Cracks in the TV Sports Business Model

It’s been clear for some time now that the business model of organized sports is heading for change in the next few years. With television viewers disconnecting from cable by the truckload, broadcasters like ESPN are losing hundreds of thousands of subscribers, leading to massive job cuts in 2015 and looming reductions in on-air personnel over the next few months.

All major sports except for hockey depend on the ESPN networks to pay for the growing costs of fielding professional and college sports teams. While CBS and Fox pay a lot of money for the SEC, NFL and Major League Baseball, they’re pretty much in the same boat as ESPN. The networks have all agreed to pay exorbitant rights fees for sports content, only to see their own revenues suffer. So change is coming.

With that as background, mark down March 10 as a key date. That’s when Colorado State and San Diego State played in the semifinals of the Mountain West men’s basketball tournament. With a scheduled tip at 9:30 p.m. That’s Pacific Time, which meant 10:30 p.m. for Rams fans at home in the Rocky Mountains. It was bad enough for Aztecs fans on the West Coast. I DVR’d the second half and watched it the next morning.

You see, in exchange for the boatloads of money the networks pay to the various sports leagues, the TV executives get to determine when the games will be played. They chose a MW semifinal to start at 9:30 p.m. Except that it didn’t actually begin when scheduled. The first game, between regular season and eventual tournament champion Nevada and Fresno State was hotly contested and ran long.

It was closer to 9:50 p.m. when the Rams and Aztecs jumped ball.

The powers-that-be in the MW noticed, by the way, and have discussed what the future holds in broadcasting sports. The league has a streaming digital channel, also streams select games on Twitter and pioneered the concept of dedicated conference television channels. Long before there was the SEC Network and Big Ten Network on your cable sports tier, there was the MW, which was actually fairly good until it died because its markets were simply too small.

So the league is willing to take chances, and looking for other ways of attracting eyeballs to your events makes sense. Which brings us to the other part of the equation. The MW is not considered one of the Power 5 conferences that command most of the attention in college sports and gobble up most of the TV revenue.

The channel that imposed a 9:30 p.m., eventually 9:50 p.m., tip on a semifinal of the conference tournament was not ESPN or Fox, but the CBS Sports Network. In a 2015 report, it ranked 13th of 15 sports networks in the number of homes it gets into. Very likely, if you don’t subscribe to a sports tier, you don’t get it in your own home. Unable to throw out much cash, the CBS Sports Network pays the MW a pittance compared to what the power conferences receive.

So for the MW to be considering something different is not a surprise, with all that’s going on. That younger viewers are spending their time on Netflix and Hulu, and watching on their phones, can’t be ignored, either. The league’s product usually isn’t too shabby, though the last couple of years have been a bit down.

And other conferences have to be watching what the MW will do in the future. The Big 12 can’t get its own network and the Pac-12’s dedicated channel is a disaster. The Pac-12, in fact, is every bit as competitive as the other conferences and sports some of the nation’s largest TV markets, but continues to fall behind in the revenue race.

Unless cable companies — not the networks — change the way they conduct business, like offering a la carte services to subscribers, things are just going to get worse for the sports TV business model. And advertisers can’t be too pleased that I set the second half of the basketball game on DVR, because while I watched at my convenience I also fast-forwarded through all the commercial breaks. With football games lasting four hours now, those with 7:30 p.m. starts are going to see a lot of fans saving their conclusions for the next morning.

So leagues are eyeing the future and preparing for their next step. Branching out to other platforms looks to be the coming wave, and when that catches on, March 10, 2017, will be the day we started seeing some cracks.


 

As an aside, it should be pointed out that the CBS Sports Network covers college sports quite well and is willing to take on the non-power conferences, like the MW and American. Their college football and college basketball studio shows, in my humble opinion, are more fun to watch than their ESPN counterparts.

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