SBJ/Sept. 2-8, 2013/Media

Doing some homework on media questions for the fall term

John Ourand
From this busy summer of sports media headlines, these are the stories I will be following over the next several months.

Will Google buy NFL Sunday Ticket?

No. At least not yet. By all accounts, DirecTV remains the heavy favorite to retain the package, and sources are now saying they would be shocked if the satellite operator loses it.

An Aug. 20 report in All Things Digital detailed a meeting between Google CEO Larry Page and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Sunday Ticket was one of the topics brought up at the meeting, but it wasn’t the reason they met and wasn’t a big part of the conversation.

Sources say that both sides left the meeting believing that a Sunday Ticket deal is not likely to happen during this go-round. Instead, we’re more likely to see an NFL channel with game highlights on YouTube before any kind of Sunday Ticket deal materializes.

I’ve long thought that the NFL would look to sell its out-of-market package to an alternate provider. The NFL wants to keep limiting the distribution for its Sunday Ticket product, which would make Google or Apple or Microsoft a perfect place for it. In fact, when Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch asked for a bold sports media prediction back in early July, I wrote, “The NFL will sell its out-of-market Sunday Ticket rights to a nontraditional media outlet like Microsoft for Xbox.”

If anything, these talks show that some sort of rights deal will happen eventually, but probably not until 2022, the next time the NFL negotiates its media deals.

But I’ve become convinced that DirecTV and the NFL will get a deal done at some point during the season. DirecTV wants to keep it, especially since cable operators carry other leagues’ out-of-market packages. Sunday Ticket is a service that sets DirecTV apart. DirecTV’s deal for Sunday Ticket ends after the 2014 season.

Longtime NFL executive Steve Bornstein is leaving in the spring and this is the last big media deal he has left to complete. I expect that he’ll tie this up before leaving the league.

What’s the takeaway from Fox Sports 1’s launch?

Live sports matter.

Regis Philbin and the Canadian duo Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole get most of the buzz. But it’s live events — UFC, NASCAR truck races and NASCAR Nationwide qualifying — that have brought in the most viewers to Fox Sports 1 so far.

Live sports like UFC can help pave the way for studio shows at Fox Sports 1.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
The popularity of these live events will determine the success of Fox Sports 1’s studio shows.

On its launch night, Fox Sports 1 brought in its biggest audience to date with an impressive UFC card that averaged 1.8 million viewers. With that lead-in, it’s no surprise that “Fox Sports Live” scored its biggest audience to date, with 476,000 viewers. That UFC audience posted better numbers in all of the young, male demographic categories than the four big broadcast networks did for the same time period. That’s a great lead-in for day one.

On Aug. 23, Philbin’s show “Crowd Goes Wild” pulled in its biggest audience with 179,000 viewers. No surprise that its lead-in — NASCAR Nationwide qualifying — was a live event that was the network’s third-most-viewed show of the week, with 375,000 viewers.

After only one week, it’s way too early to give any kind of report card on the channel’s shows or talent. I expect the studio shows will look radically different three months from now than they do today.

People aren’t going to change their viewing habits overnight. Fox has done a good job setting up destinations for viewers that stick around before or after live events. As Fox rolls out college football and basketball and MLB games, I expect these shows to grow.

What to make of upcoming carriage negotiations?

This looks likely to be a tough autumn for several sports channels.

Don’t expect DirecTV to sign a deal with Pac-12 Network this season. DirecTV deals for Comcast Houston and Comcast Portland appear even further away.

Longhorn Network is a question mark. It’s not close to deals with Texas’ biggest cable operators, including Time Warner Cable. But it will be interesting to see if it is part of ESPN’s expected deal with Dish Network. ESPN and Dish are in renewal talks, and all sides describe the talks as amicable.

The battle with TWC has left CBS dark in New York and L.A. for about four weeks.
Popular convention is that CBS and Time Warner Cable will reach a deal once the NFL’s regular season starts. That’s likely still the case, but I am getting the sense that Time Warner Cable is willing to take the dispute into the season. It’s already hard to believe that CBS has been dark on Time Warner Cable systems in big markets like New York and Los Angeles for around four weeks.

My answer is always the same when I’m asked whether CBS or Time Warner Cable is winning the PR war — it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s clear that distributors are feeling more emboldened. Customers are less likely to dump their provider because of these types of fights, thanks largely to discounted video-phone-Internet packages that are bundled into one bill.

Consumers have to be jaded by these negotiations by now. They have become so commonplace over the past decade that consumers are more willing to wait it out with the knowledge that a deal will be cut eventually.

“The dirty secret of the business is that people don’t switch [distributors],” said one source who has been involved in several of these fights.

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

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