Bernstein Research analyst Craig Moffett says it’s possible in a provocative, and well timed, note this morning. The escalation in TV sports costs has “gone to unimagined proportions,” he says. If unchecked, he adds, it could “blow the entire media model apart.” And the business does appear to be unchecked. The huge price increases from the $15.2B NFL deals that ESPN, Fox, CBS, and NBC cut last year kick in with the 2014 season. Meanwhile, NBCUniversal likely will want higher payments for its NBC Sports Network — formerly Versus before it was rebranded in January. News Corp is considering a similar upgrade of its action sports channel Fuel into a mainstream national sports service. And the Magic Johnson-led consortium that just paid more than $2B for the Los Angeles Dodgers is thinking about stealing a page from the playbook for the New York Yankees’ YES Network by launching its own regional sports channel — which would be the sixth in LA.
That means an already lopsided system is about to become even more distorted. Sports services collect about half of cable and satellite company programming payments — about $12.15 per subscriber per month, according to SNL Kagan data — even though they only represent 20% of all viewing. Disney’s ESPN and ESPN2 alone account for 20% of programming costs, but just 2.5% of all viewing hours. That means “sports fans are overwhelmingly being subsidized by non-sports fans,” Moffett says.
Can’t someone say “enough”? Not yet, it seems. Sports programmers are still too powerful, and fans too vocal. DirecTV probably reached its TV station carriage deal with Tribune last night because the satellite company didn’t want to incur the wrath of baseball fans: Tribune outlets broadcast the New York Mets, the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Washington Nationals. Time Warner Cable also discovered early this year that it couldn’t just let regional sports service MSG go dark rather than pay the higher prices it wanted. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other officials pressured the companies into settling in February as New York Knicks fans clamored to see the historic scoring run by point guard Jeremy Lin. On top of all that, last week a U.S. Federal Appeals Court upheld the business arrangement that makes all of this possible: bundling, or requiring subscribers to buy channels they don’t watch in order to receive the ones that they do.
The danger for Big Media is that at some point, possibly soon, non-sports fans will decide that the package costs too much. The ecosystem built around the more than 100M cable and satellite customers who pay for stuff they don’t want could collapse — endangering the main source of profits for the industry’s dominant players. Pay TV distributors have a fall back position: They can stop being middlemen in the process. “In other words,” Moffett says, “let the media companies choke on their own prices by forcing them to go direct to consumer (and charging instead for ‘pure’ transport). The media companies have no such fallback position.”