SBJ/November 19-25, 2012/Media

Local streaming, TV Everywhere are closer than we think

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John Ourand
A lot of news came out of the SBJ/SBD Sports Media & Technology Conference held earlier this month in New York and here were the news nuggets that caught my attention during the two-day event.

Local streaming deals are close.

NBA Commissioner David Stern surprised many in the audience when he said consumers will start to see live streams of local games this year. Currently, Los Angeles Lakers games on Time Warner Cable SportsNet are the only local NBA games streamed on a TV Everywhere basis, but Stern suggested that other markets should start local streaming live games soon.

“That’s a prototype of what’s going to sweep the nation locally. There’s no question about it,” Stern said. “One at a time, the rights granted will include [TV Everywhere] as we work out the triangulation of team-league-regional sports network-operator.”

Local streaming has become one of the most frustrating stories in sports media over the past several years, as teams, leagues, RSNs and distributors have been unable to agree on a model to stream games. MLB, NBA and NHL teams have been close to launching live, local streaming for years, but it still hasn’t happened.

NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins gave voice to those frustrations when he said, “We’ve been talking about it for four years now. … This is the year when it goes over the top and we get those deals done.”

Fox Sports co-President Eric Shanks did not put a timetable on local deals, but he said many of the local issues already have been settled on a national level, where national media deals include TV Everywhere rights.

Shanks said local teams have not felt pressure to cut these deals so far because there hasn’t appeared to be enough consumer demand for local streaming yet. But he added that situation is changing.

“People are not switching providers because one has it and the other one doesn’t,” he said. “But that’s going to change really quickly, especially when everybody has products out there but there are games that have a big red X over it that you can’t get. Then you’re going to have a problem on your hands.”

MLB may combine Extra Innings and MLB.TV.

“If you look at how the out-of-market marketplace has evolved, it’s really a marketplace for both broadcast and online.”
Tim Brosnan
EVP, Business,
Major League Baseball
Photo by: MARC BRYAN-BROWN
Tim Brosnan, MLB executive vice president of business, broke some news when he said MLB is considering combining Extra Innings and MLB.TV into one offering. Currently, it takes two separate subscriptions to access MLB’s out-of-market packages on TV and online. Extra Innings subscribers do not have access to online streams, and MLB.TV subscribers can’t access out-of-market games through their cable provider.

Having launched four years ago, MLB Network is a year away from having to renew many of its affiliate deals with cable operators and is looking to create a better negotiating position as it embarks on negotiations.

“You’re going to see us do some things that allow us to have the leverage that we need in the marketplace, to get the carriage we think we deserve at the prices that we think are fair to us and fair to the consumer,” Brosnan said. “We’re right in the nitty gritty with that now.”

MLB Network is in 70 million homes, making it the best distributed league-owned network. It charges around 27 cents per subscriber per month, according to SNL Kagan.

But cable operators have complained that the Extra Innings package, which MLB originally used as an enticement to launch the network, didn’t have the buy rates that they were expecting when they first cut the deal. It’s true that cable operators have not done a good job marketing Extra Innings, but it’s also true that the MLB.TV offering is depressing interest in the Extra Innings package, especially since MLB.TV’s deals with companies like Apple TV and Roku allow subscribers to watch on large-screen TVs.

That could soon change, Brosnan said.

“If you look at how the out-of-market marketplace has evolved, it’s really a marketplace for both broadcast and online. It’s as robust in both places now as the TV market was five years ago,” Brosnan said. “There has been a lot of discussion. I think you’ll see some proof of that discussion bearing fruit of, perhaps, combining those packages and using that as a lever to help drive distribution for the network.”

Google, Microsoft and Apple are nosing around for sports rights.

Nobody thinks that the World Series or NBA Finals will be on YouTube any time soon. But top executives with MLB and the NBA said they’ve seen increased interest from digital media companies like Google, Microsoft and Apple in recent months.

“They are sniffing around,” said MLB’s Brosnan, who just negotiated media deals with ESPN, Fox and Turner. “Pay-TV services are never secure, but with TV Everywhere starting to gain some traction, pay TV is looking like it’s building a model that might have some traction and will be here to stay.”

Stern, whose NBA is in the fifth year of eight-year media rights deals with ESPN and Turner, said he anticipates a time when digital media companies place a bet on sports rights in the same way that Fox Sports invested in the NFL in 1994.

“When we think about a potential landscape change, we think about a coming battle, potentially, between companies like Apple and Google and Microsoft. They each have devices and operating systems and might be looking for some way to differentiate themselves,” he said. “Ultimately, I think they are all going to conclude that content is going to drive them. They’re all fighting about the device and the operating system by which you get your content. I think there’s some negotiation yet to be done.”

ESPN President John Skipper and Turner’s David Levy don’t see digital media companies as a threat for sports rights today. Rather, both ESPN and Turner have set up partnerships with those companies, providing programming and apps they can use on their systems. They both expect to keep those relationships going well into the future.

“I can’t think of technology companies who have successfully morphed into content companies,” Skipper said. “It’s what they always think they want to do and what they always have trouble doing. The notion that Google or Apple is getting ready to buy the NBA Finals and broadcast them is very unlikely.”

We are a few years away from TV Everywhere.

“We don’t even talk about on-demand any more because it’s so integrated in how we all watch TV. TV Everywhere is on a similar path.”
Matt Strauss
SVP, Comcast Cable
Photo by: MARC BRYAN-BROWN
The surest way to determine how quickly the industry will see a full-scale rollout of TV Everywhere is to study the adoption curve for on-demand. That’s the opinion of Matt Strauss, Comcast Cable’s senior vice president of digital and emerging platforms and one of the smartest TV executives in the space.

“When we launched on-demand 10 years ago, we had to convince people to push the on-demand button because they thought that they were going to get charged,” Strauss said. “We don’t even talk about on-demand any more because it’s so integrated in how we all watch TV. TV Everywhere is on a similar path, but it’s not going to take 10 years.”

Strauss believes programming support from big programmers, like ESPN and Turner, will lead to quicker TV Everywhere adoption rates. It took a lot longer for big programmers to warm to the on-demand world.

“Three to five years is too conservative,” Strauss said.

Fox, ESPN will bid for EPL in three years.

NBC may have plucked the English Premier League rights from ESPN and Fox, but executives with both those networks reaffirmed their commitment to soccer and say they plan to bid aggressively on EPL rights when they are back on the market in just three years.

“We’ll be right back at this in three years again,” ESPN’s Skipper said. “We loved our association with the English Premier League.”

Fox Sports’ Shanks sounded a similar theme.

“If we have the opportunity to grab [EPL rights] again, we would have them back in time for our first World Cup [in 2018],” Shanks said.

Turner is shedding the pay option for March Madness Live.

In March 2012, Turner allowed fans who couldn’t figure out the authentication process to pay $3.99 for online access to all 67 NCAA tournament games.

In March 2013, that option is going away, said TBS’s Jeremy Legg, senior vice president of business development and multiplatform distribution.

That means only cable and satellite subscribers will be able to access online streams of the games that appear on TBS, TNT and truTV.

“We grew through authentication last year,” Legg said. “We got our grounding pretty well, both in terms of the technology and how we work with the MVPD partners. We think it’s time to move to that model.”

Last year, the paid option operated as a catch-all, allowing quick and easy access for a relatively low price. Legg said the move toward TV Everywhere necessitated the move to authentication.

“We’re all marching down the path toward TV Everywhere, and sports is a critical component to that,” he said.

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