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Satellite Sports: Stealthy Sidebar?

On the information super-airwave, it’s another of those developments that would have been inconceivable even a few years ago: You’re a sports fan, and for one price you can get just about every game from your favorite league fired onto your satellite dish and into your home.

This is Year One for the National Football League’s and National Basketball Assn.’s package deals of satellite-driven out-of-market gamecasts.

Are they delivering, and what do the gamecasts portend for the business and for future fandom?

Pro football’s deal, called the “NFL Sunday Ticket,” gave dish-owners access to dozens of Sunday games of which in the past they wouldn’t have gotten within field-goal range. For hoop followers, the feeding frenzy began Dec. 1, when the NBA’s “League Pass” was unveiled to let fans in on more than 400 regular-season games apiece.

The satellite-dish universe is now approaching 5 million in the U.S. Sales, say the experts, are going through the roof, no pun intended. With their satellite offerings, the NFL and NBA are blazing some kind of trail for TV sports, but they’re just not sure what kind.

“We don’t foresee this as being a mass-distribution vehicle,” said Ed Desser, president of NBA Television Ventures. “It’s a supplement to other programming. Our expectations, frankly, are modest.”

For prices ranging from $119 to $149 per season, the League Pass is available for three types of dishes: the 18-inch models, three- to four-footers, and the largest and most common, the 8 to 12-foot C-band dishes. Since the NBA’s deal has been in the market for barely a month, Desser said it’s too early to project how many buyers will be coming on board for a season that runs into May, but he’s generally encouraged so far. Yet the NBA didn’t really set forecasts for itself at the outset of its 82-game, 27-team schedule in October.

“We had no targets – this is a new category,” Desser noted. “We’ve yet to do much of the marketing for this, because we want to be sure it works. It’s an overwhelming undertaking.”

By contrast, the NFL has just finished its first regular-season outing with the Sunday Ticket deal. Owners of 18-inch and C-band dishes pay a fee that most commonly goes to $139 for a full season package of NFL games.

“This was the first time a major pro sport offered a subscription service like this,” said Ron Bernard, president of NFL Enterprises. “We think that we did fairly well.”

The NFL sold a little over 200,000 Sunday Ticket subscriptions for residential use, and more than 5,000 to commercial places (sports bars, hotels and others). The figures are better than expected, said Bernard and NFL sources.

But both leagues are quick on the draw to point out that these deals do not, and probably will not, fall under the often dreaded heading of “pay-per-view.” Nor do they envision the satellite-games market turning into an exorbitant PPV traffic jam for viewers and fans. This is one-price, one-package programming for a whole season, they say, and it’s strictly supplemental to a fan’s diet, without taking anything away or requiring them to pony up more for what they’re used to getting.

But some industry pros say that the new subscription packages mean that the window to a pay-per-view sports world may be opening a little wider. It’s a topic touchy enough for most sources to beg off speaking for attribution.

“Maybe football lends itself better to a pay system because it develops a fan base over a 16-game schedule,” said one major media buyer. “You always have to wonder about what happens if we ever go to an all-pay system. What makes sports work is the development of a fan base, and that comes from creating alliances with a team. If you go to a pay system, you will, of course, lose fans.”

“These kinds of systems (satellite packages) are tailored to die-hards,” added a longtime TV sports producer. “I still say it’s hard to imagine pay-per-view sports for home-team fans on an event-by-event basis, but the main reason I feel that way is because channel capacity is such an issue.”

For the last two seasons, ABC has been sending feeds of its regional college football games out for pay-per-view and season-long packaging in a partnership with ESPN. The games are made available on a per weekend or seasonal basis, through cable systems as well as in direct-to-home satellite transmissions.

Since college football is played in hundreds of different markets large and small, simultaneously, targeting it as a PPV offering is considered by some to be almost a necessary evil, in comparison to the big-market major-sports franchises that are much more readily available through over-the-air or cablecasts.

John Zabel, ESPN’s director of PPV, said that sales are averaging more than 25,000 households for the weekend buys. He declined to name figures for the 12-week seasonal packages, but in general, the college buys are exceeding expectations.

“Things are converging here,” he said. “We’re just looking for distribution that’s as broad as we can get it.”

But the expanding galaxy of satellite possibilities has plenty of people asking themselves some hard questions – the same kind of questions being asked by those who contemplate a world of telephonic-delivered home entertainment systems that could zap the needs for cable hookups and antennas.

“What if this was the only place to get access to your favorite sport?” asked an advertising executive. “What would it be worth on a yearly basis?”

If satellite dishes go for $700 and up, and people are paying $150 for a seasonal collection of their favorite games, the math is just starting to get fearsome, reasoned another media buyer. “If they can generate amazing amounts of money from alternate ways of delivering a product, they will do it,” he noted. “And the software aspects of all this are absolutely huge.”

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