Leagues, owners riding high despite missteps aplenty

The parallels between sports and entertainment have always been striking, since both showbiz execs and coaches manage highly compensated talent — the best of which get paid millions living out what for many is a dream come true — in high-stakes careers that can be perilously brief depending on how the ball bounces.

Increasingly, though, differences between the two fields are becoming as noteworthy as the similarities, in part because TV is so desperate for the zap-proof content of marquee events, providing team owners an enormous cushion — in the form of bountiful TV rights fees — to overcome all manner of venality, stupidity and bad publicity.

Simply put, while entertainment is more of a high-wire act than ever — with less margin for error and practically no floor for failure, potentially yielding bigger bombs — major sports are enjoying a scenario in which they’re hard-pressed not to succeed, thanks primarily to piles of cash they’re receiving from networks. For all the sports world’s conspicuous missteps, a surge in TV money has become its padded safety net.

All this comes into focus as context for this week’s Variety Sports Entertainment Summit, bringing together luminaries from both spheres to contemplate the overlapping issues facing them.

Even casual sports fans surely must have noticed that the games have often taken a backseat lately to the spread and rap sheets surrounding them. The woeful roster of negative press includes steroid use in Major League Baseball and the soap opera surrounding ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers; labor strife in pro football and basketball, truncating the latter’s regular season; questions about football’s debilitating health effects on players — and a “bounty program” intended to inflict injury; and college football’s protracted attempts to introduce a playoff system amid griping about the arbitrary nature of the Bowl Championship Series, along with the hypocrisy of “amateurism” and Penn State’s distasteful look-the-other-way role in assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s child sex-abuse scandal.

Yet despite such depressing headlines, the scorecard in terms of money and ratings has never appeared more robust: a huge bidding war for the Dodgers, fueled by the billions a dedicated regional TV channel will deliver; the highest ratings for the NBA Finals in eight years, eradicating talk about the lockout’s effects; a huge anticipated windfall from college football’s playoff; and eager bidding expected for Major League Baseball, thanks in part to NBC’s perceived hunger to establish itself as an alternative to ESPN, having already considerably fattened the National Hockey League’s TV coffers.

TV has demonstrated time and again that it needs sports programming desperately. Such live telecasts are among the few programs practically immune to the ad-zapping threatening the traditional model — people don’t skip the Super Bowl and think, Ah, I’ll Netflix it later — but ratings have largely defied the fragmentation-fueled gravity dragging down virtually everything else.

These forces have also set up a rigged game, where it frequently seems sports can’t lose for winning thanks to a fanbase that, whatever its grumbling, keeps crawling back for more after serial disappointments and misguided decisions.

Even the NFL — a commodity whose media power dwarfs that of all other sports — has recently exhibited a surprising level of foolishness, if one can believe a Wall Street Journal article about the league’s concerns regarding declining attendance and how it proposes to address them. Given the ubiquity of televised games as the league greedily adds TV packages, the quality of HD viewing and an economic downturn pricing out many average fans from affording tickets, adding in-stadium Wi-Fi hardly qualifies as a serious means of tackling the issue and, frankly, the losses at turnstiles are almost surely offset by soaring TV revenue.

Sports’ good fortune may not last forever, just as TV’s needs could evolve — especially if cable/satellite bundling starts to give way to a more a la carte approach.

For now, though, the relationship between networks and leagues has never felt so one-sided, with one side holding most of the cards.

The owners may relish the outcome — who wouldn’t want to play with a stacked deck? — but by the time the game changes and leagues need to really get smart and creative about their businesses, they’d better hope they haven’t forgotten how.

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