SBJ/December 19-25, 2011/Media

Here’s a 2012 sports media year in review, 12 months early

John Ourand
The past year in sports media was dominated by industry-changing rights deals. That trend will continue next year, as the BCS, Big East, NFL, MLB and NASCAR look to cut deals. It’s not much of a prediction to say that most will see significant increase in the average annual payout — that surely will happen — but here’s how I see the year shaking out.

NBC picks up new NFL package: The NFL will add up to four additional games to NFL Network starting next season, giving it a total of 12 games. The move will help the league finally close a carriage deal with Time Warner Cable. NFL Network’s added games will overlap with an eight-game Thursday-night package that will generate a lot of interest. My bet is that the new package winds up on NBC Sports Network, though Turner could snatch it.

MLB leaves Fox: MLB will consolidate its rights with one media company rather than continue with its current structure across three networks: ESPN, Fox and TBS. NBC will make a big push to win the rights. But my guess is that the league opts for ESPN in a deal that will finally include the same TV Everywhere components that other leagues have rolled out. Keeping Turner involved in some form can’t be counted out; think of the NBA’s deal with ESPN and Turner. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some playoff games land on MLB Network, but look for most of the playoffs to be on ESPN (with, maybe, some on TBS) and the World Series to air on ABC.

No NASCAR deal gets signed: NASCAR ratings will continue to see an uptick, especially with Danica Patrick appearing in more races, but networks will hold off on renewing their rights deals until 2013. Network executives aren’t going to be looking at the overall viewership. Rather, the networks want to see if NASCAR is able to win back the young-male demographic. If those numbers stay low, the sanctioning body will not see an increase in its next television deal.

NBC picks up Big East rights: At an industry conference earlier this month, NBC Sports Group’s Jon Litner announced to a crowd of college officials: “We are open for business.” NBC’s first chance to prove that will be with the Big East Conference, which spurned a proposed ESPN extension earlier this year. ESPN will submit a bid, and Fox will kick the tires — but my bet is that NBC lands the Big East rights.

ESPN retains the BCS: ESPN’s four-year, $495 million deal for the BCS, signed in 2008, changed the industry. That was the moment when rights holders and networks realized that cable channels’ dual revenue streams of advertising and affiliate fees are needed to afford these kinds of rights fees. Those rights will be negotiated again in 2012, and I expect Fox to make a strong bid to win them back. The BCS has been a huge success for ESPN, though, and I expect Bristol to break the bank to keep the games. Look for the BCS to agree to a plus-one game during these negotiations, too.

Fox keeps the Dodgers’ rights: The Los Angeles Dodgers will take their rights to the open market. Time Warner Cable will make a strong bid. It’s a long shot, but DirecTV could swoop in and make a bid, too. Still, I see Fox doing whatever it takes to keep the Dodgers’ rights. Why Fox? Earlier this month, former Fox Cable President Bob Thompson told a bankruptcy hearing that Prime Ticket’s existence would be threatened if it lost the Dodgers. That’s a good incentive for Fox to keep the rights.

TWC Sports will struggle for distribution: Time Warner Cable’s planned RSNs in Los Angeles will launch on TWC and DirecTV this fall, but the channels will have a hard time finding other distributors unless the channels get the Dodgers (and I don’t think they will).

Quick hits: Despite the lockout, the NBA will see its viewership rise through the playoffs. … Golf ratings on CBS, NBC and Golf Channel will be up 20 percent in 2012. Thanks, Tiger. … Fox’s UFC deal will be a success, bringing a huge number of young viewers to the network, which will average around 7 million viewers for its four fights. … Neither DirecTV nor Dish Network will carry the Pac-12’s planned channels.

Those are my predictions for 2012. I expect you to hold me to them.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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