When many Baby Boomers entered adulthood in the early 1970’s, people could only watch sports on three different channels; NBC, CBS, and ABC. Then, in 1979, the world’s first 24/7 sports channel, ESPN, came to life and gradually evolved into an empire. In 1994, Fox created its own major broadcast channel, which along with NBC, CBS, and ABC, have become the Big Four broadcast channels. All four major satellite networks have telecasted the Super Bowl among many of the premier sporting events in the country. In addition, since people do not need cable subscription to watch satellite channels, more people can access the Big Four networks than any other medium on television.
Recently, though, times have changed, as all of the major networks have yearned to establish their own identities with sports, similar to what Disney’s ABC/ESPN combo has accomplished. 24/7 sports cable networks went through a boom between 2004 and 2014, with the establishments of NBC Sports Network (NBCSN), CBS Sports Network (CBSSN), Fox Sports 1, and collegiate networks Big Ten Network, Pac-12 Network, and SEC Network.
Furthermore, each major sports league decided to create its own exclusive sports channel, such as NBATV, MLB Network, NFL Network, NHL Network, The Golf Channel, and The Tennis Channel. In 2010, CBS formed a partnership with Turner to combine to telecast major sporting events, particularly the Men’s Basketball NCAA Tournament.
Even the most rabid sports fans cannot possibly follow every single network or channel on television. Instead of a just a few platforms, television has evolved to targeting a distinct audience with each particular sport. With a plethora of sports TV channels available, the monthly cable bills for many people have significantly increased. Many families now cannot afford to pay for luxury cable TV.
Last month, Wall Street Journal published a report claiming that ESPN has lost over three million subscribers within the last year and 7.2 million subscribers – channel’s availability went down from 100.1 million to 92.9 million homes – in the past four years. ESPN charges $6.61 per cable subscriber, and the network has billions of dollars locked in to sports rights deals with multiple leagues through the end of this decade.
In all, the number of U.S. cable subscribers has steadily decreased over the past three years, with the Convergence Consulting Group estimating a decline of 329,000 subscribers in 2015. The average cable subscriber pays nearly three times as much ($128) per month as he or she did in 2001 ($48). The additional sports networks have greatly contributed to the rising costs, with ESPN ($6.61), NFL Network ($1.31), Fox Sports 1 ($0.99), and ESPN2 ($0.83) accounting for four of the nine most expensive television networks on cable (per month). TNT ($1.65) and TBS ($0.85), which both broadcast major sporting events such as the NBA All-Star Game, NCAA Tournament, and MLB Postseason, also rank amongst the most expensive cable channels.
Have we finally reached the tipping point for the excess of sports television? Is it time for these big four networks to use their satellite channels, like they did for the last 25 years of the 20th century, to telecast sporting events on a more regular basis? What can the networks do to remain afloat for the long-term? Let’s examine the current climate for three of the four major broadcasting companies and their respective cable sports networks (NOTE: CBS has kept an extremely low profile with CBSSN and airs almost all major events on its satellite channel, including NFL, SEC Football, March Madness, and the PGA Tour. Thus, the network’s strategy to exclusively promote its satellite channel will be revisited later in the article):
With ESPN charging more than five times the amount as any other cable channel, Disney, which owns ESPN, has used the monthly cable revenue to purchase exclusive major rights deals. Take a look at some of ESPN’s current long-term commitments:
|League/Event||Contract||Annual Value||Expiration Year|
|NFL||8 years/$15.2 billion||$1.9 billion||2021|
|NBA||9 years/$12.6 billion||$1.4 billion||2025|
|MLB||8 years/$5.6 billion||$700 million||2021|
|CFP/New Year’s Six Bowls||12 years/$7.3 billion||$608 million||2025|
|Pac-12 (Joint with Fox)||12 years/$3 billion||$250 million||2024|
|SEC||15 years/$2.25 billion||$150 million||2023|
|ACC||15 years/$3.6 billion||$238 million||2027|
|Big 12||13 years/$1.3 billion||$100 million||2025|
|MLS (Joint with Fox)||8 years/$600 million||$75 million||2022|
|US Open Tennis||11 years/$770 million||$70 million||2025|
|Wimbledon||12 years/$480 million||$40 million||2023|
Just with these ten agreements, ESPN must pay at least $5.4 billion annually over the next six years alone. ESPN additionally has multi-million dollar long-term agreements with Australian Open tennis, Little League World Series, the U.S. men’s soccer national team, WNBA, and Women’s NCAA basketball tournament. Combined, ESPN owes all of the sports leagues well over $6 billion annually through the end of the end of this decade.
As a result, ESPN has rapidly charged more money per cable subscriber; in 2011, the network charged only $4.55 per month for 100.1 million subscribers, which equaled approximately $455 million in monthly revenue or $5.46 billion per year. Four years later, ESPN charges $6.61/month for 92.9 million subscribers, which amounts to a monthly revenue of $614 million and an annual revenue of $7.37 billion. Can this business model of raising prices but losing subscribers last?
Sure, ESPN pocketed nearly $2 billion more in 2015 than in 2011 despite possessing over seven million fewer subscribers. With such a high annual rights fee, ESPN must prioritize earning its guaranteed share of money more than anything else. However, customer loyalty almost always wins out in the long-term, so ESPN should pay close attention to keeping as many customers as possible. If the channel jumps up to $7.00 per month and only 20% of all cable subscribers religiously watch sporting channels like ESPN, will the price increase continue to compensate for the loss of subscribers? If it does not, can ESPN afford to spend enough money to maintain its strong features department and a high level of overall production capability?
These are pressing questions that will remain extremely relevant for ESPN for the remainder of this decade; ESPN alone costs more than five dollars per month more than any other cable channel, so the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” has by far the most to lose with each cord cutter. As a result, the network has made some cost-cutting moves such as parting ways with popular television personalities Bill Simmons, Colin Cowherd, and Keith Olbermann. ESPN’s most-watched original programming show, “Pardon the Interruption”, attracts fewer than a million viewers, so the network has shifted its priorities to producing live games and the studio shows surrounding those events.
Despite some negative trends, though, ESPN still remains the most-watched cable network by a wide margin, largely due to the live events. ESPN had a spectacular week to begin 2015, with four football games – three games in CFP, NFC Wildcard Game – that brought in a record audience. The National Championship between Oregon and Ohio State set a new cable ratings record with 33.4 million viewers, while the other two CFP games attracted over 28 million viewers. The Cardinals-Panthers wildcard game – not exactly featuring two high-profile teams – was the third most-watched NFL game ever on ESPN. These four games, along with the rest of the New Year’s Six bowls, should continue to generate strong ratings and bring in strong ad revenue. The National Championship reportedly cost roughly $1 million per 30-second commercial, extremely impressive for a cable event.
While football dominates the sporting landscape, other sports as a whole get far less traction. MLS has attracted a fairly modest 237,000 viewers per game on ESPN, while weekday MLB matchups have received mid-to-high six figure viewership numbers. A little over a million people typically watch the most anticipated Sunday Night Baseball matchups. NBA games, especially relative to what ESPN pays the league, attracted only 1.5 million viewers per game this past season, the least-watched season since 2007-08. Fewer than eight million viewers per game watched the entirety of the Western Conference Finals between the popular Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.
In the latter part of the 2015 college basketball season, ESPN received very solid viewership numbers as rivalry matchups and Championship Week took place. Seven of the ten most viewed regular season college basketball games of this past season aired on ESPN, very impressive considering two satellite networks (CBS and Fox) aired some meaningful regular season games, including Coach K’s 1000th career win.
Ultimately, though, these numbers are scarce compared to what ESPN really pays for. The network pays over $5.00 per viewer for almost every MLB, NBA, and college basketball regular season game. Thank god for football, both professional and college, which have both saved overall viewership for networks like ESPN.
This begs the question: why doesn’t ESPN move some marquee events to ABC to attract even more viewers? After all, the NBA Finals averaged over 19 million viewers for each of the six games, nearly tripling the viewership totals of the conference final games on cable. The most-watched event on cable, the 2015 National Championship, still could not match the 2006 Rose Bowl between Texas and USC, which received 35.4 million viewers; that game was played before social media entered the market, so a matchup of that caliber could have attracted well over 50 million viewers in modern times.
Understandably, Disney and ESPN want a strong return from their multi-billion dollar investment in telecasting live sporting events. However, the network should attempt to do a far better job of using ABC as a platform to generate interest in a particular sport. ESPN has made a shrewd decision in simulcasting the 2016 NFL Wildcard game on BOTH ABC and ESPN, which should significantly boost overall traffic related to the game. Is this a sign of things to come for ESPN, in which marquee events can be accessed on both satellite TV and cable? While football already generates strong interest, other sports, notably MLB and NBA games, can really reap tremendous rewards from added exposure. In addition, they can earn much more money from advertisements on higher-rated games since a larger percentage of overall viewers can watch games on satellite. People will still tune in to ESPN for meaningful games; fans will naturally get more engaged with the leagues when they have access to follow more games. Accessibility has certainly made the NFL ridiculously popular in America.
Fox/Fox Sports 1
Fox Sports just began its new 24/7 sports channel in August 2013, but the new network has already telecasted several marquee events. The 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, Team USA Gold Cup men’s soccer, the 2014 NLCS, US Open golf, regular season college football games, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, and major UFC bouts have already appeared on Fox Sports 1. Fox also owns majority stake at Big Ten Network. Like ESPN, Fox has several long-term commitments, as seen below:
|League/Event||Contract||Annual Value||Expiration Year|
|NFL||9 years/$10.35 billion||$1.15 billion||2022|
|MLB||8 years/$4 billion||$500 million||2021|
|NASCAR||10 years/$3.8 billion||$380 million||2024|
|FIFA World Cup||8 years/$500 million (undisclosed amount for 2026 World Cup)||$250 million||2026|
|Pac-12 (Joint with ESPN)||12 years/$3 billion||$250 million||2024|
|Big 12||13 years/$1.3 billion||$100 million||2025|
|US Open Golf||12 years/$1.12 billion||$93.33 million||2026|
|UFC||7 years/$630 million||$90 million||2018|
|MLS (Joint with ESPN)||8 years/$600 million||$75 million||2022|
|Big East||12 years/$500 million||$41.67 million||2024|
Unlike ESPN, every NFL game Fox telecasts airs on a satellite channel instead of cable. In return, Fox has reaped tremendous rewards broadcasting the marquee NFC matchups all regular season and through the NFC Championship. Unlike NBC and ESPN, Fox broadcasts several games during the 1 pm/4:25 PM ET broadcast windows during the NFL season; as a result, Fox received the most total viewers – approximately 570 million for 27 games that aired nationally – during the 2013 NFL season.
CBS, which aired the same amount of games as Fox, received just over 500 million viewers, while NBC, which telecasted only 19 games, received 413 million viewers. Fox reportedly paid less than $2.00 per viewer for NFL games, compared to over $8.00 per viewer paid by ESPN, which pays the NFL $800 million more per year than Fox does yet receives approximately 60% of the viewers of the satellite channel. The league recognizes that cable companies must pay a premium to compensate for the loss of viewers.
However, comparatively speaking, Fox has missed out on several viewers in other sports as a result of Fox Sports 1, most notably baseball and NASCAR viewership. The 2014 NLCS between the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants averaged 4.5 million viewers on Fox Sports 1 – the lowest rated LCS series on record – for the five-game series; the same exact series in 2012 that aired on satellite Fox averaged 6.5 million viewers.
NASCAR has faced similar issues; after picking up an additional four races compared to 2014 (TNT previously had the rights to those extra races), Fox Sports 1 aired six different Sprint Cup races in 2015, compared to 10 on the big network. Outside of Martinsville, which garnered 4.061 million viewers, every other Sprint Cup race that aired on FS1 attracted fewer than four million viewers. To make matters worse, the six races that aired on FS1 received significantly lower viewership totals than the same race in 2014.
Shouldn’t Fox attempt to receive maximum exposure on major sporting events, instead of attempting to promote its new sports network? Understandably, Fox Sports 1 wants to reach the point where it can comfortably raise its current cable monthly price of $0.99 per month. Like ESPN, Fox has preposterously lucrative financial commitments to sports leagues and will seek to gain as much revenue as possible from cable subscription.
Like the NBA and ESPN/ABC, though, as massive disparity exists between cable viewership and satellite viewership, to the point where these networks should prioritize getting as many viewers as possible instead of promoting its sports network. Even the 2014 World Series on satellite Fox, featuring two relatively mediocre baseball markets in San Francisco and Kansas City, averaged over 12 million viewers for the first six games and 23.5 million viewers for the deciding game. Prior to airing a single race on FS1, the first five NASCAR Sprint Cup races each eclipsed over seven million viewers, almost double of any race airing on Fox Sports 1. No college basketball game on FS1 has attracted a million viewers, while regular season games like Duke/St. John’s received nearly three million viewers.
Ultimately, more people naturally become vested in a product when they can fully follow the action. At the beginning of the NASCAR season, anyone can follow the action going on, especially starting with the Daytona 500, the largest event in the sport. NASCAR traditionally has a lower income, blue-collar fan base than other sports, so many of these fans simply cannot afford a monthly cable bill required to watch major races on Fox Sports 1. Thus, NASCAR should take a close, hard look at these stunning viewership declines to make a point that all races should air on satellite platforms.
Like the above two networks, NBC has gone quite overboard with its desire to promote its own cable channel. Here are some of NBC’s long-term commitments with various leagues:
|League/Event||Contract||Annual Value||Expiration Year|
|NFL||9 years/$8.8 billion||$950 million||2022|
|Olympics||12 years/$7.65 billion||$637.5 million||2032|
|NASCAR||10 years/$4.4 billion||$440 million||2024|
|NHL||10 years/$2 billion||$200 million||2021|
|Premier League Soccer||6 years/$1 billion||$166.67 million||2022|
|Notre Dame Football||10 years/$150 million||$15 million||2025|
The above deals do not include NBC’s undisclosed but lucrative long-term agreements with each of the three Triple Crown horse racing events, French Open tennis, PGA Tour, Formula 1 Racing, and the Tour de France.
Since NBCSN only costs a paltry $0.30 per month and nets annual revenues of fewer than $300 million from cable subscription, NBC executives have decided to make a major play to substantially increase the value of their cable network. After all, their network, which was officially rebranded in January 2012, is only available in approximately 81.5 million homes; Fox Sports 1, which debuted well after NBCSN, is available in almost 85 million homes and receives more than three times the annual revenue from cable subscription that NBCSN collects.
Marquee events, such as Stanley Cup Final games, Premier League matches and NASCAR Sprint Cup races have all appeared on NBCSN in 2015. Relatively speaking, the added exposure has helped boost viewership on NBCSN, as the network received more than a million viewers in a single week in July, which far exceeded what Fox Sports 1 or ESPN received that week.
In addition, NBCSN has hit several milestones with its Premier League viewership, including the most-watched opening weekend (average 356,000 viewers) ever for the Premier League in the US. The Manchester Derby was the most-watched match on the network, attracting nearly a million viewers, and the overall success helped NBC and the Premier League reach a six-year extension to keep English soccer on NBC.
Two Stanley Cup Final matches that aired on NBCSN – Games 3 and 4 – between the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning – received just fewer than four million viewers; both matches marked the third-largest NHL audience figures in the network’s history.
For NASCAR, NBC placed marquee races such as the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis and the Pocono 500 in Pennsylvania on the cable channel instead of the satellite channel. Since network executives desire to grow the cable channel, the races have received relatively strong viewership figures. Three races – Indianapolis, Pocono, and Watkins Glen – each received at least four million viewers, which all contributed to the most-watched month (July 2015) in NBCSN’s history.
However, with the good comes the concerning trends. In terms of overall viewership, NBCSN has cost millions of fans the opportunity to watch marquee sporting events. So far this season, each of the NASCAR races aired on NBCSN has received fewer viewers than the exact same races that ESPN and TNT aired last season.
In the larger perspective, having fewer than four million people watch the biggest NHL games is extremely concerning. Even worse, Stanley Cup Final games appeared on different channels; Games 1, 2, 5, and 6 aired on NBC while Games 3 and 4 were shown on NBCSN. Non-hockey fans can thoroughly follow a major seven-games series when all games appear on the same channel; more people can truly follow the event when all games air on a satellite channel.
The Versus/NBCSN has had the right to telecast NHL regular season games for over 10 seasons, but the network still has not grown its overall fanbase. Standard NHL regular season games on NBCSN over the past five years have steadily attracted 350,000 viewers, while games on NBC have attracted more than four times that amount.
As much as NBC executives want to grow the cable network, they must first establish a capable audience. Several million people watch sports on NBC, which had a smashing success with this year’s Triple Crown races. 16 million people watched the Kentucky Derby, nearly 10 million tuned in to the Preakness, and over 22 million people saw American Pharoah complete the first Triple Crown this century. Interest peaked when more people could legitimately follow the action. NBC should recognize their amazing success with the thrilling Super Bowl XLIX (114.4 million viewers) and Triple Crown to continue to put marquee sporting events on the satellite channels.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Ultimately, with the rise of cable sports networks, one consistent, deeply concerning trend has emerged; leagues and networks have placed far greater emphasis on building the cable networks instead of attempting to grow and build the sport. When players reach the pinnacle of their respective sports and receive the opportunity to play for a championship, they should have the opportunity to play in front of the largest audience possible.
Look no further than the NFL. Since 2010, an average of approximately 110 million viewers have tuned in to the Super Bowl, easily the most watched live programming every year. Sure, the Super Bowl could possibly remain an outlier, due to the combined interests of music fans (Halftime show performances, National Anthem) and the presence of original commercials. However, NFC and AFC championship games on Fox and CBS have regularly attracted between 40 and 50 million viewers per game over the past decade. Want more?
New England’s win over Baltimore in the 2015 AFC Divisional Round became the third-most watched AFC Divisional game on record with an average of 34 million people watching the thriller. That was the third most watched game of the weekend, as 44.4 million people tuned in to the Cowboys/Packers game while 41.8 million people watched the Colts upset the Broncos in Denver.
As social media’s presence has grown, the NFL’s popularity continues to soar to unprecedented heights. Despite all of the negative controversies surrounding the league, such as Tom Brady’s controversial Deflategate suspension and Ray Rice’s domestic violence scandal, an increasing amount of people tune in to the sport. So far, the NFL has done a masterful job of providing maximum exposure to an overwhelming majority of its games, particularly the entire playoffs. The league, as its currently constructed, does not over-saturate its product and the season lasts for a finite amount of time, keeping several people extremely engaged in the product. Going forward, the NFL should not drastically alter its current structure, which has continued to grow every year.
Other major sports leagues have indeed over-saturated their products and have attempted to prioritize TV money over accessibility. In the short-term, particularly during the duration of these TV mega-contracts, this method will work, as networks will distribute a plethora of money to the league. However, the leagues must ensure that they do not alienate their fan base and must respect their audience. The fans provide the leagues (and networks) with the financial resources to prosper. Leagues and individual players just cannot grow without sustained fan interest and support.
This brings us to CBS’s strategy of focusing entirely on the satellite channel and refusing to engage in bidding wars for sports rights that would air on CBSSN. CBS’s satellite channel carries year-round weekend sporting events – NFL and SEC football in the fall/winter, college basketball in the late winter/early spring, PGA Tour Golf in the late spring/summer. In the grand scheme of things, CBS telecasts very few events compared to its three largest competitors. However, CBS almost always has aired a sporting event on its main channel every single weekend. Take a look at the viewership figures for some of its main events within the past year:
|2015 AFC Championship||42.1 million|
|NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship||28.3 million|
|Masters Final Round||14 million|
|2014 SEC Championship||12.8 million|
These numbers do not fully represent the entire picture; the NFL on CBS gets its own Thursday night primetime slot in a separate deal with the league; the 8-game package averaged 16 million viewers on a primetime weeknight. The Sunday afternoon NFL package averaged nearly 20 million viewers per week, while the SEC package also registered nearly 10 million viewers per week. For three days in the fall – Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday – CBS received stellar weekly ratings from its football events.
Furthermore, the 2015 NCAA Tournament, owned by a CBS/Turner partnership, received the most viewers since 1993. All 67 games averaged 11.3 million viewers over the three-week period. Even with a decline in overall PGA Tour viewership last season, CBS still attracted over two million viewers, which is right around the average thus far in the 2015 season.
Overall, CBS has held up just fine even though network executives have chosen to avoid adding premier live events on its cable channel. Sports that air on cable channels cost substantially more than any event that airs on a satellite channel and rightfully so. The leagues recognize that they sacrifice total viewers for more guaranteed money by the networks. If cable networks want to succeed, they must invest in a premium, but is it all really worth it?
Until the early-mid 2020’s, this current cable sports model will hold up due to the guaranteed long-term contracts. However, as the world continues to evolve into a digital mindset – this is a completely separate, in-depth topic that will be dissected another time – exposure becomes that much more critical for both the networks and leagues. As quickly as word can spread about a particular sport, another sport can fade into oblivion just as rapidly. With the steady decline of cable subscribers, largely due to the rising costs, people can tune off most sports that they do not play. Sports Business Journal just did a thorough analysis on the lack of youth participation on several sports.
Leagues and networks should interdependently strive to create a long-lasting product, which will hopefully increase fan participation in sports. To ensure fans they they can directly relate and connect with a particular sport, leagues must act proactively to encourage that people live active lifestyles. Yes, sports are entertainment and networks will continuously strive to attract as many viewers as possible. However, consistent and loyal viewership lasts the longest and will create a strong, core audience and hopefully encourage more people to participate in the sport.
By engaging in several TV contracts with cable networks, leagues have priced out many viewers who were previously fans of the sport. With so many races on cable that youth NASCAR fans cannot watch on television, will these same people continuously stay loyal to the sport after five years of not watching consistent races? Can the NHL, which has had an extremely stagnant fan base for so long, actually grow when the overwhelming majority of games are telecasted on a network like NBCSN?
I do not suggest that networks should totally abandon an all-sports cable platform. Providing exclusive content to a distinct target audience still drives people who want more exclusive coverage on a particular topic. Original studio shows still receive their fair share of viewers, and cable sports networks allow channels to televise exponentially more games and provide in-depth analysis surrounding major sporting events. That provides far greater exposure for the sport, which serves its purpose.
However, the excess of television networks has oversaturated the market, which defeats the purpose of sport. In the big picture, sports are just games that every common person can play in his or her spare time. Professional and collegiate sports leagues, which the youth especially look up to, provide entire communities and groups of people with a common interest to discuss in everyday conversations. Instead of going solely after the money and TV ratings, leagues and networks should strive for exposure to promote the sport. Putting more high-profile events on satellite networks accomplishes this feat and gives athletes and teams the greatest incentive to reach the pinnacle of their respective sports.
Sports have delivered exceptionally high TV ratings on satellite channels, especially compared to other original programming on those networks. CBS, Fox, ABC, and NBC should continue to exploit the fact that most people prefer watching sporting events live instead of recorded programming, since the uncertainty of a result galvanizes the audience. Major sporting events belong on satellite, so the entire country can tune in to an event. Otherwise, the TV sports bubble may burst next decade, leaving the future of sports television for the next generation of people in serious jeopardy.