What's a fair price for a juiced-up sports league, anyway? Don't ask ESPN
The hits just keep on coming for Major League Baseball, with reports that several more big-name players will accept suspensions — with the most prominent rule-breaker being Yankees star Alex Rodriguez — because of the use of illegal substances.
Don’t hold your breath for that to happen, of course. The recent history of TV sports rights has been ever-escalating fees, with no amount of bad news or work stoppages perceived as slowing down the gravy train. In this case, with everyone desperate for the sort of live programming that’s DVR-proof, sports has become the ultimate seller’s market.
Still, let’s think for a second about Fox, TBS and ESPN, which beginning next year will collectively be shelling out about $1.5 billion a year to televise baseball, and which saw their deals nearly double in the last round of bidding.
TV networks are seldom objects of sympathy, but that’s an awful lot of money for a product that, it turns out, contains more juice than previously advertised.
Baseball officials have made clear they see policing the use of such performance-enhancing drugs as vital to maintaining the integrity of the game, but if recent history is any indication, the big money — fueled in part by those TV contracts — makes the lure of juicing in sports difficult to resist. And fans remain the most predictable part of the equation, huffing about the practice on sportstalk programs, perhaps, but seldom growing angry enough to actually turn off the TV.
That’s one reason why the networks won’t kick up much of a fuss — namely, because they can count on their viewers to keep tuning in, happily suspending disbelief until the next eruption. The same largely goes for college sports, where the myth of amateurism is under siege, but the NCAA and TV conspire to perpetuate a system as flawed in its administration as it is skilled in terms of keeping its customers hooked.
By that measure, the players are no worse than the league, the networks or the fans. We all have our drugs and cocktails of choice; some of them just happen to be illegal. And while ESPN was all over the Rodriguez suspension on Monday — aggressively covering it as a breaking news story — when it comes to illicit drugs and sports, networks rarely look in the mirror by discussing who the real enablers are — or asking their viewers to do the same.