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Sports Fans: Get Ready to Spend More Money to Watch Your Favorite Teams

Sports rights costs are swelling dramatically enough to raise fears of exploding the pay-TV biz

Sports fans, get ready to shell out more coin to watch your fave teams skirmish on TV. Not a sports nut? Well, you’re going to pay more, too, if you want to get traditional television service from a cable, satellite or telco provider, because of the way the industry is structured. But what is the endgame for the ever-evolving business of sports television? Who will give in: content providers, distributors or the common fan? Those are the multibillion-dollar questions.

The price of TV broadcast rights for sports in the age of time-shifted viewing has soared. After all, it’s high-demand content that viewers don’t DVR. And unlike other video entertainment, it’s not available from Netflix or other Internet services.

But as networks bid rights into the stratosphere, something’s got to give. Some distributors fear that unless things change, sports fees could eventually drive consumers away from pay TV in droves — prompting a tailspin the biz won’t be able to pull out of. On the other hand, consumer dissension has yet to become an unbridled rebellion, and it’s not clear that the willingness to pay has been tested.

It’s a sure bet that finger-pointing and contract fights between networks and distributors, not to mention viewers and the occasional politician, will continue. The situation is particularly dire in certain markets: In Los Angeles, for instance, Time Warner Cable this year inked a 25-year distribution pact with baseball’s Dodgers valued at about $8.5 billion for a team-owned sports network, according to a Los Angeles Times report. To recoup those rights fees, the regional sports network could ask for more than $4 per subscriber per month — for just one team. (Whether that winds up being the actual rate is another matter.)

Meanwhile, individual nets that don’t get carriage could be left holding the bag for massive TV rights. For the industry as a whole, however, nothing will change unless subscribers begin fleeing en masse.

Television rights to most major sports properties are locked up well into the next decade. Click here to view full-size image for a look at the most recent contracts signed for key properties.

“The trajectory of programming costs has to change, and the driver of programming cost inflation is sports,” says Craig Moffett, senior analyst with Moffett Research. “Everybody in this business knows what the problem is, and most of them are even willing to acknowledge it. Diagnosis is not the problem. But nobody has figured out the cure.”

Sports fees paid by cable, satellite and telco TV companies are on pace to increase 12% in 2013, to $17.2 billion, according to research firm SNL Kagan. That’s double the rate for nonsports programming, which already has exceeded the national rate of inflation for years.

The danger is that as costs balloon, pay TV subscribers who aren’t sports fans will bail in greater numbers in favor of cheaper, Internet-delivered video options and free over-the-air broadcast TV. That would fuel a vicious cycle: A shrinking subscriber base will prompt congloms to hike per-sub fees.

“The reason people are cutting the cord is because the price of pay TV is too high,” Moffett said. “The whole industry is in a car headed for the cliff, and the response is to step on the accelerator even harder.”

A growing part of the problem: too many men on the field. Pro and college sports leagues and other sporting organizations aren’t creating more games or events, but the rights to air them are being divvied up among a larger pool of networks. For Fox Sports 1, set to bow Aug. 17, Fox is seeking a higher premium for programming that to some extent was available elsewhere on the dial. Leagues including MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL have their own 24-hour nets, and college conferences like the Big Ten and Pac-12 have established RSNs.

That’s content consumers and distributors have previously had access to for a lower overall cost, DirecTV chief content officer Dan York said. “It’s just being shuffled around across more players,” he explained.

Cracks in the model are beginning to show, as distributors are increasingly taking a hard line on sports, in some markets refusing to carry RSNs they feel are asking for too much.

DirecTV, which is especially vulnerable to rising content costs given its singular reliance on TV, has refused to pay for Comcast RSNs in Portland, Philadelphia and Houston. The satcaster also has turned down the Pac-12 Network, hurting that network’s ability to turn the corner on its biz plan. DirecTV’s cost-benefit analysis has shown the asking prices from those RSNs are just too high, York says.

“When you see upstream rights deals increase by multiples, that’s a formula that is unworkable for consumers,” he said. “At the end of the day, the money that ends up in the pockets of the athletes, (team) owners and networks — it comes out of the pockets of the fans and nonfans.”

In the case of Comcast SportsNet Houston, which also has failed to reach new deals with Dish Network, AT&T U-verse and Suddenlink Communications, York says that DirecTV has actually gained customers in the region. “The impact has been de minimus, and the cost savings have had a positive effect on DirecTV’s bottom line,” he said. In Houston, “it’s not all about the Astros and Rockets.”

In their defense, programmers and leagues say sports — far from destroying pay TV — is in fact the most critical piece of programming holding the entire channel bundle together. Network execs argue that sports amounts to less than 20% of the average cable TV bill, but at the same time, they believe they’re entitled to a bigger share of the pie because live sports is extremely valuable in attracting and retaining subs.

ESPN is by far the priciest cabler in the biz, earning an average of $5.71 per sub last year for the flagship channel and ESPN2 together (per SNL Kagan). Critics like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who introduced a bill that would force a la carte TV pricing, hold up the Disney majority-owned programmer as the poster child for everything that’s wrong with subscription TV — with its high cost and the fact that consumers basically have no choice but to buy it.

But it’s also consistently been the most-valued network in consumer surveys, says Ed Durso, ESPN’s executive veep overseeing government affairs.

Yes, sports rights costs are going up, he concedes, but adds that’s a reality of how a competitive marketplace works. “We don’t and can’t buy (TV rights to) everything, but next time we go into a negotiation and there’s nobody else bidding, that would be the first time that happens.”

So far, Durso notes, cord-cutting has not infl icted serious wounds on pay TV. “It suggests that as an entertainment product, (sports) has an appropriate price tag,” he said.

Of course, sports is not the lone culprit for higher cable TV bills. Another major factor: broadcasters are demanding higher retransmission fees from pay TV distributors — witness the high-profile clash between CBS and Time Warner Cable. Retrans payments, which were effectively nonexistent a decade ago, will rise from an average of $2 per sub in 2012 to $4.04 by 2016, SNL Kagan predicts.

Privately, sports network execs say pay TV operators are wringing their hands because their margins on video are shrinking as content costs increase. Twenty years ago, cable operators had an eye-popping 75% operating margin on TV, which has dropped to the mid-30% range with competition from satellite and telco providers. Even so, TV for the biggest providers remains a very profitable business.

“For any other retail business in America — Walmart, Target, Netflix, you name it — nobody gets those kinds of margins,” says a top exec with a large sports network group. “What you have are historical monopoly margins that are too high, and they will start to come down.”

As Jon Litner, prexy of Comcast’s NBC Sports Group, puts it: “We set the wholesale price. The (pay TV providers) have to figure out what retail price they are going to set. We believe that sports programming both nationally and regionally has a very strong value proposition.”

Undeniably, sports is a big draw on TV. In the U.S., about 170 million adults (71% of the U.S. population) identify themselves as sports fans, and 97% of them watched sports on TV in 2012, according to a Kantar Sports Media study. On average, fans spend 8.3 hours per week consuming sports content, with 3.8 hours of that parked in front of the tube, the study found.

Moreover, 97% of TV sports programming was viewed live in 2012, according to Nielsen. That’s compared with 75% live viewing for nonsports content, which is increasingly being watched on DVRs — with auds blasting past the ads, diminishing their value.

Are sports, then, poised to be the savior of the pay TV bundle? Moffett doesn’t think that argument holds water. “There is no way you can spin the story to make it seem like sports is not the problem,” he says.

Cable and satellite operators don’t deny that sports on TV is valuable. But they want more flexible options in how they offer sports networks to customers.

A frequent complaint is the wholesale bundling tactic that’s used by media congloms like Disney, 21st Century Fox and NBCUniversal. Programmers say they offer distribs channels on an a la carte basis, but that’s a red herring, says Matt Polka, head of the American Cable Assn., a lobbying group that reps 850 small operators. “The way they price the sale of one channel eclipses the price of the whole bundle. So if you’re rationally running a business, of course you will take the bundle,” he said.

Sports programmers also point out that Comcast, Dish, TW Cable, Verizon and others have rolled out “economy” or “family” tiers that don’t have any sports channels — and that these are unpopular.

It’s another bogus argument, according to Polka. Operators’ hands are tied because media companies require channels to be carried on the “most widely distributed” tier, and attach penalties if a channel falls below a certain level of subscriber penetration. Usually the threshold is at least 90% of video customers, and sometimes even 95%, he said. In other words, if a sports-free package becomes too successful, cable or satellite operators will effectively have to pay for ESPN and other nets without being able to charge subscribers for them.

Ultimately, “consumers don’t have any choice except to cancel service — which they are doing,” Polka says.

Some big operators, including Comcast and DirecTV, cut out the middle man and directly obtain sports content from teams or conferences, then distribute it on their own RSNs.

Most recently, Time Warner Cable aggressively bid for (and won) the TV rights to both the Dodgers and Los Angeles Lakers — cutting a deal with the Lakers worth $3 billion over 20 years in 2011. Last year, TW Cable launched Time Warner Cable SportsNet in both English- and Spanish-language versions, which are the only places to watch the team in action apart from nationally televised games.

“We are concerned about the rising cost of sports and the ongoing fragmentation of sports,” said Melinda Witmer, Time Warner Cable’s exec veep and chief video and content officer. “ That’s precisely why we made the decision to control our own economic destiny — to have access to the content long term with a reasonable understanding of what those costs would be for a very long period of time.”

To other distributors, though, Time Warner Cable’s entry into the L.A. sports scene is just pouring gasoline on the fire.

Time Warner Cable is facing a class-action lawsuit, filed in June by four Southern California pay TV subscribers, accusing the operator of forcing consumers to pay up to $5 extra per month for the Lakers and Dodgers RSNs without offering the choice to opt out. Such legal challenges to retail channel-bundling have failed in the past; Time Warner Cable declined to comment on the suit, which is pending in L.A. Superior Court.

Programming execs say such deals are outliers. For the most part, sports-net carriage deals are successfully negotiated privately and deliver great value to distributors and fans alike, NBC Sports Group’s Litner says.

“If you look at the quantity of games across the day, it’s pennies a day that this stuff is costing,” he notes.

But a few billion pennies here and there, and you’re talking real money. Many observers say current cost increases for sports — and pay TV generally — can’t continue forever. The industry likely won’t change its ways until somewhere around 20 million subscribers cut the cord, which could happen in eight to 10 years, according to Jeffrey McCall, professor of communication at DePauw U .

“Media companies don’t fear the bubble yet. There’s not enough consumer pressure yet,” McCall says. “But at some point, there will be a crash.”

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