A sports fan might have been puzzled, if not amazed, if someone told him at the dawn of the 21st century, just 15 years ago, that:
▪ Seven pro sports — the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, tennis, soccer and golf — three major conferences (the Big 10, Southeastern and Pac-12) and a university (Texas) would have their own sports cable networks.
▪ That some of the Final Four, an NFL wild-card playoff game, an NBA conference Finals, a Major League Baseball league championship series and college football’s most important postseason games would move from free TV to cable.
▪ That an NFL game (Buffalo-Jacksonville from London) would be televised only on the Internet next season, except in the cities of the two teams.
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▪ That men’s NCAA Tournament games would be televised on something called truTV.
▪ That many sports fans would be religiously using something called Twitter to follow breaking news, and that they could watch live sports on mobile devices while shopping.
▪ That college football would not only authorize a true national championship game, but that it would be televised in some form on six different channels.
The sports media landscape and how fans consume sports have changed more dramatically in the past decade than anyone could have ever conceived.
“I’m not sure I saw any of this coming, not sure I saw all the conference and league-owned channels,” former ESPN president George Bodenheimer said in a phone interview. “There has never been a better time to be a sports fan and have access to sports.”
Longtime South Florida radio executive Steve Lapa said it’s clear to him that “people 18 to 34 watch sports very differently than those over 50. The younger people are on their tablets, on their phones, while watching the games. They want more gossipy stuff. It’s a different dynamic.”
Examining some of the sports media trends and their impact:
▪ The advent of new channels: Leagues launched their own networks in 1999 (NBA TV), 2003 (NFL Network), 2007 (NHL Network) and 2009 (MLB Network).
Conferences launched networks in 2006 (Big 10), 2012 (Pacific-12) and 2014 (Southeastern).
Of those seven, NFL Network is believed to have the largest average prime-time audience. From April of 2014 through March of 2015, NFL Network had 380,000 prime-time viewers, on average, compared with 132,000 for MLB Network and 121,000 for NBA TV. Ratings aren’t released for the NHL-owned and the college conference networks.
But none of those channels draw nearly as many eyeballs as ESPN, which averages 2.3 million viewers in prime time, or ESPN2, which averaged 471,000.
For this year’s NFL Draft, 7.1 million watched the first round on ESPN, compared with 1.8 million on NFL Network.
“The NFL Network clearly is dominant as compared to the other three league-owned networks, but all the leagues use them as promotional platforms,” said former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, who runs a media consulting firm and teaches at Columbia University.
Fox has attempted to challenge ESPN with its August 2013 launch of Fox Sports 1, which replaced Speed Channel, and Fox Sports 2, which replaced Fuel TV.
Fox Sports 1’s daily viewership has risen 34 percent in the past year, whereas ESPN’s is flat.
But overall, ESPN’s prime-time viewership, on average, is more than seven times larger than the audience size of Fox Sports 1, which averaged 314,000 viewers in prime time from April 2014 to March 2015.
NBC Sports Network, with an average of 302,000 viewers in prime time, is even further behind ESPN. CBS Sports Network isn’t rated nationally.
Fox Sports 1 has amassed a strong collection of event programming — MLB games, Big 10 and Big 12 football, Big East basketball, Sprint Cup races, MLS, the recent Women’s World Cup and more — but its signature studio show, Fox Sports Live, hasn’t been a threat to ESPN’s SportsCenter.
In an attempt to lure viewers from SportsCenter, Fox Sports Live tried something different: panel discussions featuring retired athletes (Andy Roddick, Donovan McNabb, among others) discussing numerous sports, not only the ones they played.
But during that year-long period, Fox Sports 1 averaged 76,000 viewers for its 11 p.m. airing of Fox Sports Live, compared with 800,000 for SportsCenter, though Fox says its numbers have increased in the past few months.
“Anybody who’s starting up a network with bravado and high hopes and big cash are going to succeed to a point,” said ESPN’s Chris Berman, who has been with the network since a month after it launched in 1979.
“But there are a lot of things other than front-line talent on TV which you need to succeed, and we are covered in most of those areas. And our news operation is second to none.”
Berman said one reason ESPN has thwarted challengers is this: “Somehow, someway, we’ve always had people who always look five, eight, 10 years ahead. ‘HD is coming, let’s get ahead of the curve,’ and we were. We’ve had folks really dialed into the future; we have very forward-thinking people.”
Of ESPN’s continued dominance, Pilson said: “I’m not surprised. I didn’t think [Fox Sports 1’s studio shows] were the best opportunity for Fox to compete with ESPN because there is such a huge public awareness and habit of watching ESPN’s SportsCenter.
“Where Fox [cable] has televised live events, they’ve done reasonably well. They’re very competitive with respect to high-profile sports events.”
In fact, Fox Sports 1 said its live event coverage now draws more viewers among men 25 to 44 than ESPN2’s coverage of live events.
In the past year, Fox was awarded U.S. English TV rights to the next three World Cups, and many of the games are expected to air on Fox Sports 1.
College channels also are carving out a niche. The SEC Network, owned by ESPN, reportedly generates $547 million annually in revenue — fifth among cable sports networks, behind ESPN, NFL, Fox Sports 1 and ESPN2. Conversely, the Big 10 Network brings in $290 million annually.
Besides ESPNU and the three conference-owned networks, ESPN in 2011 launched the Longhorn Network — covering only University of Texas sports — in a deal valued at $300 million over 20 years.
The Atlantic Coast Conference has given serious thought to launching its own network. But Pilson said: “I don’t see any of the remaining conferences being able to see the kind of revenue generation that the Big 10 or Pac-12 or SEC has.
“The ACC might do it, but they already have committed their football and basketball rights long-term. And the Big 12 would face difficulties because Texas has their own channel and Oklahoma” has a unique arrangement with Fox Sports to air a lot of its programming.
What other universities besides Texas could pull off having its own cable network?
“I could see North Carolina doing it, schools with strong intrastate following,” Pilson said.
He said launching one single-school channel in Florida would be challenging because interest “is mixed and shared among three schools.”
▪ Migration of sports to cable: NFL regular-season games have been airing on cable since ESPN was awarded a Sunday night package in 1987.
But the move of Monday Night Football from ABC to ESPN in 2006, the awarding of a wild-card playoff game to ESPN beginning this past January, and last year’s creation of a full-season Thursday package (with eight games airing only on NFL Network and eight others on both CBS and NFL Net) have taken the NFL’s cable commitment to a new level.
It’s one thing to place regular-season or early round playoff games on cable. It’s another when championship or semifinal games are moved to cable, which is becoming more commonplace.
The NBA began doing it in 2004 when it placed one of its conference finals exclusively on TNT. TBS has aired an LCS in baseball for the past eight seasons, and last year, Fox televised most games of the National League Championship Series on Fox Sports 1 for the first time.
The semifinals of the Final Four aired on TBS in April, and the championship game will be carried on TBS for the first time next season (and every other year through 2024), as part of a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal with CBS.
CBS relinquished exclusivity on the NCAA Tournament and agreed to share the games with Turner because it was losing money on its old deal. Under the new contract, CBS and Turner share the $771 million annual rights fee.
And the new College Football Playoff won’t air on free TV for at least the next 11 years, with ESPN paying $470 million a year for rights to the two semifinals and championship.
“It was a famous bank robber who said, ‘Why does he rob banks? He said that’s where the money is,” Pilson said. “Cable is where the money is now. Cable has two sources of income: subscriber fees and advertising revenue.
“For a company like ESPN or Turner or Fox — they have this additional revenue stream to outspend broadcast networks with only one revenue stream. The sponsors don’t seem to be complaining and the people who spend money are basically subscribers to cable or satellite.”
Problem is, some fans in low-income homes don’t have cable or satellite service.
Whereas the free TV networks are in 117 million homes, ESPN, ESPN2, TNT and TBS are in 101 to 102 million, truTV in 92 million and Fox Sports 1 in 90 million.
In the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market, about 12 percent of the 1.7 million TV households don’t have cable or satellite. Nearly 69 percent of Dade/Broward residents have cable TV, and 19 percent have satellite service.
But there is a bit of good news for the modest number of NFL fans without cable: ESPN said it will simulcast its wild-card playoff game on ABC next January.
“Most everyone has to pay for TV of some sort,” Berman said. “The reason some of the events are not on the four networks is they’re not quite affordable.”
But Bodenheimer doesn’t expect much more of the attractive sports inventory to migrate to cable.
“I expect broadcast TV will stay relevant,” said Bodenheimer, who has been promoting his new book Every Town is a Sports Town: Business Leadership at ESPN from the Mailroom to the Boardroom.
▪ Sports website traffic: Neither the fact that it has increased significantly over the past few years, nor the fact ESPN leads every month in unique hits, is remotely surprising.
But this is: Bleacher Report (owned by Turner) now typically finishes second or third on the list of most-visited sports websites.
In April, Bleacher ranked second with 36 million unique U.S. visitors, behind only ESPN.com (55.2 million). Yahoo! was third at 32.8 million.
By hiring several respected NFL and NBA writers, Bleacher Report has morphed over the past two years from a site known mostly for fan postings and top 10 lists to one that features columns and reporting from mainstream journalists.
“We’ve been able to achieve incredible year-over-year growth numbers, and have been the number two digital non-league sports site since 2014,” Bleacher Report general manager Dorth Raphaely said.
Coming Sunday: How Twitter, apps and new innovations have changed the way fans consume sports.