Lucrative pro, collegiate post-seasons stretch longer

In the modern relationship between sports and television, two things are becoming crystal clear: Rights fees will keep rising, and you can never have too many playoff games.

Indeed, as broadcast deals become richer, the appetite for sports content keeps growing. And despite tensions involving their natural resources — namely, the players — leagues are doing whatever they can to accommodate media demand, until it sometimes feels as if the playoffs never end.

The NCAA basketball tournament is about to begin, with the four “play-in” games that expanded last year’s “March Madness” field from 64 contenders to 68. In similar fashion, Major League Baseball voted to revise its wild card format, admitting two additional teams to create two one-game playoffs at season’s close.

Meanwhile, college football — the one sport to have steadfastly avoided a playoff system — has given signs of cracks in its resistance, with Big Ten conference officials expressing interest in exploring the possibility.

So much for university presidents’ long-cited concerns about prolonging the season and the risk of placing extra stress on student-athletes — which, frankly, has never been quite as convincing as their commitment to the safety, comfort and big money of the traditional bowls.

There’s no mystery why sports leagues, and the networks that coddle them, adore the prospect of airing as many games as possible with a playoff atmosphere. Regular seasons drag on for months, often becoming anticlimactic at the margins once top teams have separated themselves from also-rans.

By definition, playoff games count, bringing with them the welcome promise of higher ratings and enhanced drama. That’s especially true with the NCAA tourney, whose sudden-death format has trumped a dilution of on-court quality as star players flee early for the pros.

Practically speaking, the NCAA already added to its playoffs with the proliferation of conference tournaments, which have further padded pre-NCAA tourney schedules. When UCLA amassed basketball titles in the 1960s and ’70s, those teams played 30 games in all. Last year’s champion, Connecticut, endured a 41-game season, including a grueling five-games-in-five-days Big East Tournament.

In this context, it’s no wonder the National Basketball Assn.’s lockout-shortened season didn’t truncate the playoffs, even if that meant its champ won’t be crowned until past the start of summer. With the winner needing to survive four best-of-seven-game series, the last teams standing could play nearly half as many playoff contests as regular-season games.

Networks can’t go wrong piling on playoffs, eager as they are to help offset rights deals that, in the case of the National Football League, soared by more than 60% in the most recent negotiations, to roughly $5 billion annually starting in 2014. And while the NFL dwarfs all other sports, others have cashed in as well, such as NBC’s 10-year, $2-billion deal with the National Hockey League — with the league more than doubling its previous contract — designed in part to help bolster the rebranded NBC Sports Network.

The only constituency that suffers, potentially, are elite athletes and their assorted body parts, the health of which has become a growing concern. In fact, the pushback from players has produced several public-relations nightmares, leaving the sporting world spending almost as much time in courtrooms as on the courts.

Retired NFL players are suing over longterm neurological effects of concussions, claiming the league didn’t act to protect them. Meanwhile, former amateur athletes are taking on the NCAA, maintaining players deserve compensation for the billions generated by their labors.

In their contract talks, NFL players also resisted the league’s efforts to replace two exhibition games, understandably fearing that raising the regular-season tally from 16 to 18 would invite more injuries and curtail careers. Most recently, pro football has been rocked by allegations that the New Orleans Saints rewarded players for knocking other teams’ high-profile stars out of games.

At the same time, the appetite for more adrenaline-producing sports programming has clearly intensified, with the perceived value — heightened by the fact viewers prefer watching live, thus mitigating troublesome ad-skipping — leading to the launch of more networks, both regional and national, to pursue them. Plans for dedicated channels range from college conferences to individual schools, such as the U. of Texas, to pro franchises like the Los Angeles Lakers, as part of an enormous TV deal with Time Warner Cable. Networks are also adding sports to existing channels, a la News Corp.’s FX network, to fortify their bond with consumers. (Full disclosure: I’m a part-time contributor to Foxsports.com.)

Athletes and their representatives, however, are equally mindful of this dynamic. And even a sports media largely content to bask in the reflected glory of hometown teams has become more aggressive in covering what’s become such an ostentatiously big business.

Despite such resistance, though, the consistent trend has been for leagues to find ways to stretch existing franchises, providing more games — particularly of the playoff variety — to fill more hours.

Because when you’re busy counting all that money, it’s hard to deny the hunger for games that count, too.

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