Sports Networks' Crazy Math: Even More

Single-sports RSNs like the SportsNet LA are pricing themselves out of the game

Brass-knuckled negotiations are nothing new in the TV business. But there has traditionally been an understanding that getting the best deal shouldn’t mean crippling the other side — not out of benevolence, but simply to leave the well viable for the day when you have to return to it.

Sports television has seemingly lost heed of this logic, putting greed ahead of practicality, and feelings of invulnerability ahead of common sense.

The protracted negotiations between the Los Angeles Dodgers’ SportsNet LA and DirecTV — which at press time has continued to balk (heh heh) at acquiescing to team partner Time Warner Cable’s asking price for the baseball-dedicated network — comes on the heels of an explosion of regional, narrowly skewed channels, sprouting up in the belief that live sports is a commodity no distributor dares be caught dead without.

That might be true, but the fact Angelenos love the Dodgers shouldn’t obscure the danger in piling one new channel upon another, in many cases when the primary draw — live games — is essentially dormant for half the year.

A cautionary tale is the Lakers, perhaps the only thing in Los Angeles that could consistently unite the far-flung, diverse community. Owner of 16 championships, the Lakers have hit unusually hard times, putting up the worst record in franchise history and sitting out the playoffs — along with two other marquee teams, the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics — for only the third time since 1976.

Time Warner Cable Sportsnet, the venture committed to the Lakers, surely thought the team was as formidable leverage-wise as anything in L.A. could ever be. Yet sports fans also love a winner, and ratings have cratered, while those accustomed to following their heroes well into May or June have little to look forward to until “Wait till next year begins” in November.

There, ultimately, lies the insanity in the current system: Spread across a single channel, the Lakers and Dodgers would complement each other, creating a year-round flow of high-profile programming. In the way ESPN is more than just one sport, regional networks have shared teams to provide year-round value. YES, for example, telecasts Yankees and Brooklyn Nets games; NESN airs Red Sox and Bruins contests.

Doing that, though, risks leaving a few bucks on the table. Operating individually, owners have the chance to pocket more money in fees, but they do so by forcing services to ante up for a product filled much of the year with dead air.

The same can be said of regional channel the Pac-12 Network, which includes coverage of UCLA, USC, Oregon and Stanford games. It’s no slight to state that interest in college athletics beyond the major revenue-generating sports — football and men’s basketball — is limited, but these networks don’t rebate license fees during the spring or summer.

Admittedly, multichannel video program distributors don’t engender much sympathy, and networks can always argue that those companies can shoulder some of the expense out of their profits. Yet it’s not being Chicken Little to acknowledge looming cord-cutting pressures if bills continue to skyrocket, as they inevitably will if sports rights don’t achieve a level of sobriety relatively soon.

Notably, Comcast will find itself presiding over these Time Warner Cable channels should the companies’ merger be approved, and officials have conceded they’re not thrilled about inheriting some of that baggage. Still, if the company wants to be seen as a true industry leader — beyond the generally empty “Please approve our deal” public-service pledges — it could burnish those credentials and truly benefit consumers by using its formidable clout to help rein in a sports landscape gone mad.

Because right now, the sporting world’s business sluggers are acting like they’re pretty near invincible — seemingly oblivious to odds that say by swinging wildly for the fences, eventually, you increase your chances of striking out.

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