Free TV is losing the battle for top sports events

The Super Bowl will end up on cable in my lifetime,” HBO Sports topper Ross Greenburg tells Variety.

With all the viewers and ad dollars at stake, the broadcast networks undoubtedly wish the 55-year-old Greenburg an extraordinarily long life. But in fact the recent NCAA men’s basketball deal, which spurred the exec’s remarks, may be a bellwether in the migration of marquee sporting events from broadcast to cable.

During the span of the 14-year, $10.8-billion pact, the championship game — which has aired exclusively on CBS since 1982 — will alternate between the Eye and TBS beginning in 2016.

The question now is whether there are any barriers to prevent cable making even deeper inroads into sports.

The NBA has long seen the advantages of selling pro basketball to both free and pay outlets. The league had such a poor relationship with broadcast TV in the late 1970s that the Finals were tape-delayed on CBS, airing outside of primetime. But the league sold television rights to Disney and Turner in 2001, and NBA games are now locked in through the 2015-16 season. One conference final airs on ESPN, the other on TNT, while ABC gets the NBA Finals, which begin this week.

NBA Commissioner David Stern was ahead of the curve, says Turner Sports topper David Levy, who adds that it’s to the NBA’s advantage to appear on TNT, which appeals to a viewership that’s not sports-centric, and can help the league broaden its fanbase. Sports junkies already tune in to ESPN, he explains. By adding TNT to the mix, the NBA can draw young fans who watch Adult Swim or TBS, and come to TNT via cross-promotion.

Basketball isn’t the only sport to discover the joys of cable. Comcast’s Versus network will again air two games of the NHL’s Stanley Cup finals between the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers, which just began, with NBC broadcasting the rest of the series.

In 2008 ESPN bought rights to college football’s Bowl Championship Series title game for a hefty $495 million and will air its inaugural title tilt in January. ESPN also will telecast all four rounds of golf’s British Open this summer after previously sharing the honors with broadcast partner ABC. And Fox and Turner’s TBS have split Major League Baseball’s two league championship playoff series since 2007.

“Basic cable networks are topping off at 95 million and 100 million (households), so what’s the difference (in penetration levels)?” asks Greenburg, who says he had discussions with then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle in 1986 about the Super Bowl coming to HBO, but Rozelle felt pro football wasn’t prepared to move to a network that reached fewer than 30 million households.

“Clearly, that was the case then, but I don’t know what the case is now,” Greenburg says about a shift to basic cable.

Already, ESPN owns “Monday Night Football” — a move that occurred in 2006 without much fuss from fans. (The franchise has set cable viewing records in recent years, so it’s clear that the people who want to watch it, can.)

Still, last year’s Super Bowl between the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts drew 106 million viewers on CBS, making it the most-watched show in television history. It’s unlikely a cable network that reaches 90% of the country would have delivered such numbers.

Cable execs say, however, say that for many sports viewers — the majority young males who, unlike the generation before them, grew up in a multichannel world — the distinction between viewing options is non-existent.

“If you ask someone under 40 about the difference between broadcast and cable, they’re going to look at you like you’re from a different planet,” says John Wildhack, exec VP of programming and acquisitions at ESPN. “People now gravitate more toward a brand than a channel.”

Cablers such as Levy’s TBS and TNT, which carry Major League Baseball and the NBA, respectively, enjoy a dual-revenue stream: both carriage fees and ad coin. Broadcasters are also making a strong push for retransmission fees from cable, and prestige sports packages are among the levers being used to drive such agreements. Fox scored a breakthrough in January when it stared down Time Warner Cable, threatening to black out a BCS game before the two settled. With the major networks anticipating millions of dollars in retransmission fees, broadcasters may make a stronger play for such must-see sports programming.

After ESPN, Turner has the most high-profile sporting events on cable. According to Levy, Turner’s NBA postseason coverage convinced baseball commissioner Bud Selig to sell the net rights to a portion of the baseball playoffs. Fox, which airs the World Series, and Turner share baseball’s postseason pact through 2013. Following that, there is the real possibility of at least part of the Fall Classic coming to cable.

And it may not even be cable where the next non-broadcast championship game is televised. With distribution models constantly changing, some believe entities such as Yahoo could make a deal with a network to simultaneously stream a Super Bowl. Yahoo’s worldwide reach would go far beyond what any network might be able to deliver. And an Internet site like Yahoo could partner with a broadcaster on ad sales, while the NFL benefits by having its premier game streamed around the world in places it might never reach via traditional television screens.

“If sports wants to continue to generate these massive media rights fees, they have to open it up to other distribution platforms,” says David Carter, a principal in the Sports Media Group. “Those big enough to pull it off are at an advantage.”

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