Charles Dickens began “A Tale Of Two Cities” with “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” The same contradictory logic can apply these days to the television sports economy.
ESPN announced that it had acquired the rights to broadcast college football’s Bowl Championship Series beginning in January 2011 and for the two years following. ESPN’s winning bid came in at $375 million while the current BCS rights holder, Fox Sports, was only willing to go as far as $300 million according to its executives.
ESPN could outsource the games to ABC, where they would get more viewers and thus generate more ad revenue. The current thinking, however, is that ESPN will keep the games as a way to negotiate higher subscription fees from cable operators and satellite providers, who will then pass the costs onto their subscribers. That means those folks who couldn’t care less about college football will wind up paying for ESPN’s acquisition.
ESPN’s business decision backs up the long-held belief that televised sports is recession-proof. There are some ominous cracks in that theory, however. Mediaweek, the broadcast industry trade publication, ran a cover story last week on the economic problems that are now affecting the television sports business. Both Fox and CBS were stuck with a lot of commercial time that had to be discounted for their Thanksgiving Day games.
Another bad sign is that NBC has plenty of commercial slots for that king of sports telecasts, the Super Bowl. NBC Sports CEO Dick Ebersol has to be thinking about that old proverb of being careful for what you wish for because it might come true. Ebersol has been looking forward to the Peacock Network hosting the Super Bowl again ever since it lost NFL rights in 1998. You can be sure he was gnashing his teeth when General Motors announced it would not buy any airtime for the upcoming Super Bowl.
You can bet Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber is not a happy camper either. The New York Red Bulls, for the first time in their sorry 13-year history as a franchise, reached the MLS Championship Game just before Thanksgiving. They lost 3-1. A victory by the Red Bulls would have given pro soccer a much needed shot in the arm. In short, the MLS blew a chance to separate itself from other niche sports such as arena football and indoor lacrosse. When you win here, it creates national attention. New Yorkers couldn’t care less about runners-up.
MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann still keeps his finger in sports by being part of NBC’s Sunday Night Football telecast. Olbermann was called a “hot head” by TV Guide editors in this week’s Hot List issue, and he was mercilessly savaged as a pompous blowhard by Ben Affleck, who perfectly portrayed him in a “Saturday Night Live” skit that aired right before Election Day.
But Keith got the last laugh last week as he signed a $30 million, four-year deal with NBC/MSNBC.