Something everyone missed in the BCS-ESPN thing…

I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read about how cable networks have the advantage of subscriber fees, which have driven rights fees to the point where most sports are loss leaders for broadcast networks anymore…

…wait, Fox actually turned a profit on the BCS? Why does this get a single sentence in a single story?

I’m actually tempted to find the e-mail address of a BCS commissioner and e-mail this to them.

The major news of the past week in sports arguably had nothing to do with any game that was actually played, or any athlete. It was ESPN making a bid for the rights to the BCS that would have put all five games – including the Rose Bowl they already have a contract through 2014 for – on ESPN, not ABC. It may be too late to do anything about it even if Da Blog had some audience, as Fox’s deadline is already up today and they aren’t matching the offer. Only serving as a backdrop to that news is ESPN signing up for British Open rights and NASCAR’s Heidi Game. I didn’t have much to say on the subject for Da Blog last week, so this post will largely serve as a commentary to the commentary already posted on Sports Media Watch and Fang’s Bites. And Eye on Sports Media, but only the part about the NASCAR “AFHV Race” has been posted yet.

But I do have some original thoughts on the matter:

This is the exact opposite of what should be happening.

Yet any observer should have seen it coming from a mile away, just not this soon.

Before I begin, let me just make a note: This post has nothing to do with your opinion on a college football playoff, or whether moving the BCS to ESPN helps or hurts the playoff cause. As much as the BCS may stink, it’s the system we have, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to make sure it’s as strong as possible except when it comes to a playoff, because when the BCS is strong college football is strong.

Remember back in August, when I got all hot and bothered about the digital transition and talked about how antennas are still around and better than ever, and conscientious consumers who have no need for cable channels had no reason to keep subscribing to cable or satellite? And how the digital transition made it possible for broadcast television and its multitude of subchannels to potentially give cable a run for its money?

Ideally we’d be seeing already a depowering of cable and a bulking up of broadcast’s muscle. The BCS should be scared to death of the potential lost audience and stature brought by moving to ESPN, if not by the potential ridiculousness of most of the major college football games and – for the moment – four non-BCS bowls airing on broadcast but the biggest bowls of them all airing on pay TV, where about 10% of the audience now (and that number, while it will shrink in the short term, is only going to grow) won’t be able to see them. And 10% is not trivial; the National Championship and Rose Bowl are the only two bowls that regularly draw that much of the total audience between broadcast and cable.

But in that same post, I also mentioned that no one has an interest in telling you to ditch cable and/or the dish. The cable companies don’t have an interest, the providers are too small, peripheral, and one-time to have a credible interest, the regulatory agencies have had eight years of not having an interest, even TV stations themselves have no interest even as they advertise the transition, advertisements that are mostly about not losing the customers they have.

That last point might not necessarily be the case, certainly for the broadcast networks (unless they nip a piece of their stations’ retransmission-consent deals), because this might be for their very survival.

Really, the only reason ESPN airs any sports bigger than the WNBA is because they have an unfair natural advantage over broadcast networks. They collect a piece of subscriber fees from cable companies and broadcast networks do not. These days, almost all sports is little more than a loss leader for the Big Four networks (except maybe the Super Bowl and Olympics), there only to serve as a platform to promote other programming. (For this reason, there may come a day where to stay on broadcast, a sporting event would need to rate higher than primetime programming. For that reason, there’s a part of me that’s wondering what the chances are/would have been for the CW or My Network TV, two networks that struggle even to break 2 ratings with their best programming, to swoop to the rescue here.) Judging by a comment on the SMW post, that might not even be because of production costs (although other than news, sports is the only thing networks produce themselves), but simply because the rise of cable channels like ESPN has hiked rights fees to the moon. (If broadcast networks want to keep doing sports, they might want to do what I suggested in the last paragraph and take a piece of stations’ retransmission-consent deals.)

(In my opinion, neither ABC nor especially Fox really gave the BCS enough of a big-event feel to serve its promotional purpose. Except in years like the one when USC and Texas met, March Madness feels bigger than the BCS, even when the BCS National Championship is consistently higher rated. I suggest the BCS Championship Game be moved to a weekend to allow for a semi-lengthy pregame show. Of course, part of the problem is also that there’s no playoff to build anticipation to the championship game.)

Sports Media Watch considers a world in which just about every major sporting event could potentially move to cable. If this goes through, it would have to be only a matter of time before the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs moved exclusively to Versus or ESPN in the United States, and the MLS Cup would probably also make such a move. Those are the boneheaded, obvious moves. Had the IRL made its recent deal with Versus after the BCS made their move, they might not have blinked twice about moving the Indy 500 to cable as well. Tennis’ majors might, for the most part, become cable-exclusive. Those are still boneheadedly obvious considered in the context of the British Open deal.

No, SMW raises a boogeyman that – whether Paulsen realizes it or not – has been around virtually since the instant ESPN landed its first NFL deal: the prospect of people having to pay to watch the Super Bowl. It hasn’t happened yet, but paying to watch the BCS is surely a giant step. With everything the BCS is higher rated than, this creates the very plausible scenario of the World Series, NBA Finals, March Madness, Daytona 500, horse racing’s Triple Crown, and the other three golf majors – and maybe even early rounds of the NFL playoffs – moving to cable as well. Leagues that have to worry about losing an antitrust exemption from Congress, such as the NFL and MLB, might reluctantly turn down such an offer, but the BCS is only five bowls so it doesn’t have to worry about such a thing. You might think the NCAA would be thinking of their students but an inexorable drive to ESPN has been happening there as well (the Women’s Final Four was on CBS not that long ago). I don’t even know if the NBA has an exemption to worry about.

Paulsen ends with: “While sporting events on broadcast still draw the highest ratings, the relative success of Monday Night Football and baseball’s League Championship Series on cable is evidence that the majority of the television audience can find marquee events on any network. At this point, broadcast television no longer needs sports, and vice versa.”

Um, no, sports does still need broadcast television thank you very much. If the BCS moves to ESPN, it’s only one step in a long-running expensivization of sports, from rising ticket prices (and evidence that if sports teams charged market rate prices would be WAY higher) to the rise of ESPN and beyond. If sports keeps raising the price of admission for everything as far as it will go, especially in poor, blue-collar areas like Detroit, it will lose its soul. It will stop being a point of civic pride for people of all means and become a form of entertainment for the rich. If the BCS moves to cable it will surely dilute ratings for the entire season (the next two seasons’ MLB ratings on Fox may be a referendum on this, given the drama that played out in the ALCS on TBS); why follow the play for free when you can’t afford to see the climax?

And broadcast television still needs sports, if not for its own sake as a vehicle for advertising other programming then symbolically. The death of sports on broadcast is the death of broadcast, period. One need only see the role of the NFL in the rise of Fox to see the impact sports can have – or more ominously, the decline of NBC between losing the NBA and gaining the NFL (a decline that admittedly may or may not have anything to do with those two events). But more practically, if broadcast can’t compete with cable for sports rights, who’s to say it can compete with cable for anything else? Already news divisions at the Big Three are in decline from competition from cable and the Internet. If sports follows suit, could entertainment be far behind? Could better-heeled (and less-censored) cable networks like USA and TBS and especially HBO and Showtime lure away top talent and prized shows? If broadcast television’s only financial advantage is to the consumer, soon it might not be worth that much. As they say, it’s all about money.

I should note that unlike Fang’s Bites, I don’t believe ESPN is trying to actively kill sports on ABC. When Fang wonders how much Disney prized MNF as a property for ABC that it let it go to ESPN, he conveniently swallows the ESPN propaganda and ignores that what ESPN is airing now isn’t really the inheritor of the MNF legacy. The NFL wanted to move the main primetime package to Sunday nights and ABC wasn’t willing to give up its Desperate HousewivesGrey’s Anatomy one-two punch on Sundays it had at the time. The MNF on ESPN now is really a continuation of ESPN’s prior Sunday night package, not the legacy of Frank, Howard and Dandy Don, which now lives on NBC with Al Michaels. (As a commenter on Fang’s post points out, for ESPN to have lost the NFL entirely would mean losing a significant part of its value and thus the decision had little to do with MNF’s value to ABC – which would have been diluted tremendously – and everything to do with its value to ESPN.) If ABC were not part of the same family as ESPN they may well have made the same decision.

And keep in mind that ABC added NASCAR racing, Heidi Race or no, after losing MNF, and although it never has any shot to run the Daytona 500 in any given year it does air the entire Chase for the Sprint Cup, something NBC wasn’t doing. And for all that Saturday is a wasteland, it was also after losing MNF that ABC gave up whatever it could have made by programming even the old “Wonderful World of Disney” in that time slot to air college football, succeeding well enough (and incidentially, according enough of a big-event feel) that some people want other networks and other sports to follow suit (where before it would have just been me). ABC has given up the British Open and ESPN isn’t giving it a return to the BCS, but in the latter case Fox is giving up on the BCS as well, and it’s telling that CBS and NBC aren’t stepping in.

But here’s the thing: the departure of sports from broadcast affects you even if you’re a cable subscriber. Right now, ESPN charges cable operators more than any other network. The top ten cable networks in terms of price charged to cable operators are also populated primarily by sports networks, and this is a big hang-up in the NFL Network’s dealings with cable operators. Those costs get passed on to you, and they are attributable to the value of sports in so many manifold ways to so many people, but especially the NFL. Your cable bill could shoot to the moon if ESPN acquires a property potentially bigger even than MNF.

And in this, there may be a silver lining – as well as a warning to the BCS and something of a duty. The FCC has been pushing for the institution of “a la carte” selection for cable channels, on the grounds that people should not pay for channels they don’t watch. Small cable channels have been pushing back against such a requirement, arguing they couldn’t survive in such an environment, but they barely survive anyway and they could gain some new viewers who were not willing to pay for large packages or whose cable operators can now add more channels because they don’t have to pay for every subscriber, watching or not, for each one. The real losers could be the larger cable channels like ESPN, which lose the services of people who aren’t watching them and can’t substantially raise prices or they’ll just lose more people. That will mean less money and less resources to provide better sports coverage, but perhaps more to the point, it will mean less money to spend towards rights fees (and less of an audience if some people decide they won’t get ESPN for the sake of one or two games). ESPN could still have some natural advantage, but broadcast networks will be able to play on a more level playing field – and that’s when everyone will be able to win again.

Very interesting. (To me at least.)

I noticed that the logo on at least the first couple of FSN college football broadcasts included a new logo… and regionalized games were shown as “FS Arizona” or “FS Big 12”.

Now it seems that the Oklahoma City Thunder will play on a renaming of FSN Southwest to… “FS Oklahoma“. Not FSN Oklahoma. Just plain FS Oklahoma.

I smell similar changes coming to other markets and maybe even the linewide update of FSN graphics I didn’t think was strictly implied, or necessarily possible.

Wild and Crazy Speculation on the Future of the Olympics on TV in the US

ESPN may be gunning for NBC’s Olympics rights starting in 2014.

The sports blogosphere generally hates ESPN and so what reaction I’ve seen has been negative. But on the plus side, between ABC Sp… er, ESPN on ABC, ESPN1, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, and maybe ABC Family and ESPNU (not to mention ESPN Deportes), they have no lack of platforms to put events on (which I’m not as certain of with CBS or Fox), and they might have more by 2014. And you know they’ll stream lots of events on ESPN360.

If they do get it, though… well, you see what happened when NBC overextended for Olympics rights – it led to the NFL and NBA leaving and killed NBC Sports until last year. If ESPN isn’t careful getting the Olympics would be the peak – and would start a long march downhill that could really help places like Versus. (Hear that, NBA on ESPN/ABC bashers? There might be a pretty good chance you’ll get what you want in 2016!)

Some sports musings

Couple of things:

*I’m seeing an international pool-play game in the Little League World Series on ESPN while Major League Baseball, a game between two playoff contenders, is on ESPN2. Please don’t tell me the former outdraws the latter.

*The NFL Network is going to put its “Total Access” program on “My Network TV” Saturday nights starting in September. Which means it will now be on a “network” that as many people watch as the NFL Network reaches.

Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Preseason

(In case you haven’t noticed, it’s the dog days of summer. Normally, I would hold off on this until closer to the actual start of the season, but college football is still several weeks away from being useful, if I were to do TV ratings reports I would want to hold off on them until mid-September, and no one’s voting on any of my polls. Basically, there’s nothing to do, but I haven’t had any hits all day, so…)

NBC’s Sunday Night Football package gives it flexible scheduling. For the last seven weeks of the season, the games are determined on 12-day notice, 6-day notice for Week 17.

Last year, no game was listed in the Sunday Night slot, only a notation that one game could move there. CBS and Fox were able to protect one game every week each but had to leave one week each unprotected and had to submit their protections after only four weeks.

Now, NBC lists the game it “tentatively” schedules for each night, and by all appearances, CBS and Fox can’t protect anything. However, the NFL is in charge of moving games to prime time.

Here are the rules from the NFL web site:

  • Begins Sunday of Week 11
  • In effect during Weeks 11-17
  • Only Sunday afternoon games are subject to being moved into the Sunday night window.
  • The game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night during flex weeks will be listed at 8:15 p.m. ET.
  • The majority of games on Sundays will be listed at 1:00 p.m. ET during flex weeks except for games played in Pacific or Mountain Time zones which will be listed at 4:05 or 4:15 p.m. ET.
  • No impact on Thursday, Saturday or Monday night games.
  • The NFL will decide (after consultation with CBS, FOX, NBC) and announce as early as possible the game being played at 8:15 p.m. ET. The announcement will come no later than 12 days prior to the game. The NFL may also announce games moving to 4:05 p.m. ET and 4:15 p.m. ET.
  • Week 17 start time changes could be decided on 6 days notice to ensure a game with playoff implications.
  • The NBC Sunday night time slot in “flex” weeks will list the game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night.
  • Fans and ticket holders must be aware that NFL games in flex weeks are subject to change 12 days in advance (6 days in Week 17) and should plan accordingly.
  • NFL schedules all games.
  • Teams will be informed as soon as they are no longer under consideration or eligible for a move to Sunday night.

Throughout the season, I’m going to make predictions on what the NFL will do each week in the flexible scheduling scheme. Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games:

Week 11 (November 18): Chicago @ Seattle
Week 12 (November 25): Philadelphia @ New England
Week 13 (December 2): Cincinnati @ Pittsburgh
Week 14 (December 9): Indianapolis @ Baltimore
Week 15 (December 16): Washington @ NY Giants
Week 16 (December 23): Tampa Bay @ San Francisco
Week 17 (December 30): Kansas City @ NY Jets

I will start putting up watches every week starting after Week 3 or 4. The Week 17 spot will double as a playoff watch. I will be paying close attention to what you think; I could extend the playoff watch concept to other pro sports if you do.

NBC Extends Wimbledon Contract

NBC has signed a “long term extention” with the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club for coverage of the Championships, Wimbledon.

More is hopefully forthcoming, as linked article does not provide exact duration.

UPDATE: The “long term deal” is for only four years. ESPN is also close to a deal that could include the Tennis Channel, according to sources.

NBA Re-ups with ABC, ESPN, TNT

This is a little late; blame NBA.com’s tardiness putting up the story, but the NBA will stay on ABC, ESPN, and TNT through 2016, well after just about all other leagues will have to renew their agreements. So far as people watching TV will be able to tell, it will be status quo, unless they happen to watch NBA TV try to become as close to the NFL Network as the NBA is to the NFL.

TNT will show 52 regular season games a year and up to that number of playoff games. ABC will show a minimum of 15 regular-season and the same number of playoff games, including the Finals; the ESPN family will show up to 75 regular season games and 29 playoff games.

More info at the linked article.

15 playoff games mean even with a 7-game Finals, ABC will have to show 8 playoff games, more games than Finals games. This represents a larger playoff commitment on the part of both ABC and ESPN. This and more analysis on Sports Media Watch.

NBC probably had the most successful run of any NBA TV partner, but this deal will give ABC rights for longer than NBC. Many NBA fans on the Internet have been critical of the NBA on ABC – and with gimmicks like bringing in the Pussycat Dolls to do songs for the opener, ABC makes an easy target – but the NBA and others have stated repeatedly that NBC, CBS, and Fox did not make a sufficient offer to compete, and it’s absurd to blame the NBA’s broadcast ratings woes to the presentation of games on ABC. If the games are good, people will turn in in spite of the presentation.

Durations of sports television contracts

Info from Wikipedia and research through various sources. This info is incomplete and may contain inaccuracies. Your input is welcomed if you can point me to sources to fill in absent or unknown info.

College football contracts – basketball and other sports generally through following year:
ACC thru 2010
Big 12, ABC thru 2015, FSN thru 2011
Big East thru 2013
Big 10 thru 2016
Pac-10 thru 2011
SEC, CBS and ESPN thru 2023, CSS thru 2013
MWC thru 2016 or 2020
C-USA thru 2010
MAC thru 2016
WAC thru 2016
Sun Belt thru 2011
Notre Dame thru 2015
Army thru 2014, Navy thru 2009

College basketball only:
MVC thru 2011
WCC thru 2011
Horizon League thru 2010
MAAC thru 2010
Atlantic 10 thru 2010
Patriot League thru 2008

Professional and other leagues:
NHL thru 2011
Horse Racing, Belmont Stakes on ABC at least thru 2008, NBC thru 2010
MLS, FSC thru 2010, ESPN and Univision/Telefutura thru 2014
MISL, FSC thru 2009
NIT thru 2010
US Open Cup thru 2010
AFL, ESPN thru 2011
French Open, Tennis Channel and ESPN thru 2011
Australian Open thru 2011
Wimbledon, NBC thru 2011, ESPN thru 2013
NFL, NBC thru 2012, CBS, FOX and ESPN thru 2014
PGA, NBC and CBS thru 2012, Golf Channel thru 2022
UEFA Champions League thru 2012
Olympics thru 2012
IndyCar, ABC thru 2012, Versus thru 2018
MLB thru 2013
NCAA Tournament (men’s and women’s, plus other ESPN and CBS champs) thru 2013
BCS thru 2014
NASCAR thru 2014
LLWS thru 2014
US Open (golf), ESPN thru 2014
US Open (Tennis) thru 2014
MLL thru 2016
NBA, WNBA thru 2016
British Open thru 2017
LPGA, Golf Channel thru 2019

Last Updated: July 24, 2009