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The Game Plan

How TV networks are using sports programming to stave off extinction

Author MARK MCCLUSKY

ILLUSTRATION BY BRIAN STAUFFER

IN A DISTANT, SHADOWY, bygone era (the 1990s), the Four Pillars of TV—ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox—towered over the media landscape. The awesome power of these networks seemed destined to endure for a thousand years. But then came the Barbarian Hordes—otherwise known as Alternative Distribution Platforms—and with them the Great Disruption.

This story has been repeated so often in recent years, it bears the patina of myth. The agents of fragmentation—Netflix, TiVo, Hulu, iTunes—have changed the game. The time when families across America sat down together to watch the same shows is forever gone.

Except in sports, which abides by a different set of rules. “There’s no better place to be in entertainment than sports,” ESPN president John Skipper told an industry audience recently. “They cannot be knocked off, they cannot be replicated and they must be watched live, which makes them uniquely valuable among entertainment programming.”

No kidding. More than 99 percent of ESPN programs are viewed live (watching a game later is an open invitation to the spoilers of the world, as I can tell you from bitter experience). And here’s the kicker: In order to watch a game live, you must watch it on TV. It’s pretty much the only aspect of television that the network guys have successfully locked down.

The networks aren’t alone in being buffeted by the onslaught of disruptive technologies. Pay TV too is on the wane, with subscribers jumping ship at an alarming rate. Between 2008 and 2011, according to Convergence Consulting Group, an estimated 2.65 million viewers abandoned cable TV for Internet video providers.

I’d like to join these people, but I can’t. I’ve done the math on how much I’d save if I eighty-sixed my satellite subscription and cobbled together my favorite shows using digital platforms. It’s a lot. If I want to watch the Oakland A’s, however, I have to go, cap in hand, to my local cable provider. And there are vast amounts of money changing hands to keep it this way.

Last year, CBS, Fox and NBC signed deals to carry NFL games for nine years, paying the league almost $28 billion for the privilege, a 63 percent hike over the previous contract. Those paying for NFL rights, including ESPN, will spend about a quarter of their total programming budgets on football. They’re not doing this because they’re making a profit on football—they’re investing in their survival.

Not surprisingly, then, the networks jealously guard their turf. MLB offers a TV subscription service but with your local team’s games blacked out, which kind of defeats the purpose. Same with the NBA. The NFL has a service called Game Pass that lets you watch every game live on your tablet or smartphone … provided you live outside the U.S. and Mexico. If you’re willing to look into more esoteric options, there are many unofficial sites streaming live sports—until the leagues’ technical teams find them and shut down the stream.

If there’s ever to be a way out of this, it’ll probably come from the leagues. If the NFL, for example, were willing to introduce something like Game Pass in the U.S., I’d gladly part with the $200 the service costs elsewhere (I currently pay $1,500 a year to my provider). In order to match the $3.1 billion the league receives from the networks each year, it would need to find 15 million people like me.

Wait, 15 million? Put that way, the idea starts to seem feasible. NFL games attracted an average of 17.5 million viewers in 2011, with more than 200 million watching at least one game. Surely 10 percent of these fans would pay a few hundred bucks a year to see games wherever and whenever they want, on any device.

The leagues already have their own cable networks. The logical next step would be to take complete control of their programming. I’d bet that the first league that delivers its content directly to fans will do just fine, and maybe even thrive. Then again, I’m a Cleveland Browns fan, so I’m irrationally hopeful.

Wired special projects editor MARK MCCLUSKY (no armchair fan he) has spent plenty of freezing Sunday afternoons in the old Cleveland Stadium.

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