same price he pays now, to essentially switch television providers and lose access to any channel not programmed by the Big Nine (or the Epix he receives in a promotional deal), before even picking up any other streaming services he might want like Netflix, or any other fees he’d still be paying.

In October, Todd Juenger, an analyst for an investment firm, laid out the exact process for how a standalone ESPN would dismantle the cable bundle. It wouldn’t be because sports fans would dump cable en masse to sign up for ESPN – like my dad, they would want to watch their local team on regional sports networks and other sports on FS1, NBCSN, TNT, and numerous other networks. Rather, it would be because ESPN’s defection would trigger a massive move to similar streaming services by all the other networks in the bundle, making it that much easier for non-sports fans to cut the cord and break free of the cable bundle – without sending $100 a year to ESPN. It’s a delicate balance holding the cable bundle together: ESPN needs everyone who wants to watch The Walking Dead, The O’Reilly Factor, Naked and Afraid, or Adventure Time to take part in some sort of bundle that forces them to pay the ESPN tax, but in order to justify that bundle’s existence, they need sports fans to need the entire bloated cable bundle. Look at it this way: sports fans whose cable companies are members of the NCTC wouldn’t cut the cord if the NCTC and its members followed through on their threat to drop AMC and deprive them of The Walking Dead, but losing the NCTC as a distribution partner would make it much more attractive for AMC to launch some sort of standalone service that would make it a lot easier for Walking Dead fans to stop paying the ESPN tax (especially if they could team up with Viacom, which has been missing from Suddenlink for over a year, as mentioned in the book), while doing the same to Fox or some other outfit with valuable sports might just set off a chain of events that causes the cable bundle to collapse surprisingly rapidly. ESPN is effectively ransoming all the other members of the Big Nine to remain tied at the hip with them, and the more of them that are themselves invested in sports on cable, the better.

A while back, after wondering why ESPN kept helping Fox win sports rights in order to box out NBC when Fox was already looking like a more credible challenger to ESPN’s throne, I seized on a throwaway comment in a post on the Frank the Tank site to write a post of my own suggesting that, while ESPN may not have wanted competition, what they really didn’t want was for that competitor to be associated with one of their distribution partners, making it that much easier for Comcast to drive them a harder bargain on distribution fees, to the point of building FS1 as their own competitor in order to keep NBCSN down. In turn, Dave Warner, proprietor of the What You Pay For Sports website, seized on that post and made it an important piece of his own message, even as I became uncomfortable with building too much of a theory on a one-paragraph comment that may not even have reflected its author’s full thoughts on the issue, or even necessarily was held all that strongly by its original author (especially after NBC’s original Premier League deal, made shortly after my post, re-raised the spectre that Comcast just wasn’t that interested in running down ESPN). My post led Warner to believe that there was no way ESPN would let NBC re-up with the Premier League when that contract came up for renewal last year, that NBC had built the value of the property so much and had picked up enough momentum from it that ESPN would have to bring it to a screeching halt. Obviously, that didn’t happen; in fact, even before that ESPN decided it didn’t want to keep NASCAR any more, which combined with Turner’s own decision to that effect basically placed perhaps the most valuable property NBCSN has yet attained into their lap. Clearly, there’s more to the story of why ESPN would help out Fox so much than just “we need to keep NBC out at all costs”.

Part of the explanation, as suggested in the book, might be that companies are willing to team up to keep their own price down. But perhaps a more accurate explanation might be that ESPN doesn’t want to have a complete monopoly on sports on television – if it were, everyone else could team up to create a service without it (which, ultimately, is why ESPN and Disney signed up for PS Vue, a deal only announced in November). Instead, ESPN is willing to sprinkle just enough sports throughout the rest of the cable bundle to give sports fans a decent enough reason to keep giving money to as much of the Big Nine as possible, without giving up so much to actually allow anyone to challenge them (or raise their fees enough to accelerate cord-cutting, or dilute ESPN’s own value). ESPN is fine with staying out of the regional sports network business and letting Fox and Comcast be the dominant players there, and they’re willing to let Fox and Comcast have enough content to build their own national sports networks without getting anything truly valuable. It’s true they would rather have Fox be stronger than Comcast be strong enough to drive a hard bargain with them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want Comcast to have anything valuable, just that they’d rather have NBCSN remain a niche sports network (and in some very real senses, the Premier League and NASCAR are still niches) and help Fox get the stuff on the higher end of the value scale that ESPN is willing to give up. After all, as more sports (like, say, the half of the LCS that wasn’t there already) move to cable, regardless of the network that airs it, giving sports fans more of a reason to stay tied into the cable bundle, ESPN benefits more than anyone. As Awful Announcing’s Matt Yoder put it, “In what other industry can you still get 24 times as much money from a customer who chooses your competitor’s product over your own?”

This turns pretty much everything I’ve written about the sports TV wars – including the big book I just put out – upside down. I’ve framed the war as ESPN protecting their hegemony against insurgents, but cord-cutting is the real insurgency, and it may be that ESPN (maybe without even initially realizing it) has actually used Fox and Comcast to protect their hegemony by fortifying the resiliency of the cable bundle. The title of my book, The Game To Show The Games, may have been more accurate than I realized – for ESPN, it’s just another game for them to benefit from, perhaps even more so than college football or the NFL. The cable bundle truly is ESPN’s world, and everyone else is just paying the rent – literally.

Binge On and Stream TV: Showing Why Net Neutrality Isn’t Enough

In November 2014, advocates of a free and open Internet were starting to see some hope that, in spite of its connections to the cable industry, the FCC would enact the real net neutrality rules they’d been fighting for. Tom Wheeler’s proposed mishmash of the worst elements of both Title II and the previous Section 706 justification for net neutrality rules was DOA but showed the FCC chairman’s willingness to adopt Title II if the movement for it had enough momentum, and President Obama himself had come out in favor of real net neutrality rules, lending the cause a further mark of legitimacy and making it all the more politically difficult for Wheeler to go against it. In spite of the millions of letters Americans had sent the FCC encouraging real net neutrality on a Title II basis, it was the events of that November that marked a real turning point that led to the FCC adopting Title II and enacting strong net neutrality rules early last year.

So where did we find ourselves a year after that fateful November? Well, T-Mobile has announced a new program called “Binge On”, allowing you to watch all the video you want from certain sites without counting against your data cap, which sounds great until you realize it effectively amounts to prioritizing certain sites over others, what net neutrality is supposed to prevent (after the new rules were applied to wireless providers not subject to net neutrality rules before). And Comcast has indicated that its own Stream service, targeted to the mobile devices of broadband-only customers, also won’t count against its data cap in markets where it’s trialing the caps.

T-Mobile says the program is open to anyone without qualifications or any money needing to change hands, but it’s easy to be skeptical that it’ll stay that way, especially since it forces all video to be streamed in SD quality, something YouTube, not part of the program, has complained about, with the only difference, so far as I can tell from T-Mobile’s statements, being that Binge On partners have to compress the video themselves (so it’s not really without qualifications, and that’s significant). If every carrier took this tack, even if none of them charged for it, nascent streaming services would have to spend a lot of effort going through a lot of hoops to make sure they were qualified and signed up for every carrier’s program. As for Stream TV, Comcast says it doesn’t even fall under the domain of the FCC’s net neutrality rules because, though it’s an IP service, it’s delivered over the regular cable system, not through their Internet tubes. Net neutrality advocates point out that such distinctions are meaningless to the end user, meaning Stream TV can crowd out competing services that do count against caps. But it’s easy to come to the conclusion that Comcast and other such providers already offer a video service over a different part of their network that doesn’t count against caps and has been running for decades: it’s called cable television. (Indeed, AT&T’s U-Verse TV service explicitly works the exact same way.)

I told you this sort of thing might happen. Video is such a massive consumer of bandwidth that it was destined to become the new ground-zero for the net neutrality debate no matter what the FCC’s rules ended up being, and Internet providers would inevitably look for ways to take control of the video content being delivered over their networks. Regardless of whether data caps are strictly necessary to manage congestion, or even the degree of competition faced by Internet providers, the basic rules of business make it inevitable that Internet providers would attempt to meter the use of video on their networks – and if, as many predict, all video will one day be delivered over the Internet, the issue is going to become that much more pressing, especially as 4K becomes the norm. T-Mobile and Comcast are trying to portray their offerings as meeting laudable goals – T-Mobile by optimizing video for the size of the screen, Comcast by moving video consumption out of their Internet network – and while it’s telling that Tom Wheeler initially praised these sorts of schemes as “innovative” and “pro-competitive” (though he’s since asked T-Mobile and Comcast for more information about these services), unless net neutrality advocates can come up with a better solution, those phrases may prove closer to the truth than they’d like to admit.

One solution could be some sort of video delivery system open to all and immune to the manipulations of wireless or wired Internet providers, available to any device on any network, that content providers would only have to prepare for once. Similar to Comcast’s Stream TV, it would have to operate in a different band of spectrum than other Internet service. To reduce the bandwidth and spectrum demands of all carriers, live streaming video watched by multiple people at the same time would only need to be sent once, and that one signal could be picked up by any device. Oh wait: we have that already, it’s called broadcast television, and rather than help it fill that role its dominant entrants are desperately clinging to retransmission consent as their only reason to stay in the market at all, while the FCC is actively trying to destroy it with the upcoming incentive auctions that aim to “free up” spectrum that wireless providers supposedly need to provide the same video broadcast television is already delivering more efficiently than they ever could and that its more forward-thinking entrants hope to compete with. If you don’t want programs like Binge On and Stream TV to be the future of video and the Internet, you should be pushing to save broadcast from the forces trying to destroy it.

Blog-day… and now Book-day!

This is just the 51st post in Year Nine of Da Blog, shattering the previous record low that I thought at the time would be unbreakable. A good chunk of that total consisted of the Flex Schedule Watch and the Broadcast Rat Race (which I still intend to take up again next year, though I probably won’t pick it back up again this year), with over a third of the year from April through August consisting of one post a month, and many of the posts in the early part of the year being ratings posts, so there wasn’t a lot of high-quality content on here this year. Looking at this, you may think this was a horribly unproductive year, and certainly not what was intended when I moved down to LA to be with my Dad a little over a year ago.

You’d be wrong. Well, you’d be half-right. Let me explain.

The main focus of my mental and creative energies this year was writing my book about the sports TV wars, which you may recall I mentioned in last year’s blog-day post as potentially “tak[ing] up a lot of my time in the first four months or so of the new year.” That… didn’t exactly happen. Had I stuck to that original four-month schedule, I might have been able to produce the finished product as early as September; instead we sent an incomplete draft to reviewers a few months ago with a stated release date of December 1, which at least would have made it a great gift for Christmas. Instead I’ve been working overtime to get the book ready before I fly up to Seattle on Christmas Eve again, all while new developments have been unfolding in the area the book is supposed to cover, and the later it falls the less relevant it becomes.

51j-YErfIiL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_With all that out of the way, I’m pleased to announce that the book, The Game to Show the Games, is now available for your reading pleasure on Kindle, with a paperback version slated to come out sometime in the new year. Here you’ll learn about the business model that has allowed ESPN to grow from a ramshackle operation in Bristol, Connecticut to an unstoppable juggernaut that seemingly dominates all areas of sports, about the efforts of media companies to copy that business model and how it’s both benefited and transformed sports great and small in ways good, bad, and neutral, how the importance of sports and ESPN’s business model to the television industry is affecting it on every level, and about the force that’s in the process of sending it all crashing down. Whether you’re a sports fan or sports hater, a cord-cutter or cable addict, you’ll learn something important from this book.

In correspondence with the book, I’m going to be making a number of changes to Da Blog, and the rest of the Morgan Wick Online Universe, over the next couple weeks:

  • Part of the reason the book took so long is that I actually wrote more detail than was strictly necessary about some things. There are also some topics I didn’t quite have time to cover by the time I could have gotten around to them, or that didn’t fit in the structure of the book. So over the next two weeks, in addition to catching up on some developments in the cord-cutting and broadcasting worlds I was too busy working on the book to talk about, I’m going to post a number of outtakes from the book touching on topics insufficiently covered, or not at all, in the book itself. Those posts will go in the new Game to Show the Games subcategory of the Sports TV Business category, along with my past posts about the sports TV wars. I’ll also create a new landing page at morganwick.com/tgtstg with links to key past posts for further understanding each chapter, as well as the outtake posts.
  • I’m going to try to freshen up some elements of the site layout as well, things that haven’t aged well or don’t work at all (like the Twitter widget that was always a red-headed stepchild to begin with). In particular, the plugin I’m using for the Sports and Webcomics subsites should allow me to finally have a different left sidebar for them. I also hope to have the forum back up and running again before the new year. And while I’m not going to start dismissing or ignoring it entirely, I am going to tone down mentions of my… “condition” in places like the About Me page to not be quite so scary.
  • Oh, speaking of which, I have a new profile image I’m going to start rolling out on my various social media platforms and other Internet hangouts, especially those that are particularly important to my “professional” image, as opportunities arise to update them, starting with a new, less-outdated Twitter bio.

With the book out in the world, hopefully I can get back to a more regular posting frequency in the new year. More to the point, with the release of the book I’ve taken my first steps in truly expanding my brand out into the wider world. Time will tell what the reception to the book is, if there is any, and whether Year Ten is the year that sets the tone for the rest of the decade if not the rest of my life, the year that fulfills the purpose of moving down here to LA to begin with, or is just another year like the last nine that keeps me toiling away on another approach to getting ahead. But we’re going to be going as all-out as we can to make it the former, and that means no matter what, it’s going to be a wild ride.

An Open Letter to Steve Ballmer

A while back I heard that you had rejected a $60 million dollar offer from Fox Sports to renew their contract to show Clippers games and were considering setting up your own streaming service.

I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. You leaped pretty much directly from being the CEO of Microsoft to owning the Clippers. At Microsoft, you’ve been immersed in the pace of technological change and the increasing role computers have played in our lives for virtually the company’s entire ascent; once in charge, you saw a path for Microsoft to remain relevant in a tablet world, a path that gave Microsoft its biggest OS embarrassment this side of Vista (also released during your tenure) in the short term but which Apple recently affirmed the wisdom of. You already dipped your toe in the streaming-video revolution with the XBox. You see the direction technology is going and the revolution that is already upending the cable industry and the business model Fox’s RSNs run on, and you want to blaze a trail with a new business model in a territory you’re more familiar with than any other owner of a professional sports team not named Paul Allen. You want to set the course for the professional sports team business model of the future that teams around the country hope to follow. So what’s the best business model to go with?

Let’s say you decide to put up a paywall and offer Clippers games as a subscription service. A source quoted in the New York Post thinks you could make up for the money lost by not taking the Fox deal by selling subscriptions for $12 a month to 500,000 homes. Without even looking I’m pretty confident in saying the average audience for Clippers games on Prime Ticket isn’t even a third of that as it is. So let’s assume that, regardless of price, the most households you can get to subscribe to a service that’s offering just Clippers games is 150,000. To make up the $60 million Fox is offering, you’d need to charge $400 a season. Even at $35 a month, that’s going to cut off a substantial number of households that can’t afford that much, forcing you to increase the price higher, forcing more homes out of the service, and so on. That’s before production costs Fox would have covered as well as the costs of hosting the games on your server and sending it out to customers.

Okay, so you don’t care about how profitable the deal is in the short term; you’re getting out in front on a business model that’s more sustainable than what Fox has and you want to control it all yourself. So long as it’s profitable or even takes a loss in the short term, you’re building a streaming infrastructure you can sell out to other teams and taking in all the advertising money instead of letting Fox take it. But even with all that, there’s another, deeper problem. LA is a frontrunning town to begin with, and despite your recent success and the Lakers’ recent floundering, you’re still very much the #2 team in LA, with even record low Lakers ratings not being enough to fall behind the Clippers. The Clippers aren’t even like most other places with two teams in the same sport (including LA’s baseball and hockey teams) in that they don’t draw from any particular geographic area; no one, I suspect, is truly a diehard Clippers fan, they just follow the Clippers because they can’t bring themselves to root for the Lakers. (In other words, most of your fans are probably Bill Simmons-types, in that they’re expatriates from other places who hate the Lakers too much to shift their allegiance to them but still want to see basketball games regularly as long as they’re in LA.) Donald Sterling’s decades of incompetence isn’t going to be washed away overnight; as successful as the Clippers have been in the last few years of Sterling’s tenure and the start of yours, it’s going to take many, many years, maybe generations, to build a fanbase that’ll follow your team through thick and thin, and that assumes nothing goes wrong in the meantime, that the Clippers will remain as successful and attractive as it is today. Your reign has already shown signs of mismanagement of its own, even if not at Sterling levels; what happens if Jimmy Buss gets forced out somehow, either relinquishing control of the Lakers to the more competent Jeanie or outright selling the team?

You’re counting on the team being and remaining attractive enough that people will pay up to see your team’s games that aren’t on national television. If the team starts to fall back to earth, people will cancel their subscriptions and you’ll have less revenue, and it’ll be that much harder to get back to where you were before. To those people, your team will become all but invisible, even further out of the LA sports conversation than under Sterling, and it’ll be that much harder to get those people back if the team does get good again. That’s before even considering all the fans you’d be pricing out of the market to begin with, or the casual fans who won’t elect to pay you for games they might not watch that much of and whom it’ll be that much more difficult to turn into hardcore fans who will pay.

Okay, so let’s say you go in the complete opposite direction and offer Clippers games to everyone in your television territory for free. You could even go one step further and offer Clippers games to everyone period for free, and try to build the team up as “America’s Team”, but the NBA is likely to frown on that; you’d be undercutting the NBA League Pass package and the RSN deals of all your opponents. So let’s just restrict it to your TV territory for now.

According to the Los Angeles Times, last season Clippers games averaged a 1.04 rating on Prime Ticket, a decline from either 1.25 or 1.27 the previous season. That means 1.04% of all television households were watching a Clippers game at any given time over the course of the season. That may not sound like much, but during the 2014-15 season the Los Angeles market boasted 5.5 million households with television. 1.04% of that number is a little under 58,000. Since you’re offering games for free to people who may have cut the cord, we can assume the number could climb a little higher; 1.25-1.27% would bring the number to around 70,000, but for particularly attractive games the number could top 100,000. Are you ready to provide the infrastructure required to deliver Clippers games to 100,000 devices at once, without buffering, lag, or other problems, especially as audiences demand better picture quality through technologies such as 4K? Can you handle the even larger audiences that would come with an “America’s Team” strategy?

This is why the prospect of streaming disrupting the live-event market in the way it’s disrupted the market for on-demand shows has always been overblown. The true reason sports has become so important to the linear television industry is that it’s the one place where linear television’s strengths shine – its ability to scale to deliver content to many people at once. That doesn’t mean you aren’t smart for blowing off Fox – they can only pay you $60 million because they charge hefty subscription fees to every household in the LA area that subscribes to cable, and if only 70-100,000 of them watch Clippers games (and it’s not like the Kings, Ducks, and high-school and lower-tier college sports are that much more popular), the rest of them aren’t going to take it much longer, and it won’t be long before that $60 million rights fee evaporates. Does that leave you completely trapped? Is there a way forward towards pioneering a new sports-rights paradigm for the twenty-first century suited for the challenges inherent in it?

Yes, and it’s a decidedly retro one: sign a contract with a group of broadcast stations.

Due to its size and relative isolation, Los Angeles has pretty much the most broadcast television stations in the country, even if a good number of them are foreign-language and other multicultural stations. Leaving aside the Big Four affiliates, KTLA, KCAL, KCOP, and KDOC are all general entertainment stations with histories with sports, and the first three have all aired Clippers games at various times in the past. As has always been the case all over the country when broadcast stations have aired local sports, they never aired more than a small smattering of Clippers games, which opened the door for regional sports networks to take the rest and, in most cases (including the Clippers), ultimately take them all. For this strategy, which is also a strategy for the very survival of broadcast television itself, that’s going to have to change.

The key is that, in the long term, this strategy is really a modification of the offer-games-for-free strategy, except it’s moving the delivery mechanism to one that’s better suited to the task, one that can better handle large audiences tuning in for at least the highest-demand games, and one that requires considerably less expenditure on infrastructure to start. You’re still producing the games yourself and controlling their distribution and advertising revenue; you’re simply syndicating the games to broadcast stations within your TV footprint as a means to manage demand while maximizing exposure, giving stations control of a small percentage of advertising in the process to target their specific markets. Selling advertising on the traditional linear television model may give you the chance to increase ad rates compared to the usual online model of serving up custom ads based on users’ personal information, a model there’s a lot of resistance to.

The amount broadcast stations can pay you will probably still be inflated by the cable bundle as stations hope to use Clippers games to maximize retransmission consent revenue, but if there’s no major change in the regulatory environment in the near term and cable operators continue to try to prop up their subscriber numbers with “skinny bundles”, that market may remain intact for longer than you think, or at least longer than the RSN market will. Moreover, in the long term linear television of all stripes, broadcast and cable, will be as much a demand-management mechanism for broadband providers as anything else. A typical optical node on a cable operator’s network, which serves as the last relay point before reaching individual households, serves 500-2000 homes, according to Wikipedia; even on the low end of that scale, if 1.04% of those homes are trying to watch a Clippers game that amounts to at least five households, which may not sound like much but which means serving them all with a single linear television stream could reduce the bandwidth demands to a fifth of what they would be otherwise. With continued technological development, especially the advent of ATSC 3.0 which should be finalized by this time next year, you should be able to reach a wide variety of devices with a bare minimum of need for the Internet to deliver video, including being able to reach mobile devices without needing to use viewers’ data plans or going through wireless carriers, something a cable network or streaming service can’t do. People could use any Internet-capable device, including what we call a television today, to watch the game directly from the broadcast signal (or a relay thereof sent over Wi-Fi) while going through the Clippers’ web site.

Of course, all this assumes the broadcast stations in question are even interested. KCOP is owned by Fox, the very same entity whose $60 million offer you rebuffed, and they are not going to take part in undermining their RSN hegemony and substantial investment in cable networks – unless you convince them that that hegemony and those cable networks are going to crumble anyway and at least this allows them to get a piece of your streaming plan and salvage something from the ashes. CBS, which owns KCAL, might be more receptive but has enough cable dreams and investment in retransmission consent of their own to be hesitant. KTLA might have a different problem – the prospect of regularly pre-empting CW network shows – and would only really be an option to the degree we’d like if the CW shuts down or Tribune no longer takes part in it, and KDOC is the smallest of the four stations we’re considering, and might well put up its spectrum for bid in next year’s incentive auction. But that just underscores the importance and impact what you do could have on two industries – and the urgency of it. We already know anything other than the traditional RSN model will help set the tone for the local sports media landscape of the future. But signing up with a group of broadcast stations won’t just establish an infrastructure that might be, technically, the best one available, one with direct and indirect benefits to numerous parties. By pointing the way forward to an era of increased importance and relevance, it might just save the broadcast television industry from itself.

What the Mayweather-Pacquiao Distribution Problems Say About the Future of Linear Television

Of the many, many issues with the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, from the fact it took so long to be put together to the continued arguments even after the fight came together to Credential-gate to the lackluster nature of the fight itself, the one that I found to be most interesting, and most telling both of the problems facing boxing and of the future of big-time sporting events in general, was the massive problems just getting the fight to the people who ordered it on pay-per-view. Every major cable system and probably most of the top minor systems were fending off complaints:

Though the cable systems took the brunt of the abuse, I’m not sure they were really to blame. HBO and Showtime called on people to “order early to avoid possible problems late” out of fear “the system” wouldn’t be able to handle a surge of orders, and the use of the singular suggests their concerns were on the joint venture’s end. As people flooded Twitter and operator lines with complaints on Saturday, though, HBO seemed to pass the buck back to distributors, so maybe I’m reading too much into it. Regardless, the result was the same: so many people wanted to watch the fight that “the system” couldn’t handle them all, to the point that the fight itself was delayed 45 minutes to allow all the orders to be processed. That doesn’t happen with other live events with far larger audiences than the over 3 million estimated buys of this fight:

What’s the difference? When it comes to events like the Super Bowl, cable operators don’t have to process each order individually – anyone can just turn on whatever channel the game is on if they’re already subscribed to or otherwise able to receive it. Hmm, I wonder if there’s any other means of distribution that’s like pay-per-view in this way

Besides serving as a potential knockout punch (if you’ll pardon the pun) to the idea that the Internet can ever replace linear television entirely, more evidently and directly this debacle raises serious questions about whether or not the Internet might lead to more widespread adoption of the pay-per-view model, which this fight showed cannot scale to the level of many millions of households with or without the benefits of linear television. Broadcasters are hoping to include the ability to restrict their content to paying customers like cable networks have in the next-generation television standard, but methinks that’s more likely to take the form of the subscription model than a pay-per-view model; I can’t imagine big events like the Super Bowl moving to a platform any more restricted than an ESPN/HBO-type platform (and I certainly hope the NFL, already courting streaming disaster with this upcoming season’s experiment with airing one London game on a digital platform, won’t compound it by making it a pay-per-view experience). Indeed, I can’t help but wonder, assuming there’s sufficient economic incentive to avoid this fate in the future, whether the WWE’s move to a subscription model with the WWE Network, as well as boxing’s sudden recolonization of broadcast and non-premium cable television this year (by way of Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions), might be rooted in a recognition that both “sports” might need to either dump the PPV model entirely or at least maintain the advantages of linear television if either one is going to continue to survive and thrive in the media landscape of the future.

Ensuring a #CommActUpdate for the Twenty-First Century

The Republican-controlled House Energy and Commerce Committee has been collecting input for a comprehensive update of the Communications Act for over a year now, with an eye towards a “technology-neutral” law that avoids placing different technologies in different regulatory “silos” and instead treats equivalent technologies equivalently. Towards that end, it has been issuing a series of white papers on issues surrounding the effort, and the most recent one concerns an issue that, perhaps even more than net neutrality, illustrates how much this effort is desperately needed: the video marketplace.

I sent in my thoughts on the state of the video marketplace and on the more general question of what I would like to see in a technology-neutral Communications Act, which you can see here. You may also want to read the comments I sent to the FCC on its ownership review and on a la carte television, assuming the FCC site is up.

SlingTV Isn’t Breaking Up the Cable Bundle. It’s Preserving It.

Dish took the wraps off its long-in-the-works Internet-delivered TV service today, long known as “NuTV” but now officially known as SlingTV. (Dish has a working relationship with the Slingbox company but there is no other relationship between SlingTV and Slingbox.) For $20 a month you can sign up for a dozen channels from Disney, Turner, and Scripps, including the A&E networks partly owned by Disney and – crucially – ESPN, all delivered over the Internet, plus additional genre-based add-on packages for kids’ channels, news and info channels, and eventually, sports channels. The techie blogosphere, long friendly to “cord-cutting”, is over the moon at the possibility of being able to watch ESPN “without a cable subscription”, “liberated from the cable bundle” in GigaOm’s phrasing. GigaOm calls it “a cord-cutter’s best friend”; “a cord-cutter’s dream”, agrees Deadline; an “over-the-top alternative to the cable bundle”, writes TechCrunch.

None of these are in any way true. Sling TV may not be a cable company in the sense that they string a bunch of wires to your house (or in Dish’s case, put a satellite dish on your roof) and deliver hundreds of channels through it, but it is very much a cable bundle, even if a smaller one. You can’t pick and choose which channels of the base package of twelve you want and discard the rest, and you certainly can’t forego any of those base channels if you want any of the genre packages – especially important when Dish’s existing DishWorld service will be folded into SlingTV. Dish seems to be indicating it intends to keep the SlingTV suite lighter than a typical cable subscription, but make no mistake: the only reason this service doesn’t have more channels is because Dish hasn’t been able to get any other companies on board. If they could get AMC (and the other networks owned by AMC Networks), FX (and the other Fox-owned networks, including Fox Sports 1), or most other big companies’ packages of networks (especially Comcast for USA and NBCSN), they would.

Although Comcast and Time Warner Cable are the two most hated companies in America for a variety of reasons, the desire to be free of “the cable bundle” has never been about anything specific to them or their infrastructure. The channels have always been what’s mattered; how they’re delivered is immaterial. In that sense, what SlingTV is offering isn’t much different from what any other traditional cable provider is offering – something that should be especially apparent when the FCC is considering new rules that would treat Internet-delivered TV providers the same as any other cable or satellite company. TechCrunch paints Dish Network’s original launch as a challenge to the existing hegemony of the cable companies; Dish is now part of that hegemony. What makes them think SlingTV will be any different? Sure, it is cheaper than a traditional cable subscription for now, although given that cable companies often charge as much or even more than Internet alone than they do for Internet and TV, don’t expect to save all that much.

SlingTV believes access to ESPN is its killer app, but I won’t buy that any service like SlingTV is really going to break up the cable bundle unless and until it makes it easier for people to be able to not get ESPN. Anyone who signs up for SlingTV because of the programming on Food Network, Disney Channel, or A&E is supporting ESPN’s hegemony over the sports landscape every bit as much as they would be if they kept their existing cable subscription – and people who are interested in sports won’t get access to the regional sports networks that may be the real reason they aren’t cutting the cord. ESPN is the big winner here: it gets to appeal to “cord-cutters” without losing its hold on its lucrative business model that collects millions of dollars from people with zero interest in sports and funnels that into programming like the NFL playoffs and the College Football Playoff that make it a peer of the broadcast networks. SlingTV does nothing to break up that hegemony; it preserves it.

So to me, the real interesting part of this announcement (besides the ability to sign up and cancel the service any time with no long-term commitment) is that Dish is not including the broadcast networks, not even ABC, in SlingTV, even though a big reason it was able to get Disney on board was to settle ABC’s suit against the company for the AutoHop feature to skip commercials on broadcast networks. When Dish eventually does offer them, it’ll be as a separate add-on. The implicit message: We shouldn’t have to pay retransmission consent fees and jack up the price of our slimmed-down, low-cost service when our customers tend to be urban and capable of picking up broadcast signals with an antenna (not to mention, can watch a lot of broadcast shows on Hulu). I’m not sure they’ll be able to do that if the FCC makes them play by cable’s rules, since cable companies are required to carry any station that doesn’t ask for retrans on their most basic package and do the same for any station they agree to pay retrans for, and I’ve come out against “a la carte” proposals that make it easier to go without broadcast stations without making it easier to pick and choose cable networks like the “local choice” scheme that was floating around Congress a while back. But considering Dish has made clear it doesn’t see Sling TV as a full-fledged replacement for cable or satellite, if they can in fact make broadcast stations optional, perhaps it will serve as an impetus for broadcasters to invest in their signals instead of disdaining their own nominal medium in favor of being just another kind of cable channel.

The Hunt for Your Favorite Team’s Games

If you were a fan of the Oregon Ducks, the #2 team in the country, and you wanted to catch all your team’s games, you would have had to watch them on all of these channels:

  • South Dakota: Pac-12 Networks
  • Michigan State: Fox
  • Wyoming: Pac-12 Networks
  • @Washington State: ESPN
  • Arizona: ESPN
  • @UCLA: Fox
  • Washington: Fox Sports 1
  • California (from Levi’s Stadium): Fox Sports 1
  • Stanford: Fox
  • @Utah: ESPN
  • Colorado: Pac-12 Networks
  • @Oregon State: ABC
  • Arizona (Pac-12 Championship from Levi’s Stadium): Fox

If you were a fan of the USC Trojans, you would have spent time on all of these channels:

  • Fresno State: Fox
  • @Stanford: ABC
  • @Boston College: ESPN
  • Oregon State: ESPN
  • Arizona State: Fox
  • @Arizona: ESPN2
  • Colorado: Pac-12 Networks
  • @Utah: Fox Sports 1
  • @Washington State: Pac-12 Networks
  • California: ESPN
  • @UCLA: ABC
  • Notre Dame: Fox

If you were a fan of the #3 TCU Horned Frogs, you would have been watching these channels:

  • Samford: Fox Sports Southwest (or if not them, SportSouth, a handful of Plus feeds, or FCS Central)
  • Minnesota: Fox Sports 1
  • @SMU: CBS Sports Network
  • Oklahoma: Fox
  • @Baylor: ABC (or ESPN2)
  • Oklahoma State: Fox Sports 1
  • Texas Tech: Fox
  • @West Virginia: ABC (or ESPN2)
  • Kansas State: Fox
  • @Kansas: Fox Sports 1
  • @Texas: Fox Sports 1
  • Iowa State: ABC

If you were a fan of the Texas Longhorns, you would have been watching these channels:

  • North Texas: Longhorn Network
  • BYU: Fox Sports 1
  • UCLA (from JerryWorld): Fox
  • @Kansas: Fox Sports 1
  • Baylor: ABC (or ESPN3)
  • Oklahoma (from Fair Park): ABC
  • Iowa State: Longhorn Network
  • @Kansas State: ESPN
  • @Texas Tech: Fox Sports 1
  • West Virginia: Fox Sports 1
  • @Oklahoma State: Fox
  • TCU: Fox Sports 1

This isn’t limited to the Pac-12 and Big 12, two conferences whose rights are split between two different companies. The best teams tend to be plastered all over their conferences’ biggest channels, but if you were a fan of the Florida Gators, you would have been watching these channels:

  • Idaho: ESPNU
  • Eastern Michigan: SEC Network
  • Kentucky: SEC Network
  • @Alabama: CBS
  • @Tennessee: SEC Network
  • LSU: SEC Network
  • Missouri: ESPN2
  • Georgia (from Jacksonville): CBS
  • @Vanderbilt: SEC Network
  • South Carolina: SEC Network
  • Eastern Kentucky: SEC Network alternate feed
  • @Florida State: ESPN

If you were a fan of the Wisconsin Badgers you would have been watching these channels:

  • LSU (from Houston): ESPN
  • Western Illinois: BTN
  • Bowling Green: ESPN2
  • South Florida: ESPNU
  • @Northwestern: ESPN2
  • Illinois: ESPN2
  • Maryland: BTN
  • @Rutgers: ESPN
  • @Purdue: ESPNU
  • Nebraska: ABC
  • @Iowa: ABC (or ESPN2)
  • Minnesota: BTN
  • Ohio State (Big Ten Championship from Indianapolis): Fox

And if you were a fan of the Miami Hurricanes you would have been watching these channels:

  • @Louisville: ESPN
  • Florida A&M: ESPN3
  • Arkansas State: ESPNU
  • @Nebraska: ESPN2
  • Duke: ESPN2
  • @Georgia Tech: ESPN2
  • Cincinnati: Fox Sports Florida (or if not them, one of a handful of other RSNs or ESPN3)
  • @Virginia Tech: ESPN
  • North Carolina: ACC Network (CBS4 in Miami (incidentially pre-empting Air Force-Army and potentially encroaching on Georgia-Florida), ESPN3 if no station in your area)
  • Florida State: ABC
  • @Virginia: ESPN2
  • Pittsburgh: ESPN2

Every one of these schools has their games spread across at least five different networks. As mentioned, the better teams in the conferences with fewer partners have it better; Oregon and TCU had exactly five networks each (as would have #1 Alabama had I included them), #4 Florida State had all but one of their games on ABC or ESPN, and #5 Ohio State had ten straight games on either ABC or BTN, but if you’re not one of those top teams following your team is an exercise in hunting down what network has your team’s game this week. And I haven’t included any teams outside the power 5 because you’re less likely to be following them on TV, but rest assured it isn’t because they don’t have to go through this; if anything they may have it worse. To follow all of Boise State’s games, you would have had to watch ESPN, ESPN2, ABC (or ESPN2), CBS Sports Network, ESPNU, and for the Mountain West Championship, CBS. Lesser Mountain West teams would likely have needed to find where their game was streaming on the “Mountain West Network” at least once; Conference USA teams, including Marshall, had to hopscotch between Fox Sports 1, CBS Sports Network, FSN, Fox College Sports, and whatever station was airing the American Sports Network game(s), with ESPN swooping in for the conference championship game, all just for conference games; the MAC and Sun Belt faced the prospect of watching most of their games on ESPN3; and all the Group of Five conferences except Conference USA faced the prospect of at least some games on ESPN3 or ESPNEWS.

I mentioned last week that the oversaturation of the cable network market is made apparent when cable networks play format musical chairs in a desperate attempt to attract an audience, but don’t think the relative health and lavishing of attention and money on the sports network market doesn’t mean it’s not immune to this problem. There is ultimately a very short list of sports and sports events that will attract substantial audiences to a network. College sports is much more decentralized than professional sports, allowing all the general-purpose sports networks (except NBCSN) to make a serious effort to grab a piece of the rights to whatever college conferences are popular enough to draw audiences. Whatever conferences’ rights they can’t get, they lure their most popular schools to play road games against schools in conferences whose rights they do have. That may be good for the chances of getting strong nonconference games (ESPN’s dominion over college football has resulted in them arranging attractive non-conference matchups for the purpose of their own ratings, but power-conference teams have also taken road trips to C-USA schools they wouldn’t otherwise visit so FS1 can have them, or to schools in conferences CBS Sports Network has the rights to), but it means fans often find themselves jumping from network to network to find the one that has their school’s game this week, lured to networks desperate for their eyeballs – before we even get to conference-owned networks or, in the case of the ACC, Big 12, and non-power five schools, the multiple platforms for games that would otherwise air on a conference network.

The relative centralization of pro sports, where each league rarely has more than one or two rights partners, means this is less of a problem there, but that’s not to say it doesn’t exist. The situation in the NFL, with two networks airing most of the games of each of the two conferences with some of them getting siphoned off to NBC, ESPN, and CBS/NFLN, is fairly simple, just in terms of why certain games are on certain networks based on their time slots, and in the other major sports most of your team’s games will air on their respective regional sports network, with a few occasions when you have to switch to the national partner, which is an event marking you as a good team and can be fairly easily predicted by what day it falls on. (The NHL has NBC and NBCSN; the NBA has ABC, ESPN and TNT. MLB is the least simple; it’s okay in the regular season with Fox, ESPN and Fox Sports 1, but then TBS and MLBN join in during the postseason under a scheme that doesn’t quite make sense because of baseball bungling their last contract negotiations.) In college football, only the worst, least-attractive teams can count on appearing on the conference network or other regional partner on a regular basis; for the others, not being on national television is the exception and not the rule, and unlike with the NFL, that means switching between several different partners seemingly at random with no correlation with time slot (as if it wasn’t bad enough the time slots themselves are only being determined two weeks in advance), for reasons that only make sense if you pay close attention to how the meat of the college football schedule is made, and doesn’t always make sense even then.

Could this problem get worse in the future? It depends, for example on whether or not the cable bubble starts to burst or how future contract negotiations play out with FS1, NBCSN, or CBS Sports Network becoming bigger players, or whether or not entities recognize the potential for confusion from switching back and forth between networks. But with the Big Ten set to rack in a big payday from being the last big contract up for bid for several years, I hope their fans know what they’re getting into. If ESPN and Fox share the rights, as I expect and sort of hope, this is what you have to look forward to.