A ballsy time to sell sports

Cash tossed around sporting world creates chaos

The need for attention-grabbing properties has made TV’s hunger for sports more ravenous than ever. Yet all the cash flowing into these games has only made the sporting world more chaotic than ever — and must have left networks wondering about the sobriety of their business partners.

Buoyed by the unquenchable appetite for sports, the new trend is for every pro franchise, college conference and even an individual marquee team, like the U. of Texas, to demand its own channel. And instead of pausing to wonder at what point the banana slices become too thin for consumers to notice, such outfits as ESPN, Fox Sports and Time Warner Cable appear content to let the inmates run the asylum.

While all of this raises questions about whether greed might strangle the golden goose, since nobody wants to risk being left behind, there’s little evidence of concern about death by gluttony.

Despite splitting $9 billion annually, pro football’s owners and players engaged in labor strife over the summer, then grudgingly reached a deal — and returned in time to post predictably boffo ratings. Meanwhile, sharing a mere $4 billion a year has resulted in poverty-pleading NBA owners sidelining pro basketball players for at least the season’s first two weeks, and possibly much longer.

Like the NFL, the NBA is coming off a terrific season ratings-wise, fueled by the free-agency fracas unleashed by pitchman supreme LeBron James and his Miami Heat teammates. Yet the league could squander that momentum if it sacrifices most or all of the season — a distinct possibility.

The NBA’s absence leaves the spotlight on Major League Baseball, whose postseason pyrotechnics actually have people buzzing about the game again. Of course, in order to fully appreciate America’s pastime, one has to ignore the scandals pertaining to steroids or insolvent owners that have recently filled courtrooms.

Still, the wackiest developments have involved the aforementioned creation of an ever greater number of local or regional sports networks, some of which will suffer if the NBA lockout lingers.

Time Warner initiated a bidding war in Los Angeles by snagging rights to the much-beloved Lakers, prompting Fox Sports to preemptively seek to extend its relationship with the Dodgers via a 17-year, $3-billion deal. The only problem was that Dodger owner Frank McCourt desperately needs the cash to, among other things, settle his messy and very public divorce, prompting MLB commissioner Bud Selig — concerned about how McCourt might spend the $385 million Fox pledged to commit upfront — to step in and halt the agreement. (Full disclosure: I’m a part-time contributor to Foxsports.com.)

College football, meanwhile, has tampered with decades of tradition and upended historic rivalries in a frenzied attempt to reconfigure itself into “super-conferences” in order to maximize TV revenues.

Although the conference-hopping has temporarily cooled, the amount of time devoted to pondering where teams would land during the off season was exceeded only by the steady drip of scandals over players receiving improper benefits. In their own way, each thread illustrates the lack of rational authority governing what many derisively refer to as amateur athletics.

Through all of this, major media companies have essentially thrown up their hands, insisting their billions in fees play no part in perpetuating flaws in the current system.

This much is certain: The money keeps growing. Consider ESPN’s $15 billion deal to extend its “Monday Night Football” rights through 2021 — increasing its annual payment more than 70%, to $1.9 billion. For a network that needs exclusive programming to command lofty fees from cable operators and consumers, the NFL is simply must-have TV — suggesting additional payments from other networks, and thus plenty more cash for owners and players to fight over in the future.

Still, focusing on networks and leagues ignores another constituency in this equation — and perhaps the most significant one: Die-hard fans, who might periodically express their disgust over battles pitting millionaire players against billionaire owners, but who in practice can’t stay away for any length of time.

As long as fans remain addicted to the exploits of their favorite teams, in other words, all the major sports will have them — and the TV industry — by the balls.

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