How the NBA and Comcast Might Be About to Destroy Warner Bros. Discovery

Over the course of just about two weeks, the reporting surrounding the NBA’s negotiations for a new TV deal has been a rollercoaster – and left me alternately supremely confused about the league’s thinking, and that of their potential partners, and worried about what will happen to the league’s longest-running partner.

Unlike the last round of NBA media rights deals, when ESPN and TNT renewed their agreements during their exclusive negotiating window, the league and their partners let the exclusive window lapse this time around – but shortly after the window expired, John Ourand reported in Puck that ESPN had “essentially come to terms” with the NBA on the league’s “A” package, which included continuing to be the exclusive home of the NBA Finals. The next day, Ourand’s former podcast partner Andrew Marchand reported in the Athletic that Amazon had reached a “framework for an agreement” that would give them a package of games as well, giving the NBA games exclusive to a streaming provider for the first time, and also that ESPN would be reducing its package of games from 100 to 80 “in one arrangement” – a surprisingly small reduction that wouldn’t be enough to remove a night of NBA games from ESPN’s schedule for an entire season.

Both of them reported that NBCUniversal remained in the running to fight with TNT over the remaining package, but the combination of the two reports seemed to suggest that NBC was a decided underdog. If ABC was going to retain all of the NBA Finals, that would remove a significant point of interest for any Comcast bid that contained a significant broadcast presence. Any continued presence of Comcast in the bidding would seem to be one that placed a high priority on games on its Peacock streaming service, with any NBC games as an added bonus along the lines of the two games NBC simulcasted with Peacock as part of the service’s “Sunday Leadoff” baseball package over the last two seasons. But now the NBA had reached a deal with Amazon, so its desire for a streaming component to its deals had already been met, and it would be a decided risk to sign a deal for games on another streaming service, one significantly smaller and more unproven than Prime Video, while abandoning a partner of such long vintage in TNT that they’d been airing games since before NBC’s previous stint with the league, one that had long attracted rave reviews for the quality of its coverage, both in-game and with its acclaimed “Inside the NBA” studio crew. Coupled with TNT’s right to match any competing offer, the chances of NBC making its triumphant return to the NBA seemed to have drastically diminished.

ESPN has a bit of a habit of rushing in early in TV negotiations and locking down enough rights to decidedly neuter the desirability of a package for a second partner and ensuring their pre-eminence within the sport. In 2012, it locked up all of their then-three Major League Baseball packages, effectively shutting Fox and NBC out of the packages that might have best boosted their respective sports networks, reducing Fox to giving FS1 Saturday games on crowded sports days with slates not worth airing on the broadcast network and a handful of weeknight games until the postseason. Then there’s ESPN’s current deal with the NHL, where ESPN picked up so much in the way of desirable rights, including ESPN’s choice of conference finals every year (in a league with a nearly two-in-three chance of at least one Canadian team reaching that round), that even with the Winter Classic and three out of seven Stanley Cup Finals still on the table as part of the B package, it was left too undesirable for anyone but TNT to take despite their lack of a broadcast network and existing commitment to AEW on Wednesday nights.

ESPN may well have seen securing all the Finals the same way. Ourand would later suggest that the NBA, famous for signing what’s widely considered the first cable-first deal for a major league when it left NBC for ESPN in 2002, now wanted the reach of a broadcast network for its “B” package. At his former employer, SportsBusiness Journal, Tom Friend reported that the NBA wanted to have ABC alternate the Finals with another partner, which ESPN fought tooth and nail until finally agreeing to pay $2.6 billion for a package with all the NBA Finals. ESPN might well have thought that by taking all the Finals, before most contenders other than TNT could even come to the table, they’d defang the one big attraction any package would have to broadcast networks and something that most would consider table stakes for any broadcast-centric package – ensuring that other than giving a handful of games to a streamer, the NBA wouldn’t have much choice but to perpetuate the status quo, helping to keep the price of all three packages down, and wouldn’t have any options other than ABC to provide that increased reach via broadcast television. That may help explain why TNT allowed their exclusive negotiating window to lapse without a deal, confident they could match any offer any other company could bring to the table dollar-for-dollar.

But both companies may have underestimated Comcast’s determination – and the result may well end up being the death warrant for all of Warner Bros. Discovery. 

Read moreHow the NBA and Comcast Might Be About to Destroy Warner Bros. Discovery

What to Make of the NFL’s Experiment with Putting the Draft on Broadcast, Part 3

The week before the NFL Draft, John Ourand reported in his newsletter for Puck that ESPN’s contract to air the draft only runs through next year. Ourand noted that ESPN is expected to renew, and the implication I’ve gotten (not having read more than Awful Announcing’s write-up) was that he was merely noting that the NFL and ESPN were getting together to work on such a renewal, but I think most people could be forgiven for assuming from the mention of the draft when ESPN announced its most recent comprehensive agreement with the league in 2021 that ESPN had secured rights to the draft for the duration of the deal, and I’m inclined to think that Ourand would not have reported on this if some party didn’t want to influence the negotiations somehow, implying that a renewal might not be a formality, nor do I think the NFL would have awarded ESPN rights to the draft only through 2025 if they didn’t intend on seriously considering shaking up the status quo of the draft.

Prior to signing its most recent deals with its media partners, there was discussion of the notion that the league wanted the draft to be covered like the presidential election, with coverage on every network. Towards that end, the league had Fox, then preparing to start its first season airing Thursday Night Football, simulcast NFL Network’s coverage of the first two days of the 2018 Draft, with ESPN then agreeing to simulcast the third day’s coverage on ABC; from 2019 onwards, ABC has aired a separate production of the first two nights before simulcasting ESPN’s coverage on Day 3. Fox failing to even win the night against entertainment programming on the other broadcast networks seemed to make the notion of “presidential-election-style” coverage seem laughable, especially for CBS, but that might not be the only way to shake up draft coverage.

One approach could be to rotate exclusive, or at least primary, draft coverage across the broadcast networks; ABC/ESPN airing the 2025 draft would fit with rotating the draft on a two-year offset from the Super Bowl rotation, so each network gets either the draft or the Super Bowl every other year. The downside to this, though, is that the experts at ESPN and NFL Network have incentive to cover and assess every year’s slate of prospects to prepare for each year’s draft broadcast; having experts brought in to cover the draft only once every four years skews the incentives and could skew the coverage. On the other hand, having only a single network air the draft means you don’t have to synchronize commercial breaks across two networks and each prospect to take the stage only needs to be interviewed once, meaning you can reduce the lag between a pick coming in and being announced, reducing the opportunity and incentive for pick-tipping. (Also, rumors of the NFL taking a stake in ESPN, and ESPN taking over management of NFL Network, could reduce NFLN’s incentive to offer its own draft coverage, making consolidation on a single network easier.) Shaking up the draft could also be as simple as allowing Amazon to add their own coverage to the proceedings.

Besides that, circumstances in the television industry have changed substantially since 2018, with ratings for non-live primetime programming continuing to decline, accelerated by the change in viewing habits during the pandemic, and with The Big Bang Theory ending and Young Sheldon preparing to do the same, depriving CBS of its most popular Thursday programming. As it increasingly becomes the case that anything on a linear network that’s not a live event is just filler between live events, perhaps the notion of “presidential-election-style” coverage becomes more viable again – or at least, it’s worth the league talking to its partners on whether they want to cover the draft and how. My impression after 2018 and 2019 was that there wasn’t any reason for the league to move away from the status quo in place since then, but has presidential-election-style coverage become more viable, and if the league did decide to offer one network exclusive draft rights, how interested might each network, especially CBS, be? 

Read moreWhat to Make of the NFL’s Experiment with Putting the Draft on Broadcast, Part 3

The WNBA Is at a Crossroads

Two weeks ago, a whopping 18.7 million viewers watched the NCAA women’s basketball championship between Iowa and South Carolina across ABC and the “Bird and Taurasi Show” on ESPN – not only the most watched basketball game, men’s or women’s, college or pro, since the 2019 men’s national championship (and topping every NBA game since the 2017 Finals), but the most watched sporting event at all, outside football and the Olympics, since the 2019 World Series.

Needless to say, it was the most-watched game in women’s college basketball history, breaking the record set by… the national semifinal between Iowa and UConn two days earlier, which drew 14.2 million viewers across ESPN and ESPN2. That, in turn, broke the mark set by… the regional final the previous Monday between Iowa and LSU, which drew 12.3 million viewers to ESPN alone. An Elite Eight game on cable alone drew a larger audience than last year’s national championship between the same two teams on broadcast, which fell short of ten million, and indeed any previous women’s college basketball game, including when the women’s Final Four regularly aired on CBS in the 80s and 90s.

Obviously a lot of this has to do with the singular, and likely inimitable, phenomenon that is Iowa star Caitlin Clark, but it’s not just her; the most-watched game of the women’s tournament not involving Iowa or having Iowa as a lead-in or lead-out was undefeated South Carolina’s Elite Eight game, which still set the record for the most-watched Elite Eight game ever before Clark and Iowa blew it out of the water the following night. That game aired on ABC, which has only recently started airing women’s tournament games at all (let alone the national championship, which only started last year), but ESPN has aired three national championship games that failed to reach the 3.07 million viewers South Carolina’s win over Oregon State did, and of the 26 national championships that aired on cable alone from 1996 to 2022, only eight drew more than a million more viewers than South Carolina-Oregon State, two of them in the last two years before the title game moved to ABC.

So there’s reason to think that women’s college basketball can maintain some of its momentum and establish a new baseline for popularity. But it’ll have to do it without the forces that brought it to these heights this year. It’s not just that Clark has now left for the WNBA, drafted by the Indiana Fever; so has LSU’s Angel Reese, her nemesis in last year’s national championship game. So has the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso, both selected by the Chicago Sky to set up what could be a juicy Midwestern rivalry for years to come. UConn’s Paige Bueckers elected to return to college for another year, and even once she leaves the college game will be fine with the emergence of new stars such as USC’s freshman phenom Juju Watkins, not to mention all the young girls inspired by Clark and her cohorts that will come along over the next decade or two, but for now, all the biggest stars of this year’s tournament will now be the territory of the WNBA for the foreseeable future.

And therein lies an enormous opportunity… if the WNBA can put itself in position to take advantage of it. 

Read moreThe WNBA Is at a Crossroads

The Game to Show the Games Podcast: Episode 1 (of 1?)

I don’t know if I’m going to do any more of these. I’m glad I did it, I’m glad I had the opportunity to do it, and I won’t rule out doing more audio stuff in the future (weird voice and all), but it took a lot out of me, chewed up most of my week, and I realized that if I were to spend more of it speaking off the cuff – even (perhaps especially) if I had a cohost – I’d probably leave a lot of dead air as I thought about what to say, which wouldn’t mesh well with the gimmick I came up with, and which would be a problem when writing a script takes almost as much effort for each topic as a full-fledged blog post would. (I mention I have a partially-written post on Pat McAfee sitting in my drafts, and I may end up publishing it largely adapted from what I say about him here.) It’s an interesting idea and I think you’ll find the result interesting as well, but I’m not sure this format is for me.

After the jump, timestamps and relevant links for each segment. 

Read moreThe Game to Show the Games Podcast: Episode 1 (of 1?)

How Charter Took On Disney’s 800-Pound Gorilla and Won – and Redefined the Cable Bundle in the Process

For decades, carriage disputes have been a way of life for those still immersed in the cable bundle – a source of frustration as popular networks have been held hostage in staring contests between pay TV providers and major media companies, ending, inevitably, in rates going up for all customers. But what happened for ten and a half days at the start of September was unique, indeed unprecedented, in two different ways. First, this was the first time, at least in recent memory, a carriage dispute directly affected me. Second, and far more importantly, for all that these disputes have become more contentious over the years as providers have positioned themselves as trying to hold the line on increasing programming costs and keeping customers from paying for channels they don’t want, the company more responsible for both of those things than any other – Disney, and specifically ESPN – has been largely immune to such clashes, with cable providers too fearful of the blowback from losing the 800-pound gorilla in the sports world to risk losing it even for a moment. This, though, was the first time, possibly ever, that any major cable provider was willing to lose ESPN and the other Disney networks for as long as a week. And though the sides ended up making up just hours before a highly-anticipated Monday Night Football showdown, the much-anticipated debut (and, as it turned out, possible swan song) of Aaron Rodgers with the New York Jets, in the end Charter Communications and its Spectrum-branded services managed to win some significant concessions from Disney – concessions that could ultimately define the future of the cable bundle. 

Read moreHow Charter Took On Disney’s 800-Pound Gorilla and Won – and Redefined the Cable Bundle in the Process

Who Could Lead the Charge in Returning Local Sports to Broadcast Television?

Last night I talked about how teams are dealing with the collapse of the regional sports network market and how teams with expiring deals with the collapsing Bally Sports and AT&T Sportsnet groups – the Phoenix Suns, the Vegas Golden Knights, and the Utah Jazz – are embracing broadcast television as the way to reach a broad segment of fans, coupled with direct-to-consumer products to reach fans without access to linear television stations otherwise. Given all the other developments happening in the space there’s no guarantee that this model will triumph, especially with Rob Manfred still committed to MLB trying to take over rights to as many teams as he can, but it’s certainly a promising approach for a subset of teams. But what station groups are best positioned to take advantage of the situation and potentially pick up rights for teams whose deals are expiring or being shaken up by the ongoing proceedings, and where might teams looking for a new home end up? How much will teams embrace this approach compared to finding new RSN homes or returning to their current ones? 

Read moreWho Could Lead the Charge in Returning Local Sports to Broadcast Television?

Plotting the Future of Local Sports Distribution – By Returning to Its Past?

When we look back, we may find that the end of the age of the regional sports network came very slowly, and then all at once.

That’s not to say that the age of the RSN is actually over, of course. Only two RSN groups are in serious trouble: Bally Sports and its parent Diamond Sports Group with its ongoing bankruptcy proceedings, and AT&T Sportsnet, which will be shut down by new parent Warner Bros. Discovery at the end of baseball season. Other RSNs and RSN groups continue to be profitable, and even within those groups there are RSNs that won’t be shut down entirely; Diamond has made payments to all but three MLB teams it has rights to for the rest of the season, and the Root Sports network in the Pacific Northwest, majority-owned by the Seattle Mariners, will not only remain extant but possibly remain operated by WBD. The problems with those two groups are that Sinclair overpaid for the former Fox Sports RSNs and didn’t have much of a plan to deal with the collapse of the cable bundle, not helped by Major League Baseball and its commissioner Rob Manfred deciding to play hardball with direct-to-consumer streaming rights, that Discovery may not have even wanted to inherit the RSNs (and for a while I wasn’t even completely certain they had) when they took WarnerMedia off of AT&T’s hands, and both of them ran into newly emboldened cable operators dropping them left and right, with RSNs all but disappearing from Dish Network and most streaming TV providers. The former Fox RSNs no longer benefitted from being lumped in with the rest of Fox’s networks, and AT&T and WBD never put any real effort into lumping their RSNs in with their national cable networks, while the move to WBD meant those RSNs were no longer co-owned with a distributor that could effectively subsidize the network. The NBC Sports RSNs have the benefit of other networks to bundle with and Comcast providing guaranteed carriage, so they’re in nowhere near as bad a shape.

And yet, should the Bally Sports networks completely collapse, the only RSN in the entire country that wouldn’t be at least partially owned by at least one of the teams it carries would be NBC Sports California in northern California – assuming that network even survives the pending move of the Oakland Athletics to Las Vegas. The Bally networks account for around half the US teams in the three major sports that provide content to RSNs, so even if its problems can be attributed to Sinclair’s mismanagement the fate of the Bally RSNs would effectively determine the fate of the RSN market as a whole, and their collapse would mark the point where it became clear that RSNs are no longer a license to print money and can only sustain themselves under specific economic circumstances, be they some combination of being owned by a team, owned by a distributor, or owned by a company able and willing to bundle them with other popular cable networks. And just because other RSNs are doing fine financially now doesn’t mean they’ll continue to be; cord-cutting is continuing apace, weakening the revenue streams for other RSNs (MSG was reportedly already flirting with bankruptcy itself this spring), and with potentially over half the teams in each league caught up in the proceedings, what they do now will help set the path for everyone else. Do they simply take over their existing RSN, or start a new one? Do the leagues take over the RSNs and use them to transition to a new streaming-focused distribution model? Or do teams and leagues rediscover a technology that’s been largely ignored for the last few decades but could be perfect for this new era? 

Read morePlotting the Future of Local Sports Distribution – By Returning to Its Past?

What does the future of broadcast television look like?

If there’s one tweet that sums up the conundrum broadcast television has found itself in for going on 15 years now, it’s this:

As I’ve been writing about for years, most notably in Chapter 7 of my book, this dynamic has led broadcasters to neglect their own nominal medium in the years since the dawn of the modern retransmission consent era – not merely to collect more money than they could get from advertising alone, but at least before cord-cutting caught on, as an existential lifeline allowing them to hope to compete with cable networks that could extract subscriber fees from cable operators without having their leverage undermined by the ability of people to watch their content for free. Even as cord-cutting has ramped up, the broadcast industry has remained sufficiently dependent on retransmission consent that they have not only done little to take advantage of the phenomenon, they’ve crippled any efforts to help them do so, from killing Aereo and Locast to at-best hesitantly embracing the stopgap technology allowing broadcast signals to be received by mobile devices directly.

Read moreWhat does the future of broadcast television look like?

Rethinking American Sports Leagues’ In-House Graphics

With the Bally Sports RSNs careening towards bankruptcy, and with Warner Bros. Discovery issuing an ultimatum to teams that it intends to shut down the AT&T Sportsnet networks at the end of the month, America’s (non-NFL) major sports leagues are being dragged towards their post-RSN future faster than they probably hoped, with MLB setting up an in-house production arm in the likely scenario that they’ll have to take over production of some teams’ games, at least on the AT&T networks. That makes it look especially likely that once everything shakes out, said post-RSN future will follow, to some degree or another, the template set out by MLS’s deal with Apple TV with leagues producing games in-house for distribution on streaming services.

There are a lot of dimensions to this that I could get into, but for this post I want to focus on perhaps the least important element of it: the aesthetics of it. Every major sports entity has their own in-house production arm with their own graphics package, if not to produce games for their own network then at least to produce them for the international market, but as the leagues have typically relied on the networks (both national and regional) as the primary production and distribution mechanism for their games, they haven’t tended to devote resources towards the graphics of their in-house production arms, which as a result tend to be somewhat sub-par, okay for the relatively lower-tier games (less prominent than what the national networks get, and for the NBA, NHL, and MLB, blacked out in the local markets and usually not even using their own production as opposed to taking the RSN feed) but not necessarily suitable for being the full-time graphics package for the primary means of distribution for a local team’s games or for a league’s most prominent games. Sports entities that produce coverage that they actually expect to be seen by a significant portion of their audience, like most European sports leagues, FIFA, or the IOC, generally put enough effort into their graphics packages that they actually can claim to be worthy of being the primary graphics package for their sport, even – perhaps especially – if they’re exceedingly simple. (Notably, a prominent exception is the Premier League, whose UK partners have their own graphics packages as does NBC in the United States, and which has devolved into this mess for their international productions.)

I haven’t made a post in the Sports TV Graphics category in forever, but I have been making more comments on new and existing graphics packages, and presenting my mock-ups for what new graphics packages might look like, on Twitter in recent years. I decided to take a stab at redesigning the graphics packages for every American sports entity with more than $1 billion in annual pre-pandemic revenue, setting that as the baseline for a league with the resources to put some effort into their graphics packages if they want to. I could have gone lower – the Pac-12 Networks have a surprisingly good graphics package, though that may be partly a function of their location in the Bay Area – but that’s about the point where the quality of international graphics packages starts to deteriorate, and where the American sports leagues involved are either difficult to design a unique package for, fractured across multiple entities that can vary widely in revenue if you can even find out what that revenue is (horse racing and boxing), or that I just don’t want to address for various reasons, including their revenue being set to decline precipitously under the assumptions I’m making (individual college conferences). That leaves the traditional four major sports, plus the post-expansion CFP, PGA TOUR, MLS, NCAA, UFC, and possibly NASCAR, with some other leagues and entities getting new graphics as after-effects of the others; we’ll ignore the UFC because they already produce their own coverage for everything and have a good enough graphics package as a result.

For each sport I sought to balance the competing imperatives of simplicity, aesthetics, accommodation of advanced statistics, and mobile/old-person-friendliness, with this last resulting in certain minimum font sizes that constrained some of my design decisions and might make some people unhappy with what I came up with. I also have some thoughts about how the production might be set up, including general availability of games, main commentators, and theme songs, with the assumption that each league would poach the networks’ commentators and themes for their own coverage (despite Fox putting their own commentators and graphics on top of MLS’ feeds), but these are mostly fanciful and the emphasis is on the graphics. Without further ado: 

Read moreRethinking American Sports Leagues’ In-House Graphics

Thoughts on @Ourand_SBJ’s Predictions for Sports Media in 2023

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

Read moreThoughts on @Ourand_SBJ’s Predictions for Sports Media in 2023