December is associated with many things, but for sports fans, it’s an especially bountiful period. Not only is the NFL building toward the playoffs, but there are dozens of college bowl games and the traditional Christmas-day showcase for NBA basketball.
Only this year, those holiday stockings are looking frayed — not that it’s easy to trust the networks, as reliant as they are on televising sports, to adequately reflect the distastefulness surrounding the games people play.
Pro basketball narrowly averted sitting out the holidays, as owners and players jockeyed over how to divide an annual $4 billion in revenue.
The college bowls, meanwhile, have been sullied by scandals. Allegations of child sexual abuse at Penn State has eclipsed all others, but it took a story of that hideous magnitude to overshadow headlines involving potential rules violations by traditional powers like Miami, Ohio State and LSU.
“I honestly don’t think the sport has ever had as tumultuous of an off-season as we had during this year,” ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit told CNN.com in August — and that was before Penn State was forced to oust legendary coach Joe Paterno.
Suddenly, Southern California’s forfeited national title and returned Heisman Trophy look almost quaint by comparison.
In newspapers, sportswriters and editors appear almost giddy to have the opportunity to write about bigger stories than just wins and losses. Many have attacked the various scandals and labor discord — first the NFL, now the NBA — with gusto, anticipating the sort of front-page placement that normally eludes them.
Television, by contrast, is in an especially tough position. After all, TV helps make all those big-money salaries and disputes possible by throwing billions in rights deals at owners and university presidents.
If big money is a corrupting influence in spheres from politics to Hollywood, it can be especially corrosive in sports. And the payments only promise to keep growing.
Whatever pleas of poverty they might make elsewhere, network fees for sports rights aren’t going anywhere but up. That’s been clear in a flurry of recent TV deals, including ESPN’s renewal of “Monday Night Football” through 2021 for about $1.9 billion annually, an increase of more than 70% from the previous pact.
In addition, various entities are in pitched bidding wars to ally themselves with major franchises by sweetening the pot with dedicated cable channels, from the U. of Texas to the Los Angeles Lakers, who split from Fox Sports and signed with Time Warner Cable in a 20-year deal valued at $3 billion. That left Fox scrambling to cement its relationship with the L.A. Dodgers, and being drawn into the legal woes of owner Frank McCourt, who tried to leverage TV rights to maintain his hold on the team. (Full disclosure: I’m a part-time contributor to Foxsports.com.)
As the sports universe’s biggest spender, ESPN winds up ignoring its role more often than most. Analysts spend untold hours wringing their hands over who belongs in the Bowl Championship Series title game, for example, but seldom mentions the $125 million their employer pays annually for BCS rights, which make a terribly flawed system an equally lucrative one. (Recent reports of a proposed overhaul don’t elicit much hope, since the same university officials — who have steadfastly resisted a playoff — remain in charge.)
In many instances, television accounts for more than half of a particular sport’s revenues. With live sports one of the few DVR-proof commodities, it’s no wonder those games have become so precious and vital to programmers.
The corollary of that, though, is understandable skepticism as to whether those same networks will dare bite the hands they’re feeding, and report on excesses when doing so risks damaging relationships with the very parties they need to sign on the dotted line.
In terms of watching sports, modern TV innovations provide the best seat in the house — often superior, notably, to the experience sitting in an arena or stadium. If you want to know what’s going on within a sport, however, look elsewhere. Because for the networks, it’s hard to honestly present a clear picture when you’re in the middle of it, blemishes and all.