The Pac-12 Network recently announced plans to increase its annual package of live events to 750 this year and 850 next, which certainly sounds impressive.
At least, until you realize less than 25% of those telecasts will involve college football or men’s basketball, the two so-called “revenue-generating” sports, whose popularity makes the investment in lesser lights like golf, rowing and baseball possible.
As noted in a recent column, beyond the obvious cost pressures raised by the crazy proliferation of regional sports networks devoted to specific franchises is the fact most of these channels are essentially worthless, in ratings terms, at least half the year.
The same problem applies to those regional titans backed by Time Warner Cable, the Lakers’ TWC Sportsnet – which saw the team make an uncharacteristically early exit from the playoff picture this year – and the Dodgers’ SportsNet LA, which, like Pac-12 Network, remains at an impasse with one of the Los Angeles market’s most powerful carriers, DirecTV.
Granted, DirecTV is far from the only multichannel video programming distributor, or MVPD, to balk at Time Warner’s demands regarding the Dodgers, which are reportedly in excess of $4 a month from every subscriber, almost rivaling what ESPN garners for its channels.
Yet ESPN, obviously, offers a wide range of sports throughout the year – football in the fall, basketball in fall and winter, baseball in the spring, and so on. By contrast, these single-sport-anchored channels – even with the other deals they make to flesh out their lineup – can’t help but hibernate when the marquee team finishes its season.
When I asked Pac-12 President Lydia Murphy-Stephans about the spring-summer swoon between the NCAA basketball tournament and football, she suggested fans enjoyed discovering some of those sports they don’t normally watch. It would be lovely to think people have that much free time on their hands, but all available evidence suggests otherwise.
“Far and away, the vast majority of viewership rests with football and men’s basketball,” DirecTV chief content officer Dan York told Variety regarding Pac-12 Network. “The ratings speak for themselves.”
As a personal note, I’m a DirecTV subscriber, as well as a UCLA alumnus and season ticketholder. Yet missing out on the conference-backed channel hasn’t felt like much of a hardship, especially since a fair number of games are televised under separate deals with Fox and ESPN.
The obvious solution would be to consolidate channels and put several of these teams together on one, as was the case when a couple regional networks carried all the local teams. Even then, York noted there are 8,780 hours in a year, and if you put the Dodgers and Lakers together – complementing each other, at least on the calendar – their live programming (that is, the games themselves) still wouldn’t total much more than 500 hours.
The most obvious issue is with cord-cutting and other forces that threaten the existing distribution model, piling on pricey sports networks represents a legitimate threat to the TV ecosystem – especially for the significant percentage of homes that have no interest in the Dodgers or college sports, whatever the price.
“If both the teams and networks really cared about the fans, they would set a price that is accessible to the fans, let alone the non-fans,” York said.
Instead, the teams have seemed happy to take the money and run – good left-handed relief pitchers don’t come cheap, after all – while Time Warner Cable over-committed to land these hallowed franchises, assuming the leverage associated with having the Lakers and Dodgers would force distributors to knuckle under to its terms.
The response to SportsNet LA, rather, has been to call the company’s bluff, with DirecTV CEO Mike White telling analysts during an earnings call Tuesday that the fees being sought for the Dodgers channel weren’t “rational.”
The public, of course, isn’t necessarily terribly sophisticated when it comes to sorting out blame in these situations. Those who have any sense of loyalty are more likely to shower it on local sports heroes (and by extension the network that brings them into homes), without harboring much passion for satellite/telco/cable providers who make them wait four hours for a damn installation appointment.
That said, the fact DirecTV and others have largely weathered first the Pac-12 and now the Dodgers standoff suggests A) inertia remains a powerful force in such matters; and B) consumers might be wising up regarding how endless commitments to finance new channels are ultimately going to come out of their pockets.
Either way, it’s hard to argue when York suggests the formula of more channels, at higher fees, offering less individual value, represents “a broken model.” If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, it might be derived from what happened in Houston, where an overreaching sports channel carrying local teams was forced to declare bankruptcy.
In this case, Houston isn’t the only one that has a problem. The question is how many of these ventures will have to go under before those companies who see sports as a license to turn cable bills into a bottomless spigot devise a more realistic game plan.
Until then, don’t hold your breath waiting for the Dodgers. And if you currently get the Pac-12 Network, good luck finding something to watch on it between now and Labor Day.