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Volume 21 No. 39
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It could happen: Some predictions for sports media in ’16

If 2015 was the year that digital media companies started dabbling with major sports media rights, 2016 will be the year when they put more financial muscle behind it. The growth plans of companies like Google/YouTube, Apple and Yahoo will involve sports and will give 2016’s rights negotiations a unique flavor.

Here’s how I see the year unfolding from a sports media perspective.

CBS will renew the NFL’s “Thursday Night Football” package with another short-term deal.

Prediction: The NFL will do another one-year deal with CBS for Thursday night games.
Photo by: JOHN FILO / CBS
Popular opinion is that the NFL will cash out with a long-term deal that syncs “Thursday Night Football” with the league’s other TV packages. But several great sources are telling me that the NFL is more comfortable doing another one-year deal with a one-year option for a modest price increase. The main reason: The NFL’s top brass are focused on other big initiatives, like the pending Los Angeles move and concussion issues.

The NFL is happy with CBS, and CBS is happy with the package. CBS and NFL Network will continue to carry eight games each, though they will not be divided into a first-half package (CBS) and a second-half one (NFL Network). The networks will alternate throughout the season. CBS will continue to produce all the games, and NFL Network will continue to simulcast the games that are on CBS.

Google/YouTube will grab a piece of the Thursday night package.

Another reason why the NFL is looking to do a short-term deal with the Thursday night package is to generate more interest from digital media companies. Sources say the league is kicking around the idea of having a digital media company live-stream the Thursday night package on a nonexclusive basis. My bet is that Google/YouTube steps up with a deal to stream these games. Expect a who’s who of Silicon Valley to show interest, as the league cultivates new companies to keep the bidding for its media rights high.

Apple will pick up a multigame NFL package.

The NFL is happy with the performance of the October game from London that Yahoo streamed exclusively this fall. Early in 2016, the league will package all three London games and shop them to digital media companies. Look for Google and Yahoo to show interest. Amazon and Netflix will kick the tires. But Apple will pick up the rights.

ESPN will lose 4 million more subscribers.

Cord cutting and cord shaving is accelerating, and ESPN, again, will feel the brunt of it. The network’s subscriber losses have increased each year since 2012, as distributors’ skinny bundles become more popular. ESPN lost 3.1 million subscribers last year, 2.1 million in 2014 and 1.6 million in 2013, according to Nielsen estimates. Expect the network to drop under 90 million subscribers for the first time since 2005.

ESPN will not launch a direct-to-consumer service.

One of the big selling points of ESPN’s NBA deal was the bundle of over-the-top rights Bristol picked up. Even though its new NBA deal is about to kick in next year, don’t expect ESPN to launch any kind of over-the-top service around it.

Comcast-YES Network fight will go beyond Opening Day.

Comcast and YES will get a deal done, but not in time for the Yankees’ Opening Day. Comcast’s move to drop YES Network illustrates the turbulent times that are ahead for regional sports networks. Like ESPN, RSNs this year will see their subscriber base drop significantly. The high-priced channels will struggle to stay on basic tiers, and every distributor renewal will be a fight.

Fox will do a deal with the Clippers.
Despite its threats to launch its own service, the Clippers will cut a traditional RSN deal with Fox Sports. The deal, though, will allow the Clippers to pursue second-screen applications around the games, like individualized camera feeds and up-to-the-minute statistics.

NFL ad sales will drop for all TV networks.

Broadcast networks will have a hard time selling the NFL next season, as daily fantasy operators DraftKings and FanDuel slow their ad spending significantly. NFL ratings will remain high, but look for the network ad sales business to drop by a single-digit percentage.

Out-of-market will go a la carte.

NBA’s League Pass already has a $6.99 price tag for viewers who want to watch individual games. Other sports will follow (notably, not the NFL), and OTT systems will play a big role in this.

IMG and CAA will be beneficiaries of the FIFA issues.

International groups like FIFA will need to use third parties to bid out rights professionally to show arm’s-length impartiality, which will be a boon for IMG and CAA, specifically.

ESPN, Fox, NBC will invest in e-sports.

Prediction: E-sports will gain new network fans after Turner’s league succeeds.
Turner’s strategy of starting and televising its own league will turn out to be successful. Look for others to follow. ESPN, Fox and NBC are looking into the space, and one of them will make a splash early in the year. It’s not just the TV networks. Every American arena operator will be looking to e-sports as the newest must-have property.

Ratings bets

The Rio Games will become the most-watched Olympics ever. Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin will give NBC a returning cast of known stars. Rio will provide a great backdrop for the competitive drama. And more live, prime-time events will boost NBC’s ratings. … NBC Sports Network will post its best ratings ever thanks to having both the Olympics and NASCAR in the same year for the first time. … The college playoffs will see a major dip in viewership on New Year’s Eve, which will lead to lower ratings for 2016’s championship game. I still expect both games to eclipse 25 million viewers, which will be high enough that more games will be scheduled for New Year’s Eve. … PGA Tour ratings and golf’s majors will continue to improve with popular young stars like Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy battling it out every week. It’s the first time in years that the golf world will be optimistic about its post-Tiger Woods world.


The NHL will not replace outgoing COO John Collins. … NBC Sports Group will not replace outgoing President Jon Litner. … Fox will make runs at both Michelle Beadle and Skip Bayless. Both will stay at ESPN. … Keith Olbermann will return to MSNBC for the run-up to the election.

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