Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 23 No. 24
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Changes for NFL! Amazon in sports! Hey, it could happen …

For media companies, 2016 was an Annus Horribilis — one marked by poor ratings and falling distribution. The leagues and TV networks have taken heed, and next year will be spent trying to win back those viewers. Here are my predictions on how the next 12 months will unfold.

1. NFL kills extra point-commercial-kickoff-commercial rotation

Nobody likes the commercial loads that networks run after scores. But broadcasters still need their money, so they want all the commercial breaks they can get. Look for the NFL to assure the networks that they will get all their breaks in a given quarter even if it means stopping action on the field — something that won’t happen often given the number of injuries and timeouts that take place every game. This structure already is routine in the NBA and NHL; expect the NFL to adopt it as well. Could this lead to on-screen commercial bugs during NFL games, a la soccer? Probably not this year, but I can guarantee that the league will think about it.

2. London games move to 1 p.m. ET

This is not a slam dunk. NFLers associated with the London games hate the idea of starting these international events on Sunday nights. But the TV networks hate programming early Sunday morning windows that bring small audiences. The networks will win this battle.

Daylight will be a thing of the past at NFL games in London,  this prognosticator says.
3. “TNF” changes

“Thursday Night Football” viewership is down considerably this year, which means you can expect several tweaks. Look for the NFL to make the Thursday night schedule more consistent. Rather than jumping from one network to the next, the NFL will allow CBS to carry the first five games, NBC to carry the last five and NFL Network to carry the ones in the middle.

4. Amazon collects sports rights

Twitter will be gone next year from “Thursday Night Football,” as Amazon wins the NFL’s bid to stream the package’s games. Amazon’s sports land grab won’t stop with “Thursday Night Football,” though. The company intends to be a big player in the sports arena, and it will start next year by grabbing rights to sports that are popular internationally. Look for Amazon to make a splash in international soccer (my guess is that it gets the FA Cup) and a grand slam tennis tournament.

5. ESPN subscriber losses continue

The bad news: ESPN will continue losing subscribers. ESPN lost more than 3 million subscribers in 2016, its sixth straight year of subscriber losses, according to Nielsen estimates. 2017 will push that streak to seven. ESPN is in 88.401 million homes. Expect it to lose another 3 million to finish 2017 at 85 million, which still will be one of the biggest distribution numbers in the business. There will be good news for ESPN on the distribution front, though. Its streaming deals with Hulu, DirecTV Now and, soon, YouTube will start to bring in a lot more subscribers in 2017, but not enough to offset the cable and satellite losses.

6. ESPN OTT not ready for prime time

With programming that’s not popular enough to run on ESPN (or ESPN2 or ESPNU), ESPN’s OTT service will remain a niche service that will not be a big business for the company.

7. “OTL,” “E:60” folded into “SportsCenter”

Look for ESPN to fold its on-air news brands “Outside the Lines” and “E:60” into “SportsCenter.” ESPN will package “OTL” and “E:60” as sub-brands geared around storytelling and journalism that will appear on all of its screens and will help bolster the network’s signature show.

8. UFC renews with Fox

WME-IMG won’t see a bidding war for UFC rights. NBC will say no. CBS will take a pass. ESPN will show little interest. A Fox deal won’t be signed until 2018, as the UFC waits for the AT&T-Time Warner deal to get regulatory approval in the hopes that Turner Sports makes a run for it. Ultimately, the UFC renews with Fox for $300 million a year, a figure that falls far short of the $450 million the UFC is seeking.

9. No new broadcast deal for PGA Tour

It’s no secret that the PGA Tour will have conversations with CBS and NBC about opening up their broadcast deals. But the tour knows that there’s no big deal to be had here. The big media money comes in 2021 when the PGA Tour’s cable rights with Golf Channel are up. Until then, look for the PGA Tour to cut interesting streaming deals with companies like Facebook and Twitter as it studies the landscape before its cable negotiations kick in.

10. FedEx Cup changes coming

There’s been a lot of talk inside the tour about shortening the FedEx Cup so that it would not run up against college and pro football games in September. The tour will decide this year that it will conclude the FedEx Cup on Labor Day weekend starting in 2019. The knock-on effect from the compressed August schedule will see the PGA Championship moved from August to May and the Players Championship moved from May to March. That will start the golf season with a lot of momentum with one big event a month (from the Players to the Masters to the PGA Championship).

11. BTN and FS1 share Big Ten resources

It still hasn’t been announced, but the Big Ten’s deal with ESPN and Fox will happen. That will lead to unprecedented cooperation between BTN and FS1 as Fox kicks off its Big Ten deal. BTN crews will produce games for FS1, providing knowledge and a familiarity that executives hope will jump-start ratings on FS1. The cooperation will be limited to live game programming. It will not include studio programming.

12. On-air predictions

Bill Simmons is based in L.A. HBO canceled his TV show. He’s friends with Fox’s Jamie Horowitz. Expect Horowitz to persuade Simmons to be a regular guest on an FS1 show. … Digital brands Bleacher Report and Barstool Sports will launch linear TV brands with cable networks. Bleacher will be associated with Turner, of course. Barstool will be on FS1.

13. Carriage fights

YES Network will return to Comcast early next year thanks to Fox News. For years, Fox News has done its affiliate deals on its own. But now that Roger Ailes has left, look for Fox News to become more of a team player. The popular news network will use its leverage to help other Fox channels like YES Network, which has been without Comcast carriage in Connecticut and New Jersey for more than a year. … The Dodgers channel will find carriage on DirecTV, as a condition of the AT&T-Time Warner deal.

14. Cubs announce new network plans

The Cubs are not going to launch their own TV channel. Can you imagine spurning Comcast for its media rights, then turning around and asking Comcast to carry a channel? It won’t happen. But look for the team to try to exert pressure by announcing plans for a new TV network and floating the name of OTT providers like Netflix as a suitor. The announcement will create a lot of buzz, but the team ultimately will renew with Comcast at some point in 2019, when its deal is up.

15. Legalized gambling moves closer

There was Adam Silver’s op-ed in The New York Times. New York permitted daily fantasy, and other states are sure to follow its lead. FanDuel and DraftKings are merging. Too many teams to count have deals with state lotteries. The president-elect actually built and ran a casino in Atlantic City. Oh, and Oakland Raiders ownership is looking into moving its team to Las Vegas. All of these roads are leading to the same place. With new revenue streams becoming harder to find, this will be the year leagues will start to dip their toes in the legalized gambling water.

16. MLBAM grows esports business

MLBAM persuaded Riot Games to allow BAMTech to stream “League of Legends” competitions and support Riot’s product development. Next year, even more esports leagues will make the move to BAMTech, not a good sign for Twitch, which to date has carved out the biggest esports footprint of any media company.

17. VR: Lots of noise; little movement

The NFL, NHL and MLB will follow the NBA’s lead and start broadcasting games live in virtual reality, hoping that the technology is not a dud like 3-D. By the end of 2017, VR still will not be popular as a consumer product. Augmented reality, though, will start to make consumer inroads when Apple launches its version of AR glasses.

18. Insta stock moves up

Snapchat is creating a lot of buzz. But don’t sleep on Instagram, which will take an increased piece of the social/mobile pie in time-spent metrics and ad sales next year. Instagram will do this on the back of partnerships around high-quality video creators and its new live products.

19. NFL ratings rebound

Now for the easiest predictions of the year. With no competition from the campaign trail, NFL ratings will be up double digits next season, nearing 2015 levels. And now that the Cubs curse has been lifted, World Series ratings will be down double digits.

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