Category Archives: Fox Sports Numbs My Brain

What do fewer eyeballs on college football mean?

Richard Deitsch takes a look at broadcast numbers for the just concluded 2017 regular season and reports a decline.

Per Karp, here’s where the networks finished for average viewership for this year’s CFB regular season:

CBS: 4.951 million viewers, down 10% from 5.489 million in 2016.

ABC: 4.203 million, down 18% from 5.097 million.

Fox: 3.625 million, up 23% from 2.951 million.

NBC: 2.742, down 3% from 2.814 million.

ESPN: 2.155 million, down 6% from 2.300 million.

FS1: 819,000, up 4% from 743,000.

Some interesting thoughts from Karp in the piece: CBS’s SEC package was the most-viewed individual package for the ninth straight CFB season, but this year’s average was its lowest in well over a decade. ABC’s Saturday Night Football was down 4% from 2016, even though its window remained college football’s most-viewed window with 5.7 million viewers. ESPN was easily the most-viewed cable net for CFB—it has the most games so that lowers its average—but was down with fewer Big Ten matchups. FS1’s average was its best since the network launched but below what the cable net FX averaged for its games in ’11 (1.01 million viewers).

Let’s cut to the chase here:  is it panic time?  Well, far be it from me to speak for the geniuses who run the sport, but Karp seems to suggest that while the numbers are an indication of a problem, it’s not an existential one.

“I don’t think that meant less interest in college football,” Karp said. “If anything, I’d say the interest was higher this season compared to some prior years. If you look at total minutes viewed for college football, it had to be some sort of record this year. There were some really exciting matchups and Fox Sports really stepped up their game this year—the company’s first with the Big Ten regular season lineup. You could often find three college football windows on the Fox broadcast window this season, which never happened before. With a healthy dose on FS1, they are making themselves a destination for college football now. But this is a zero-sum game, particularly as it relates to the Power Five conferences. Fox Sports’ gain was ABC/ESPN’s loss, as the new Big Ten contracts meant Bristol had fewer options with regard to top teams. While Saturday Night Football on ABC still got some bigger matchups, there were just fewer options for Saturday afternoon windows. As good as a team like UCF was this season, matchups from the AAC just aren’t moving the needle.

“For CBS, the SEC was just too top heavy this season,” Karp continued. “They had some bad matchups on the network. Alabama is still a draw, but there is a limit on the number of Alabama games the network can air, and Georgia-Florida or any Tennessee game just aren’t what they used to be. For NBC, Notre Dame fans just didn’t watch early in the season, expecting some sort of repeat of 2016’s debacle. But NBC saw improvement over the last three game telecasts. I’d say college football fans were winners this season. There are options galore on TV, and that doesn’t even include improvement on the streaming front. Networks like CBS and ESPN need to see improvement from some big-time programs like Texas, Tennessee, Florida, Nebraska and maybe even an Oregon. That would increase the availability of bigger games for those networks.”

The SEC in particular hasn’t been doing CBS any favors of late.  When it’s mid-November and the schedule lines up to present Kentucky at Georgia as your game of the week, you haven’t been trying that hard to make sure your customers are getting prime matchups.  Sure, having more programs with a pulse certainly helps, but anybody looking at that week before the start of the season could have sensed that the conference wasn’t putting its best face forward then.

It’s not just CBS, of course.  Overall, this season has struck me on more than one occasion as one in which the networks loaded up primo games — as in plural — in the same time slot.  Some of that is no doubt due to schools and conferences trying to accommodate their fan bases who actually attend the games (quaint, I know), but you can’t help but question if there are other factors in play.

Aside from the top-heavy nature of this season’s landscape, as well as a certain amount of inept scheduling, I wonder if there are any other issues worth considering.  Those of you who swing right politically would no doubt cite ESPN’s social media missteps this season as a factor, although there’s a certain amount of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face involved with that.

I, though, think about whether we’re witnessing a certain canary in the coal mine doing a little chirping.  Deitsch prefaces his piece with the observation that “College football is a tougher game to analyze for ratings experts given a number of factors including the innate regionalism of the sport…” and it seems fair to ask if ESPN’s relentless promotion of the college football playoffs is already having an unintended, yet inevitable, impact on fans’ interest in the regular season.

Left to consider, then, are what the broadcast numbers for the playoffs look like and whether the conferences and the networks can get their collective acts together next season.  Maybe some better conclusions can be drawn then.

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Filed under College Football, ESPN Is The Devil, Fox Sports Numbs My Brain

Behold, the new video journalism

So, this is how the next phase of sports media operates.  I have to admit outsourcing all your research is a real cost saver.

Good luck with that, Fox Sports.

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Life comes at you fast, Fox.

Damn, it seems like I just posted this and two things drop out of the blue today.

I doubt they’re related, but I wish they were.  What in the wide, wide world of sports is going on at Fox?

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Triumph of the booboisie

Lord knows, Stewart Mandel has made for a convenient foil on more than one occasion here at the blog, but the idea that ninety-second clips of Skip Bayless pontificating on any subject have more perceived value to Fox Sports than Bruce Feldman’s college football insight is nauseating.

This is what I was getting at in yesterday’s post about ESPN’s business model.  Those of you who insist on getting wrapped up in the bullshit about Mickey embracing liberal politics are missing the real point.  Irritating blather has value to these people.  It’s not about left or right; it’s about providing a platform for pundits to say something outrageous enough to make the average viewer want to pay attention.

Live sports may be what drives the train for most of us, but apparently there’s marginal value in insulting the intelligence of some part of the viewership.  While that may be profoundly depressing to those of us who are rational beings, you can’t argue with the reality that these are the bets these media giants are making.  After all, we live in a world where they keep spinning off “Housewives of XXX” like there’s no tomorrow, because there’s a reliably profitable viewership out there.  Why should we think the sports world — professional wrestling, anyone? — is immune to that?

I’m not trying to argue that to some extent the media hasn’t brought this on itself.  I mocked this development at the time, but since then it’s taken on a certain canary in the coal mine aspect that now seems as inevitable as it is sad.

Make no mistake, though.  The public is complicit, too.  Fox and ESPN are giving us what they are convinced we want, or at least enough of us want, such that it makes it worth their while to debase their product.  I’d like to believe they’ve lost their way, but the saddest point of all is that I can’t help but concede the merit of their cynicism.

Enjoy what’s left of actual sports journalism.  It’s hard to see a robust future for it.

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Filed under ESPN Is The Devil, Fox Sports Numbs My Brain, Media Punditry/Foibles

I know you are, but what am I?

We’ve all seen the potshots taken at ESPN’s business model of late, but what if Mickey’s not exactly wrong about what it’s doing?  From a bottom line standpoint, here is how an 800-pound gorilla thinks:

“You have to build a deeper moat,” he often said when discussing competition. In Skipper’s folksy Southern style, that meant keeping ESPN’s enemies at bay. It meant identifying the rights ESPN wanted — the NFL, NBA, MLB, MLS, college sports, tennis — and paying a dollar more than anyone else to get them.

And while you may think in an era of decline cable subscribers, that’s a dumb strategy, the numbers disagree with you.

Distributors started creating low-cost packages as a retention method to keep their customers from cutting the cord. Many of those packages do not include ESPN, a move that surprised many cable veterans who assumed that the network’s contracts would not allow cable operators to keep ESPN off those packages. Standard cable contracts mandate that channels have to be in a certain percentage of homes — called “minimum penetration thresholds.”

Around 15 years ago, though, ESPN took those clauses out of its deals in exchange for convincing distributors to pay a higher license fee. Several distribution executives describe the move as a good one for ESPN at the time, as it made sure that the channel not only had the highest affiliate fee in the business, but its annual increases were bigger than other channels’ entire fee.

In 2016, for example, distributors paid ESPN $7.24 per subscriber per month, according to Kagan. In 2017, that fee increased to $7.89, an increase of 65 cents. Only 13 channels make more than 65 cents per subscriber per month, including four Disney-owned channels — ESPN, Disney Channel ($1.49), ESPN2 (98 cents) and SEC Network (72 cents).

Even though ESPN’s distribution is smaller, the network still is making more in affiliate revenue thanks to those increases. ESPN executives insist they like that trade-off, and distribution executives even privately agree that the 15-year old arrangement has been good for ESPN.

If the value in a live sports network is the control of live sports, then what Mickey has been doing with the layoffs and its rights bidding makes some sense, despite what such insightful figures like Jason Whitlock and Clay Travis insist otherwise.

One of ESPN’s top executives accused Fox Sports of advocating what he called a false notion that the network operates with a liberal bias.

“The whole narrative is a false one that was seeded and perpetuated primarily by a direct business competitor,” said Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and scheduling. “We have no political agenda whatsoever.”

Fox Sports has given voice to many of the accusations of ESPN’s liberal bias. For example, Fox Sports 1’s afternoon studio show co-host, Jason Whitlock, wrote a May 7 editorial for The Wall Street Journal in which he accused ESPN of adhering to a “strict obedience to progressive political correctness.”

Whitlock is a former ESPN employee who spent two stints with the Bristol-based company before leaving for Fox. Fox Sports and The Wall Street Journal share a corporate parent in News Corp.

Another Fox Sports personality who continually questions ESPN’s business model has also taken on the ESPN-as-liberal topic several times. In an April post on his Outkick The Coverage blog, Fox Sports personality Clay Travis wrote, “ESPN made the mistake of trying to make liberal social media losers happy and as a result lost millions of viewers.”

Again, is losing millions of viewers more important to ESPN than maintaining revenues?  That hardly seems likely.

The topper to all this is that the WWL isn’t the only live sports outlet that’s let reporting talent go lately in a search for the right kind of balance as the broadcast world copes with a changing market.

Fox Sports will eliminate about 20 writing and editing positions in Los Angeles and replace them with a similar number of jobs in video production, editing and promotion. Executives told staff in meetings Monday after outlining the new strategy in a memo obtained by Bloomberg. Affected employees will be encouraged to apply for the new posts.

The owner of Fox News and the Fox broadcast network has decided that paying writers to cover sporting events, pen columns or grade teams’ NBA draft moves is best left to ESPN and other news-focused sports sites. Fox is opting to divert those resources into producing online video that complements on-air shows, can be packaged into advertising sales across the web and TV, and has the potential to go viral on social media.

News outlets of all shapes and sizes are making a transition from the written word to video.

Nothing wrong with that; it’s just another indication that the networks are feeling their way around the best way to help the bottom line in a digital, video-based era.  I mean, this is some kind of echo:

… But this is only the culmination of months-long efforts by Horowitz to shift digital’s focus away from covering news and towards promoting FS1’s on-air personalities. In fact, writers sent to the Super Bowl in February were told once they arrived that they wouldn’t be writing for FoxSports.com, but would be ghostwriting copy for on-air talent instead. Digital executives like Pesavento and Mike Foss (both previously For The Win) have been pushed out as well, top writers like Bruce Feldman have been posting pieces on Facebook instead of on Fox’s site, and FoxSports.com has become more and more about what their debate show personalities say on-air…

If both sides are doing it, there’s nothing political about that.  But letting Clay Travis, who’s had a longstanding weak grasp of economic issues, gin up righteous indignation is a great way to attract the rubes, I suppose.  Maybe Travis can get Feldman to ghostwrite some college football pieces for him.

In any event, watch those subscription fees, peeps.  They matter a lot more than Caitlyn Jenner and Curt Schilling.

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Filed under ESPN Is The Devil, Fox Sports Numbs My Brain, It's Just Bidness

Sheer brilliance

College football broadcast rights sound like they’re this close to jumping the shark.

There is still no tangible momentum for Big 12 expansion at the moment, several sources said. CBS Sports reported last week there is a 50-50 chance the league won’t expand after an elaborate process that started in earnest in July.

Bowlsby acknowledged that one option with ESPN and Fox could be the networks paying the league not to expand. The current contract calls for those rightsholders to pay pro rata — current equal value revenue — to any new teams entering the league.

Mickey, when Bob Bowlsby cuts a deal that manages to make you look this stupid, perhaps it’s time to sack your negotiators.

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What Bob Bowlsby hath wrought.

Geez, what a mess.

The Big 12’s TV partners are pushing back on the conference’s plans to expand.

ESPN and Fox Sports believe that expansion with schools from outside the power five conferences will water down the Big 12 and make it less valuable, not more, sources said. But the Big 12 is financially motivated to add more teams. A clause in the conference’s media deals stipulate that if the Big 12 expands, it would receive pro rata increases in its rights fees.

The original deals pay $2.6 billion over 13 years, or about $20 million per school annually. Expansion by two schools, theoretically, would force ESPN and Fox combined to pay an additional $40 million per year in rights fees. Expansion by four teams could mean another $80 million per year.

Both networks, according to sources, are digging their heels in against paying those kinds of increases based on expansion with schools outside the power five.

In other words, the networks just aren’t that into your conference, Bob.  (Not that you’re commenting publicly about it.)  Especially when expansion boils down to nothing more than short-term greed.

The drive to expand is fueled by the opportunity to almost immediately generate more money for its schools. The conference’s TV deals run through 2024-25 and the Big 12 already trails the rest of the power five conferences in revenue, so expansion stands out as the only way for the Big 12 to increase revenue.

Any newcomers to the league wouldn’t be expected to receive a full share of TV revenue for multiple years, meaning more money for the 10 existing members…

… The conference already has announced plans to start a football championship game next year, which could mean another $25 million to $30 million in revenue. Absent a conference channel, the only other way for the Big 12 to significantly grow revenue in the near term is to add schools and activate that pro rata clause in its media contracts.

That kind of cash grab, sources say, is rubbing ESPN and Fox the wrong way because any new schools would not carry the profile of most power five schools, which is what the networks are paying for.

But think of all the cachet Cincinnati as a card-carrying member of the Big 12 would carry, guys.

The best part of this is that the networks previously displayed an unusual altruism towards the conference.

There’s also some history here. Executives at ESPN and Fox remember 2010 when they helped hold the conference together against the Pac-12’s raid by keeping rights fees at the 12-team level, even though the Big 12 was reduced to 10 teams — Nebraska left for the Big Ten, while Colorado departed for the Pac-12. That was under the previous Big 12 administration led by former Commissioner Dan Beebe.

Maybe Bob and his presidents see that as a sign of weakness.  In any event, pissing off the hands that write the checks may work in the short run — both ESPN and Fox are stuck with the language they negotiated — but one thing about all contracts is that they eventually expire.  And when that happens…

Another option would be to go along with the increases now and not support the Big 12 in 2025, when the grant of rights and the TV deals expire.

Should that turn out to be the case, it won’t just be the TV deals that expire.

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