As the cable bundle shrinks, here's what the future holds for ESPN: Sports Media Brief
Welcome to the another edition of Ad Age Sports Media Brief, a weekly roundup of news from every zone of the sports media spray chart, including the latest on broadcast/cable/streaming, sponsorships, endorsements, gambling and tech.
In the long run, we are all dead
As it is prone to do in reaction to just about everything that tumbles into its combative purview, Sports Media Twitter this week probably made a bit too much of something Kevin Mayer said during his chat with Peter Kafka at Recode’s Code Media conference in Los Angeles. When asked about the shrinking multichannel bundle and the future of ESPN as a linear TV network, Mayer said that Disney eventually may decide to offer the channel as an à la carte option.
Now, because Mayer is the exec in charge of Disney’s over-the-top services (his formal title is “chairman of direct-to-consumer and international”) and the presumptive successor to Bob Iger, what he says carries a whole lot of weight. But before we get to Mayer’s full response, here’s a brief list of other things that could happen “at some point”:
1. You—YOU!—could die, which is to say that everything that you identify as a Self would cease to be. Lights out. If it’s any consolation, nonexistence means you’ll never have to read another word about cord-cutting. So it’s a push.
2. The Detroit Lions could win the Super Bowl. If you buy into the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics, and are comfortable with the prospect of an infinite series of NFL seasons, the Lions in the fullness of time assuredly will win the Super Bowl. Monkeys and typewriters. Unfortunately, there’s almost zero chance that you’ll be around to witness this milestone (see Item 1).
3. Billions of years from now, the sun will run out of hydrogen, whereupon it will transform into a red giant and consume the earth. Billions of years after that singular indignity, the sun itself will sputter and go dark. Billions of years after all that goes down, the universe itself will turf out.
Note that we eschewed the conditional for Item 3, because all of that stuff is absolutely going to happen, whether you like it or not. As will the more proximate bummer that is Item 1. Item 2 will never happen, because grow up already.
The point here is that of course ESPN eventually will go à la carte or over-the-top or however you choose to characterize the Big Shakeout, because that’s simply in keeping with the trajectory of consumer behavior/adaptation. So all the clutching of skulls and fumbling for the Ativan that greeted Mayer’s rather guarded assessment were a bit much, especially when you examine what it was that he actually said while chatting with Kafka.
“Look, at some point, [and] Bob’s talked about this, at some point we may very well make the à la carte option available over-the-top for ESPN,” Mayer said. “We’re not at that point now, and I don’t think we’re really very close to that point. People are still well-served in the bundle that are sports fans, but we’re always monitoring the situation and again we want to serve consumers the way they wish to be served.”
If this happens even so much as 10 years from now, we’d be surprised. While there is no question that the traditional cable bundle is pulling a Costanza, ESPN still generates a staggering amount of revenue from its carriage agreements.
At present, ESPN boasts some 83 million linear subscribers, and while that pales in comparison to the 100 million customers it served at the start of the decade, Bristol’s hyper-aggressive affiliate rates are the envy of the traditional TV universe. Multiply the estimated $9.06 per sub per month that ESPN commands by the number of people who still pay for the privilege of receiving its signal the old-fashioned way, and you’re looking at a haul of some $9 billion in annual revenue—and that’s before you factor in a single ad unit.
So, no: ESPN’s not disappearing from your channel lineup any time soon. Meanwhile, Kafka got to the heart of the Disney dilemma when he asked Mayer about the perils of developing a service that in all likelihood will accelerate the death of the traditional bundle.
“It’s an innovator’s dilemma to be sure,” Mayer said. “But I think that we have shown that we are … willing to put our own businesses at risk, to some degree. You have to be judicious about it; we didn’t pull ESPN out of the bundle and I think people are still well-served by that. But we are introducing services which may very well lead to additional motivations to cut the cord, and we think that’s the right thing to do with the services that we put out there.”
Mayer went on to note that the live sports content available via ESPN+, which has signed up 3.5 million subscribers since it launched in April 2018, has been curated to discourage any sort of cannibalization of the money-making cable TV powerhouse. “The big events, the NFLs, the major college sports, baseball, NBA—that’s reserved largely for [linear] ESPN,” Mayer said.
During a Q&A session with attendees, Mayer suggested that the industry inevitably will encounter an event horizon, beyond which it will be imprudent to continue blasting signals at cable head-ends. “There will be a time—and it’s a tradeoff—when the pay-TV numbers are low enough and all you have is sports fans that are in that bundle,” he said. “Does it make sense, at that point, rather than wholesaling to what’s basically a sports-fan-only bundle, to be a retailer and enjoy the retail economics of that? And I think that’s something that we keep thinking about."
I can’t go on, I’ll go on
The day before Mayer gave Code Media attendees a bit of a glimpse at the somewhat-distant future, Kafka sat down with former ESPN president and current executive chairman of DAZN John Skipper. During that conversation, Skipper revealed that DAZN had been particularly eager to book a side deal for the streaming rights to DirecTV’s out-of-market NFL Sunday Ticket package.
“[The NFL] explored with their current partner, AT&T, whether or not they would sell an over-the-top package, and we were interested in that,” Skipper said. “We told them we were interested and we told them that we would be interested any time it comes up.”
Kafka: “Is that deal still available?”
Kafka: “Thank you very much.”
(While there had been a great deal of chatter about the NFL opting out of its DirecTV contract before the 2019 season began, the $1.5 billion the satellite TV company forks over every year was too much green for the league to just sort of casually amble away from.)
Skipper went on to suggest that DAZN would make a push for a standalone rights deal when the NFL begins negotiating its media contracts in 2020. “We’re not a believer that over-the-top either starts or finishes or can successfully be built with niche rights or third-tier rights,” Skipper said. “We think they have to be built with top-of-the-pyramid rights. We think you have to have sports that are essential to people, to have and to watch.”
While NFL and Major League Baseball rights have been a significant driver of DAZN’s growth in the international marketplace, the company’s stateside development has hinged on boxing. Skipper spoke at length about how DAZN’s 11-bout, $365 million deal with fighter Canelo Alvarez has been responsible for the “overwhelming preponderance of the subs that we have [in the U.S.].”
But the Shield remains the grail. “We are interested in the NFL because you can build a new platform in this country on the NFL,” Skipper said.
When asked for his assessment of what the media marketplace will look like in the future—tech conferences are obsessed with this sort of unknowable “Blade Runner” flummery—the bibliomaniac answered in a manner that suggested he’s been boning up on his Samuel Beckett.
“I think sports is the best place to be in this business,” Skipper said. “The English Premier League has been a hit for 140 years or something. I think it’ll be a hit for 20 more, [but] I don’t have the capability of thinking about more than 20 years. Or the necessity.”
Big ups to John Talty, sports editor of Alabama Media Group, for this Birmingham News scoop on the status of the rights to the marquee SEC football package, which could change hands at the end of the 2023 season. As Talty notes, CBS obviously wants to extend its current deal, for which it pays the SEC $55 million per season.
But there’s a bit of a disconnect between how CBS and the SEC are interpreting the language of the active contract, which was signed in 2008. While a provision states that CBS “would have the right of first negotiation/first refusal” when the time comes to re-up its agreement with the SEC, conference commissioner Greg Sankey suggested otherwise in a memo obtained by Talty.
“We believe that we have a good-faith obligation to offer to enter into an exclusive negotiation period with CBS, but do not believe that CBS has any first-refusal rights for reasons that can best be addressed by our legal counsel,” Sankey wrote in an email to the SEC’s presidents and chancellors.
If the SEC’s reading of the original rights deal prevails, CBS will have to scramble to secure a renewal with the conference before that exclusive window slams shut. And if the incumbent can’t close the deal, every outlet from ABC/ESPN to NBC Sports to Fox Sports to DAZN will be waiting in the wings to snatch up the SEC package.
Because—and we can never emphasize this enough—in a time in which general-entertainment ratings have gone fractional, live-sports rights are the lifeblood of the linear TV marketplace. CBS’s coverage of the Nov. 9 LSU-Alabama shootout averaged 16.6 million viewers and a 9.7 household rating, making it the third-biggest college football draw of the calendar year. Excluding conference championship games, this marked the highest-rated regular-season college football broadcast since 2011.
As Talty’s sources tell him, CBS is expected to pay just about whatever it takes to keep the SEC in the family, although Disney is likely to be breathing down the broadcaster’s neck. Besides the obvious jolt SEC football would provide to the ESPN+ roster, it’s impossible to understate how necessary another big Saturday draw may be for the long-suffering ABC broadcast network. Through the first eight weeks of the 2019-20 TV season, ABC primetime has averaged north of a 1.0 rating in the adults 18-49 demo just seven times, and five of those relatively big draws came courtesy of the ESPN-produced “Saturday Night Football.”
Talty notes that Disney may have an ace up its sleeve in CAA agent Nick Khan, who not only reps the SEC in its negotiations with the TV networks, but also reps a number of standouts from ESPN’s college football talent roster (Kirk Herbstreit, Rece Davis, Paul Finebaum).
Eventually, the escalated rights fees will force the network ad sales teams to charge such steroidically beefed-up rates for their in-game commercial inventory that the entire skeletal system of linear TV will collapse under its own sodden weight. Maybe. See Item 1 and Item 3, above. In the meantime, Talty’s story is well worth reading in full; if nothing else, his scoop is a reminder of the sort of shoe-leather reporting we’re in danger of losing altogether as local journalism continues to atrophy in the absence of the old $5 billion classified-ad pipeline and the rise of mercenary greedheads who put profit before all else.
OK, so enough of all the existential gloom. The always delightful Brent Musburger this week appeared on Peter King’s podcast to talk up his VSiN (Vegas Stats and Information Network) venture while weighing in on how the Oakland Raiders fan experience will change when the franchise moves to Sin City next year.
Musburger’s interview is at once an update on his new gig at the sports-betting Internet TV outlet and a nostalgic look back at an era of wide-lapeled wagering. Recalling a meeting he’d set up between his nephew (and VSiN CEO/co-founder) Brian Musburger and South Point owner Michael Gaughan, the veteran broadcaster at once manages to get in a shout out to the old Barbary Coast and his one-time “NFL Today” foil, Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder. At one point Musburger does a pretty nifty imitation of the Greek, explaining their shared enthusiasm for the old Barbary sports book: “He would always take me over to the Barbary Coast to do his action with Michael Gaughan, because as Jimmy so eloquently explained, ‘I love his parlays! Ties win!’”
The interview is peppered with Musburger’s amusing euphemisms (“friends in Chicago,” “the community out there”), and his observations about the gambler’s bane that is the foxed NFL injury report are of particular interest to oddsmakers and degenerates alike. He also shares some observations on how the move to Vegas may spell the end of the Raiders’ fanatically rabid Black Hole cheering section.
There’s also a characteristically leering bit where the 80-year-old Musburger effectively elbows King in the ribs when enthusing over the prospect of checking out the upcoming Raiderettes cheerleader tryouts; hamming it up as if he’s auditioning for an imaginary “Dirty Grandpa” sequel, Musburger says, “I’ll be trying to go to, take a peek, if you know what I mean.” Some things never change.
(Bonus throwback: For fans of Bad Boy Brent, the bit from this 1984 Sports Illustrated profile where a Moosehead-guzzling Musburger blows through the tolls on the Merritt Parkway is canon.)
Sports Business Daily’s Austin Karp reports that ratings for the first month of NBA telecasts on ESPN and TNT are down 16 percent year-over-year, as injuries to stars and load-management issues have taken a bite out of the league’s early deliveries. Karp notes that games on the two cable networks “are averaging 1.46 million viewers, down from 1.73 million viewers at the same point last season,” a drop that coincides with multiple ESPN appearances by the depleted Golden State Warriors. Thus far, the biggest draw of the season is the all-Los Angeles showdown between the Lakers and Clippers on opening night, for which TNT averaged 3.58 million viewers, of whom 2.27 million, or 63 percent, were members of the 18-49 demo.
While ESPN and TNT will have to forge ahead in the absence of Steph Curry’s considerable star power, the latter’s Thursday night ratings will undoubtedly get a lift after Dec. 12, when Fox airs its final primetime NFL game of the season. Meanwhile, ESPN and sibling broadcaster ABC are loaded with games featuring LeBron James and the Lakers, a schedule that includes a surefire hit in the Christmas Day Staples Center shakeup. In other words, it’s a bit premature to start freaking out over the NBA’s ratings woes; that said, any and all hand-wringing will be justified if the numbers are still down 16 percent when March rolls around.
Under the checkered flag
Seven-time NASCAR Cup champ Jimmie Johnson has announced that he’ll hang up his fire suit after the 2020 racing season, bringing an end to an 18-year career. Johnson is only the latest marquee driver to step away from NASCAR; as Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press reports, there’s been a mass exodus that began when Jeff Gordon retired in 2015. Since then, bold-faced names such as Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Danica Patrick and Jamie McMurray have run their last laps, depleting the sport’s talent pool.
The 44-year-old Johnson has more wins than any of his NASCAR contemporaries. His 83 wins puts him in a tie with Cale Yarborough for sixth place on the all-time list. His seven Cup titles put him in the pantheon alongside Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.
While so many familiar drivers have called it quits, NASCAR just closed out a particularly successful TV season. Per Nielsen, 14 of the Cup Series races enjoyed year-over-year ratings gains, which marks a real turnaround from last season, when only four races were up versus the 2017 campaign. The top-rated NASCAR race of 2019 was the Daytona 500 on Fox, which averaged 9.2 million viewers and a 5.3 rating, flat compared to the year-ago opener.
The other shoe drops
As Nike prepares to release Colin Kaepernick’s signature shoe—Ed Reid offered sneaker heads an advance look on his Insta—the quarterback hasn’t heard a peep from the NFL teams that watched his much-ballyhooed workout. The league was not at all impressed with the way Kaepernick ditched out on the official event scheduled for him in Atlanta, and it now seems all but certain that he’s fumbled his last shot at a comeback. (Also not pleased by last weekend’s weirdness: Jay-Z.)
If you find yourself increasingly bored with the anodyne, clichéd blahblahblah of stateside post-game interviews, allow English rugby standout Joe Marler to dazzle you with his inspired extended metaphor about getting back on the horse. If the imitation of the Irish horse doesn’t work for you, stick around for the kicker at the very end.