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.
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?
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?
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:
One-time $14 purchase of HD antenna > more than $14/month broadcast network fees being tacked on to your pay TV bundle.
— Sports TV Ratings (@SportsTVRatings) March 16, 2023
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.
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:
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:
When word came out that Amazon had guaranteed advertisers 12.5 million viewers for its new Thursday Night Football package, most observers poo-pooed the notion that they would get anything close to that and figured Amazon would find themselves in a massive financial hole trying to make up for it with very limited commercial inventory with which to do so, especially any that would be of any use for reaching Americans. As much as leagues and media companies have been rushing to jump onboard the bandwagon of streaming sports events, whenever streaming numbers for events also airing on linear networks have been publicized they’ve been a small fraction of the linear audience, and even events airing exclusively on streaming have received audiences far smaller than what their leagues are used to. Back in 2020, when Amazon aired a Niners-Cardinals game on a December Saturday – the only previous time, to my immediate recollection, that the NFL had aired a non-London game exclusively on streaming – it attracted an audience of 4.8 million, hammocked by games exclusive to NFL Network that picked up audiences of 6.1 and 8.4 million. To be sure, becoming the consistent, weekly home to Thursday Night Football, including games involving popular, valuable, relevant teams, would help Amazon achieve better ratings, but at best they would be in the neighborhood of those NFLN-exclusive games on Saturdays and Thursdays, approaching but almost certainly not passing 9 million, let alone coming close to 12.5 million; even executives within the league itself suggested the expectation shouldn’t be more than 7 or 8 million. Outside of Amazon’s own offices, the question wasn’t whether Amazon’s sky-high guarantees would turn out to be folly if not outright scamming advertisers, it was by how much.
But whatever it was Amazon did or had on its side that no one else was taking into account, be it heavily advertising TNF on anything associated with them, having an established subscriber base, or just having viewership on mobile devices count towards their Nielsen-rated numbers when it counts for no one else, it paid off, in a way that, as Amazon executives would have you think, exceeded even their own expectations. When the numbers finally came in for Amazon’s season-opening game between the Chargers and Chiefs, it clocked in at a whopping 13 million viewers – a number that included viewing on local TV stations in the teams’ respective markets, but even for the most popular teams that shouldn’t ever exceed 1.5 million for any game. (The numbers have fallen below the initial advertiser guarantees in the subsequent weeks, but have remained above 11 million.) It was a jaw-dropping number that hit the sports media Twitterverse like an atom bomb – and could turn out to be a turning point for sports on TV more generally.
Thursday, June 30, 2022 may go down as the day college football as many fans knew it officially died, as that was the day the Big Ten stunned the college football world, as the addition of USC and UCLA to the conference went from being reported by various reporters, initially with the clarification that it wasn’t a done deal, to being officially announced in the space of a few hours. It’s easy to see the move as a desperation bid by the Big Ten in response to the SEC poaching Texas and Oklahoma a year earlier, which created the first sixteen-team “superconference” in college football, crippled the Big 12 and left them in a liminal state where they’re likely to be seen as only barely a power conference at best, and threatened to create a gap between the SEC and other conferences that might be insurmountable. None of the other schools in the Big 12 could bring nearly as much of a brand name or fanbase to any of the other conferences to even be worth splitting the pie more ways, let alone make up the gap to the SEC, and the Pac-12 and ACC seemed to be cohesive enough conferences, with strong relationships between their member institutions, as to be off-limits to be poached by the Big Ten or each other.
Three years ago, back in the Before Times, SportsBusiness Journal reported that Major League Soccer had opted to do something rather eyebrow-raising. MLS had told its existing and future teams not to sell local broadcast rights beyond 2022 when its national TV deals were set to expire, in hopes of maximizing the value the league could offer to potential media partners. With both national and local TV revenue falling short of other soccer or American professional sports leagues, this represented a big gamble to try and maximize the league’s media revenue going forward, but Awful Announcing observed that it carried a big risk of backfiring regardless of whether or not it was successful. It would almost assuredly only work if MLS reached a deal with a streaming service, at a time when tech companies had shown little serious interest in American sports and legacy media companies were only just starting to dip their toes in the water of streaming, and most companies would likely balk at taking on both national and local MLS rights; by not being able to sell local rights to the most valuable teams separately those teams’ rights would be undervalued, and with them, potentially local MLS rights as a whole; but on the flip side, if MLS didn’t sell local rights to anyone, all the teams would be stuck with what the state of the local rights market, and of local MLS TV ratings, would be in 2022, for better and worse.
In the end, though, MLS’ gamble paid off brilliantly – and in a way that could forge a path for other leagues going forward. Two weeks ago MLS announced a 10-year agreement with Apple unlike any other in American sports. While Apple is guaranteeing MLS $250 million a year, and will have the rights to show some games for free and on Apple TV+, the core of the deal is a partnership MLS and Apple are entering into to create a new streaming service, accessible through the Apple TV app, with rights to every single MLS game, across the country and around the world, whether in- or out-of-market. MLS will produce coverage of every game with commentary in English and Spanish (and French for Canadian teams) or from each team’s local radio broadcast. MLS still hopes to reach an agreement with a linear TV partner(s), but any such games would be simulcast with Apple, not exclusive, and in a “letter to fans” from Commissioner Don Garber, it’s indicated that any such agreement would only be for the “early years” of the partnership, meaning if streaming of live sports was sufficiently mainstream down the line, MLS could yet abandon linear TV entirely.
I can’t believe I’m doing this again. I set a goal for me to actually do something productive that might actually make me some money this year, and had a bunch of projects lined up to do over the next few months, and I allowed myself to get sucked in to something that could chew up a lot of time for not much reward. To make matters worse I’m doing it in Google Sheets in the hopes I might be able to share the spreadsheet directly at some point for people to explore the charts on their own, but at the moment it just means it’s a massive memory hog.
But hey, ShowBuzz Daily seems to be more comprehensive than any source I used when doing this in the past, recording viewers and 18-49 ratings for the top 150 original cable programs of each day in the demo, deeper than any source I’ve used in the past that wasn’t restricted to certain networks, as well as viewers, 18-49 viewers, and household ratings for any event at any time on any network (except for ESPNU and a few other, quirky networks), giving me timelier and more complete coverage of daytime sports events on broadcast networks than I’ve ever had before. It’s already had one shutdown scare, but it at least allows me to provide more comprehensive Olympics ratings coverage than the last time I tried this.
Whether or not these numbers are meaningful outside of NBC is another question. In both Tokyo and Beijing NBC opted to have USA present round-the-clock 24/7 coverage, not even interrupted by WWE Monday Night Raw in the case of Beijing (but occasionally interrupted by Premier League coverage). This means there aren’t necessarily any logical “windows” to report ratings for, and how NBC actually did divide the windows for ratings purposes doesn’t necessarily make any sense. NBC had USA’s primetime window align with NBC’s primetime window, and the late-night “Prime Plus” window align with local news and “Prime Plus” on NBC, even if the resulting cutoffs were in the middle of live event coverage. I can sort of see the logic behind that, and I can even see the logic of setting a hard cutoff at 8 AM ET, usually the time when a hockey game would be starting, but the window starting at that time would usually go for six hours, meaning it would be split roughly evenly between live coverage and a few hours of delayed re-airs. I don’t see how that makes sense even from a selling-to-advertisers perspective; few would be watching consistently for that long, and a live hockey game is likely to draw a different audience from taped coverage.
Regardless, this is my attempt to make sense of what was reported on ShowBuzz Daily. This is a list of every window reported there with viewership of over 500,000. Click here to learn more about how to read the charts, but note that that page is now woefully outdated.