Is ESPN’s Revenue Model Doomed?

NBA ESPN

It’s no secret that cable television is in trouble and things aren’t improving; millions of subscribers are bailing on the traditional, bundled cable television model in favor of streaming services. There’s little doubt as to why this is happening; bundled cable providers like Comcast and TimeWarner are behemoth corporations with infamously bad customer service. Their rates are continuing to rise at an exponential rate despite overall viewership and viewer satisfaction plummeting. Cable TV’s prices have grown at four times the rate of inflation, with cable subscribers getting an average of 189 channels but only watching 17 of them. Yikes.

The 17 channels-per-household number has been the same since at least 2008, when the average number of total channels was about 129. Which means exactly what it sounds like: over the past 8-10 years, Cable TV has added a whole lot of channels that most people don’t watch. So cable companies keep ratcheting up their prices at a pace that exceeds gasoline and gold (literally), their customers are getting basically the same product. If this sounds like business suicide, it is – but there’s a caveat to this, and it’s the lynch pin that makes the whole model work. Sports programming.

Most cable subscribers don’t know this, but each cable channel has a different wholesale cost – HGTV, CNN, ESPN, Al Jazeera – all charge a base per-month-per-subscriber rate. The argument that has raged for years is that consumers want to be able to buy their cable channels a-la-carte, but that option isn’t available, and it might not even work out to be cheaper in many cases. The power of cable television to networks is twofold: the monthly subscriber fees combined with the advertising revenue from the broadcasts themselves. This model has suffered as many broadcast networks have seen their advertising dollars sink as more people opt for on-demand programming or just stream other content in general, allowing them to avoid advertising, but that isn’t true for live sports.

Live sports still maintains high demand and viewer engagement; unlike a cop drama that isn’t unfolding in real time with real-life consequences, live sports has built-in viewer engagement, especially for close contests with consequences. Channel surfing during commercials is a way of life for us now, but most people aren’t going to change the channel during a commercial when their team needs a first down to stay in the playoff hunt and there’s 1 second left on the game clock. Major league sports, such as the NFL and NBA, have long ago left the days of only having some of their games broadcast. Now every single game is available to watch, somewhere. The structure of the games is actually modified based on the television broadcast, and it goes beyond media timeouts. For example, NFL games have a broadcast crew member who steps on the field during a commercial so that the referees are aware that the network feed isn’t back on the air yet. While you are at home watching a Buffalo Wild Wings or Budweiser ad pitch, the referee at the stadium is watching the broadcast rep to see when he can signal for play to get back underway. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, but it points to where the largest source of revenue for major sports comes from. Sports leagues claim that they get more revenue from ticket sales than broadcast revenue, but their actions speak otherwise. Losing teams who have trouble even getting a half-capacity crowd to their games are likely to be leaning the most heavily on the network deals, despite what they may say. TV broadcast deals are pretty much an arbitrage brokerage agreement. A broadcast network figures out how much it can sell advertising for during games, and pays the league less than that amount for the rights. The problem is, there are only so many viewers for games, and only so much decent content. Showing college football games at 10 am on a Tuesday really isn’t a viable option for several reasons, so ESPN fills this time with ‘SportsCenter’ type content.

This would all be fine, except in order to secure the broadcast rights for the most sought-after games, ESPN and other networks have had to pay higher and higher figures in an explosion of broadcast deals. A point of fact that is lost on many casual sports fans is that many lesser games aren’t profitable to broadcast (at least not with the current cable TV model and overhead), and benefits the teams more than the network. For example, broadcasting a Division III basketball game will give the competing programs some great exposure, but there’s a good chance the viewership will not be nearly high enough to justify the broadcast for a major network. So the competition for ‘high demand’ events is fierce and smaller cable networks cannot compete in any meaningful way.

This high-impact viewer engagement, combined with the steady rise of viewership for top sporting events, has created a golden goose for both sports broadcasters and cable television providers, but they don’t share the same benefits and they are not in complete collusion about profiting from it.

Cable providers love the fact that viewers can’t really get live sports – at least not the live sports they want – consistently from anywhere except cable TV. This includes online streaming, because viewers who can legally and easily stream games like the NBA playoffs are able to do so through ESPN, not a third party, and those viewers are already paying for that service. This means that viewers who want sports will buy the whole cable package…which is convenient for cable companies, because sports viewers may not have wanted to buy anything but sports and they have to pay for the rest of the channels as well. However, the real kicker is the viewers who don’t watch sports. They are subsidizing the sports fans because they get hit with the same package deal. Neither group of viewers wins…but the cable company sure does. I suppose it could be argued that viewers are getting a lower price overall with bundling, but it is a specious argument: those viewers would probably be willing to pay more per channel, for less channels, if their overall bill was much lower. The closest solution cable companies have offered for this is not a solution at all- adding another ‘package’ to your existing package for more localized sports, such as the Pac-10 or Big East. This has actually made it more difficult for new sports networks to get footing, even when backed by major players like NBC. Universal Sports Network was shuttered earlier this year after it struggled to climb off of the lower-tier sports cable packages. The fees for sports channels dwarfs the non-sports channels, but we’ll get into that in just a few minutes. For viewers who don’t want sports at all, there are no viable options other that just accepting fewer overall channels and dropping cable for Hulu, NetFlix and HBO Go (which they are doing, in droves).

The successful sports broadcasters – like ESPN – are the ones who benefit the most from bundling; millions of cable TV subscribers, combined with content that locks in many of those subscribers creates a scenario where the cable sports networks can ramp up their monthly per-subscriber fees. And, to no surprise, they have. The demand for the last bastion of engaged ad viewers has created a bidding war between ESPN, TNT and the other sports networks. In order to pay for those big deals, ESPN and the other networks have demanded bigger subscriber fees from the cable networks. Those fees get passed right down to the viewers. Let’s put this in perspective to explain how wide the gap is between sports programming and other cable programming fees.

In recent reports, ESPN charges between $6.04 and $6.50 per subscriber to cable companies; by comparison, HGTV only costs a mere $.17 cents per month. While it may seem we’re talking dollars and pennies here, it must be pointed out that those $6+ fees are not just coming from sports fans, but every single subscriber. Without the cable bundling packages, ESPN would have to charge significantly more per month to cover their broadcast deals and operating costs. Financial analyst Leo Hindery recently stated that sports programming packages could continue to balloon to the $40 per month range. Another key Wall Street analyst estimates that ESPN would have to charge $36 alone just to pay for the current costs. That’s not even remotely viable in a world where NetFlix costs $10 a month and NBA League Pass is about $200 per year.

It isn’t mere speculation about the potential of subscribers defecting en masse from cable companies, hitting ESPN right in their revenue projections. It was recently reported that 7 million subscribers have dropped in the past two years. At $6 per subscriber, that’s $420 million gone annually from the company that makes up 25% of Disney’s overall business. When this came to light, Disney’s stock took a major hit.

From a company that built its fortune in splash hires and press buzz, they immediately made some sweeping changes that would be deemed as “PR Kryptonite”, including wide scale layoffs and jettisoning some of their highly paid on-air talent. Despite all of the normal press release bingo that comes along with these changes, the real story is that ESPN is cutting expenses – hard. This, while at the same time claiming all is well in the world, and growth is going to continue unabated. Disney CEO Bob Iger stated that the company is “very bullish about ESPN” despite all of the behind-the-scenes scrambling to slash costs. It is likely that Disney and ESPN will show improved profitability in the 3rd or 4th quarters because of this, and this is entirely intended to bolster the stock price and soothe investor concerns. However, cutting costs in the short term is not the long term solution. The reality is that the deals for sports programming may be outpacing the market in a way that will create havoc in a few years; the massive deals that seem to have no ceiling may very well be finding their peak.

What would this mean for sports fans? Well, probably more options, but it would mean paying more attention to which networks or streaming services are carrying the games you want. There’s also the reality that the entire major league sports industry – from franchise fees to collective bargaining agreements – was built on the idea that sports would continue to see ever-increasing broadcast deals. If those deals suddenly are replaced by much smaller fiscal agreements, you’ll see much lower salaries for the players, lower ticket fees, and more broadcast partners all around. I don’t want to speculate too much, but such an event may well open the door for more than one pro league in the various major sports. However, that’s a topic for another day.

For now, it’s important to understand that cable sports – and the sports entertainment industry as it exists today – may be due for a radical shake up in the near future. ESPN continues to ink bigger and bigger deals, the most recent for $1.4 billion being about 3 times the size of their previous deal. So considering the fact that they lost a half-billion in annual revenue while at the same time adding another full billion in expenses means they might need for Disney to have more than pretend fairy-dust to make it all work. All of this explains why you’ve suddenly seen ESPN and other networks so eager to jump into ad deals with DraftKings and FanDuel, which are technically gambling and they wanted no part of prior to this year.

So that’s a truncated explanation with quite a bit left out for later. Coming this week, I’ll have more information on something else – a minor sports league that actually has a viable business model. I know, you guys are familiar with me ripping apart the financials of leagues like the Amerileague or the ABA, so you’ll want to drop in for this one.

Marcus Shockley is the creator, along with a band of talented (but possibly misguided) misfits, of BasketballElite.com, the Southeast Summer Showcase, NetCast Sports Network and has scouted and written about basketball for longer than any person should openly admit. You can follow his rantings on sports, life and acceptable flavors of ice cream on Twitter @m_shockley

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