Predictions: The deals of 2019
Nobody is expecting a lot of sports media activity in 2019, mainly because the next round of big media rights deals don’t come up until 2021. That’s when the NHL’s deal with NBC ends, MLB’s deals with ESPN and Turner expire, and ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” deal wraps up. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be movement in the sports media space. Here are some deals I expect to see.
Fox will buy back the RSNs.
It seems obvious that Fox will wind up buying back its regional sports networks from Disney at a discount. Bidders have shied away, based in part on uncertainty in the RSN market from distribution (the Fox RSN carriage deals with three large distributors expire over the next two years) to digital (some deep-pocketed digital companies are scared by the fact that streaming rights are separate from linear TV rights). Plus, logistics are a problem: Disney only has a 90-day window to close the transaction, which is not nearly enough time to sell each RSN individually. Rupert Murdoch sits next to Bob Iger on the Disney board. I expect those two to work out a deal that gives Fox the RSNs at a price that allows Disney to save face.
The Yankees will not buy back YES Network.
This prediction is predicated on Fox buying back the RSNs. The Yankees are happy with Fox as a partner and would be content to stick with it. If someone else buys the RSNs, or if they are split up, the Yankees will exercise their right to buy back YES. My guess is that the team does a deal with Gerry Cardinale’s RedBird Capital investment firm and Amazon that values the RSN at
The Cubs’ RSN launch with Sinclair will be a success.
Comcast is going to play hardball with the Cubs’ RSN, which is going to come to market with a price of at least $6 per subscriber per month. To gain leverage, the Cubs will not put any games on WGN or any other over-the-air station. And Sinclair will use the leverage it has from its national network of around 150 local broadcast stations to work out a deal. Comcast will hate it but the popularity of the Cubs, combined with the leverage from Sinclair, will force it to carry the channel when it launches in 2020.
CBS will sign a long-term extension with the SEC.
I am probably too early on this prediction, but it will happen. SEC brass feels like its broadcast deal is undervalued. CBS knows its deal for an SEC game of the week is a bargain. CBS executives Sean McManus and David Berson know how to cultivate relationships, so I expect them to open the rights deal early and sign a long-term extension. CBS loves the SEC package, which consistently is the highest-rated college football package on TV. The SEC loves having such a high-profile broadcast window on CBS. Some in SEC country may advocate for this package to hit the open market, but I expect these two quietly to work out a deal.
CBS and Viacom will merge.
The rumors will ring true this year. Look for the CBS board, controlled by Shari Redstone, to initiate discussions in the first quarter and push through a merger with Viacom before the end of the year.
The NHL will split up its rights package.
The NHL’s media rights deal with NBC doesn’t expire until 2021 but look for the league to begin setting the table for the coming negotiations by pushing for new packages split among two or more networks. It’s too early to handicap who will get the package — that’s a prediction for next year’s column. But I expect NBC to have the biggest rights package that includes the Stanley Cup Final. Fox will be at the table, looking for prime-time content on its broadcast channel. ESPN has made it known that it wants to cut a deal. And Turner will be pitching a combined linear TV-streaming option with its cable channels and B/R Live. If I have to guess, I’d say that ESPN winds up with a second package of games for both linear TV and ESPN+.
The XFL will sign with Fox.
Vince McMahon’s football league will find a surprising amount of interest from media companies looking to carry its games. ESPN will kick the tires with a plan to put most of the games on ESPN+. NBC will consider a window on USA. There even will be rumblings of a split package. But the XFL will go to Fox, thanks in large part to its new relationship through the WWE. Most of the XFL games will be on FS1, with one or two high-profile ones, like the championship, landing on the broadcast network.
The College Football Playoff will not expand.
This is the hot topic of the day, but it’s not going to happen. The power five conference commissioners all said they are willing to talk about expanding the CFP from four to eight teams. But those conversations won’t be long because nothing will happen. The CFP is not even at the halfway point of its 12-year deal with ESPN. Plus, any change has to come from university presidents, and they have not showed an interest to look into that issue.
The WWE will clear a third hour of “SmackDown” for FS1.
As a further sign of the strength of Fox and WWE’s relationship, the two companies will develop a third hour of “SmackDown” that will land on FS1. Such a move won’t cost the WWE much more in production since it’s already on site. Plus, with no more UFC, Fox is looking for more highly rated event programming for FS1.
The ACC Network launch will be considered a modified success.
The ACC Network’s launch will look more like that of the Big Ten Network — which endured a couple of years of brutal carriage fights — than the launch of the SEC Network — which nearly had full distribution from the start. ESPN already has a negotiating blueprint thanks to its Altice deal. Plus, you won’t find a better distribution executive than Justin Connolly, who was behind the SEC Network’s launch. It won’t be an unqualified success, but it will be good enough to keep schools happy.
The American Athletic Conference will renew its ESPN deal.
Even though AAC schools will not sign a grant of rights, the conference works out a renewal with ESPN. Expect rights fee to settle in the $8 million per school range — up from its current $2 million per school, but below the $10 million per school that the AAC wants. All eyes will be on Central Florida and Cincinnati, which will be open to bolting for a bigger conference. But neither school will leave the AAC because the Big 12 is not going to expand — at least not this year.
The Mountain West Conference will sign with Facebook.
Known for cutting non-traditional media deals — remember The Mtn? — the Mountain West will forsake ESPN’s rights fee to regain control of when they can schedule their games. In deals that will be closely followed by every mid-level college conference, I expect the Mountain West to sign deals with ESPN for a handful of games and Facebook for the rest.
“NFL Sunday Ticket”will remain exclusiveto DirecTV.
The NFL has the option to open its DirecTV “Sunday Ticket” deal early in 2019. While the league may do so and test the market’s appetite for the out-of-market package, it ultimately will go back to DirecTV, which holds the rights through 2022. There appears to be little appetite inside league offices to move away from a partner that it has had since 1994.
Turner will bring back “The Match.”
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will do it again, but this time ensure it’s not available for free on B/R. Expect Turner to bring on two more golfers — my guess is Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson. For 2019’s version, expect many more bets to take place on the course.
Gambling companies will try to buy media rights.
Companies like DraftKings or William Hill will try to pick off local sports rights from smaller leagues, think MLS, that do not command rights fees from traditional RSNs. They won’t be able to cut any deals in 2019 — it’s too big of a leap for teams to tie their rights up with gambling outfits. But their interest will offer a window to how these types of companies plan to grow.
Media companies will acquire gambling sites.
Other than increased ad dollars, the legalization of sports gambling will not affect media companies in a significant way this year. Networks will dabble with shoulder programming, which will be poorly rated. One area to watch: The big media companies will invest more in startup gaming companies.
DAZN will grow.
John Skipper’s DAZN has deep pockets and a willingness to spend on sports rights to drive programming and innovation to what he describes as the Netflix for sports. I expect Skipper to make a big play for international soccer rights — Bundesliga rights come up in 2020. With his former ESPN colleague Jamie Horowitz as a consultant, expect DAZN to bring a big sports broadcasting talent over to the platform.
UFC fights will remain on ESPN+.
UFC executives will be frustrated by the small viewership numbers their fights get on the ESPN+ streaming service. UFC insiders will agitate to get some of the fights moved to linear TV, but they will remain on ESPN+ all year.
Pacquiao-Mayweather will happen in 2019.
Showtime and Fox will partner on a second Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather pay-per-view match as part of Al Haymon’s PBC deals. The popularity of the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight ensures that Fox and Showtime will remain committed to televised boxing for the foreseeable future.
Booger will move to the booth.
ESPN is committed to its three-man “Monday Night Football” booth, but look for the network to bring Booger McFarland into the booth next season rather than having him at field level. Jason Witten’s “MNF” debut was much maligned, but he’s not going anywhere.
The PGA Championship move to May will result in a huge ratings gain for the tournament. … “Sunday Night Baseball” will post higher ratings next season — not because of its move to start games at 7 p.m. ET instead of 8 p.m. Rather, it’s because “SNB” will have more Red Sox-Yankees games on the schedule next season. … The NBA’s ratings have been down sharply to start the season. Ratings and interest will bounce back, but TV ratings will remain down for the year.
2019 still will not be the year for VR.
I need to make sure that at least one of my predictions comes true.