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Volume 21 No. 2
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The big rights deals coming in ’13, and who’ll be making them

John Ourand
For the past couple of years, sports media has been defined by blockbuster deals. That’s about to change. Most big rights deals extend into the next decade, including the NFL, MLB and BCS. Sports media companies will use 2013 to absorb what they’ve picked up over the past few years. But that doesn’t mean 2013 will be quiet. Here are several moves that I see happening next year.

> Get ready for Fox Sports 2.
Fox still hasn’t formally announced its plans to turn Speed into Fox Sports 1 yet. That should happen early next year, with a formal rebrand in August. But don’t expect Fox’s plans to end with that. Fox is going to switch Fuel into Fox Sports 2 next year, as well. Fox has enough programming to support two cable sports channels, and the name Fuel does not fit within the Fox Sports brand. Fox Soccer as Fox Sports 3? That’s a prediction for next year’s column.

> The NBA will renew its media rights deals with ESPN and Turner.
The NBA’s deals with ESPN and TNT end in 2016. But league Commissioner David Stern wants to complete one final media rights deal before he leaves in 2014. ESPN and Turner will pay a substantial increase to extend their packages. The NBA will try to carve out a third package for a digital media company such as Google, but ESPN and Turner will pay enough to prevent that.

> NASCAR signs a deal with NBC; leaves ESPN and Turner.
NBC will outbid ESPN for NASCAR’s end-of-season packages that currently are on ESPN and Turner. The move complements NBC’s recent purchase of Formula One rights. It also provides highly rated live programming (through several NASCAR Sprint Cup races and the Nationwide Series) for NBC Sports Network, which has struggled to find viewers. With the move, NASCAR runs the risk of having fewer highlights on “SportsCenter.” Ultimately, it decides to move to the highest bidder and NBC.

> The Big East splits its rights package between ESPN and NBC.
Remember last year, when the Big East rejected ESPN’s media rights offer of an average of $130 million per year? The Big East won’t come close to that figure this year, but ESPN and NBC will split a package of Big East games that will pay out around $60 million per year on average..

> The NFL’s Thursday night experiment will continue.
The NFL has heard complaints about the quality of games on Thursday nights, but the package’s ratings success ensures it will continue on NFL Network next season. By 2014, the league will carve out some of the games in a package that ultimately will land on Turner.

> NBC Sports Group opens talks to buy Root Sports’ three RSNs from DirecTV.
Fox Sports is on a regional sports network buying spree, grabbing YES Network and SportsTime Ohio, as well as renewing the Dodgers rights. NBC Sports Group wants to keep pace and will try to buy DirecTV’s three Root Sports RSNs. I don’t expect a deal this year, but that doesn’t mean I won’t write about it.

> Cable carriage deals
This feels like the do-or-die year for Longhorn Network. I get the sense that cable operators will continue to resist cutting a deal with the channel. … The Pac-12 Networks will cut a DirecTV deal. … Another year will pass, and Tennis Channel will remain in its current packages on Comcast despite all the court proceedings to date. … Fox won’t have big problems persuading distributors to allow it to switch Speed into Fox Sports 1. Expect the real fireworks to occur when it starts to negotiate its new RSN deals with distributors.

> No-brainers
Next month’s BCS title game on ESPN will become the most-viewed show in U.S. cable TV history. If it’s a close game, it will get 31 million viewers, which will wipe out the old cable record: 2011’s Auburn-Oregon game, which averaged 27.3 million viewers. … MASN’s dispute with the Nationals will not be resolved and will end up in court. … Small cable operators will make a lot of noise about a la carte. Nothing will happen.

Those are my predictions for 2013. I expect you to hold me to them.

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