Monday, January 19, 2015

Does One Sports Network Have Too Much Power?

Like them or not, ESPN seems to have been creating or be involved with as much "news" so far in 2015 as it reports on every day, and not just for one or two sports.

Its ownership of, or, ooops, agreements with, NCAA college football might seem like background music at the moment since the season just concluded. But come the 2015 post-season it won't be for the fans. It seems that the playoff semi-finals "must" be played on New Year's Eve this year, Thursday Dec. 31st, according to ESPN.

Never mind that the 31st will be at least a partial work day for millions of fans or that millions more traditionally have plans to be away from home that evening to celebrate the coming new year. Never mind that the New Years Day Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl telecasts (which, of course, are owned by ESPN and contracted for Jan. 1 through 2026) will be even more meaningless (other than to the fans of the participating teams and their immediate rivals) but will take place after the national semi-finals.

It seems that ESPN pays approximately $80 million per year to televise the pair of Jan. 1st games, yet is not able to move them despite paying an estimated $470 million per year for the semi-finals and championship game telecasts.

Saturday Jan. 2 and Sunday Jan. 3, 2016 are reserved for the NFL, which will have its Wild Card Playoff doubleheaders on both of those days. Of course, ESPN now televises one Wild Card game, in addition to the multi-millions it pays for the rights to Monday Night Football and the Pro Bowl, so it couldn't possibly ask the NFL to adjust its schedule.

If ESPN, or, ooops, the NCAA were to wait until Monday Jan. 4th, the semi-final games would also not only fall on a work day for most people, but would then be days closer to the scheduled Championship Game, leaving much less time for the logistics of the teams and their fans wishing to travel for the game.

Thus, as ESPN sees it, it has no choice but to impact the plans of millions of sports fans on New Year's Eve who hope or had hoped to enjoy the semi-finals. These will be at 5:00 and 8:30 PM ET, which means that the later semi-final game could very well be in progress while sister network ABC is showing the ball dropping in Times Square. Across the country, west coast fans will have a 2:00 PM kickoff time to contend with if they want to watch the start of the first of the games.

On another matter, an advertising experiment by ESPN is cause for another concern. On a late night edition of SportsCenter on January 10th, viewers were told that "SportsCenter will be right back in 30 seconds". The cameras stayed on the air from the ESPN studio, panning over to a giant video screen which was running an advertisement for a tax product while viewers continued to see part of the SportsCenter setting along with a countdown clock for the 30 second period before the "regular" SportsCenter content resumed.

Of course, ESPN (like any other station or network) is going to air commercials. But the idea of having them mixed in directly with the program could blur the line between "news" content and advertising even further. This could be an indication of things to come. The Wall Street Journal claims that this "Programmatic ad" was won when the specific advertiser finished with the highest bid amount for the time, and that ESPN has the technology in place for advertisers to do this moving forward.

Thus, it appears that while ESPN is reporting on the wins and losses on the fields, courts, and ice rinks each night, fans will also find out which advertisers finished in first place on a given night.

But it doesn't stop there as far as advertisers going to new measures to reach the strong sports viewing audience. Still another concept was rolled out during ESPN's telecast of the College Football Bowl Championship Game, when the product "Duck Tape" tied in with the Oregon team name. A production crew was able to "re-create" key moments of the game via the Duck Tape product, and distribute them within minutes on social media. While this advertiser was able to do so because of its licensing agreement with the NCAA, one of the primary means for distribution via social media was (in case you haven't guessed it) ESPN.

Then, there is the seemingly powerful PR machine from which ESPN pumps out its own "news" stories which continue to be picked up by other conventional media. The Broadcast Booth most certainly understands doing this as a self-promotion, and credit should be given for the extra publicity generated, often due to the carelessness and/or laziness of other media.

Here is one example from just last Thursday (1/15). The Chicago Sun-Times web site,, appears to often take "headlines" and stories from an outside source and automatically run them without editor review. That afternoon, one of the Sun-Times' "headlines" read, "ESPN's Mel Kiper has Bears taking Alabama safety in first round". As a headline for a story?

Let's look at the facts. First of all, the Sun-Times employs full-time reporters and columnists to cover the Chicago Bears. Yet, here is the publication crediting a competitor with a "story" as if this is important news. Not to mention that at the time of this "story", the Bears did not even have a head coach hired, and that the NFL Draft is more than three months away. However, since ESPN "reported" this speculation, at least one media competitor automatically went with it.

Around that same time, ESPN announced its selection for the first five Sunday Night Baseball telecasts which begin in April. Since ESPN still thinks that every baseball fan must see every Yankees vs. Red Sox game it can televise, it seems that two of the first five Sunday nights will feature that very matchup, while one of the other Sundays has the Yankees vs. Mets on its schedule.

Maybe this is done on purpose. It seems that because ESPN announced it, other media will pick up on it, and hence the media and baseball columnists have already started complaining about the scheduling, which gets the fans talking about it as well. As a result, again, ESPN creates additional publicity from its competition for the sports fans' attention. And the New York concentration also impacts MLB Opening Day on April 6th, as its four scheduled telecasts include both the Yankees vs. Toronto and Mets vs. Nationals games.

If you don't think all of this makes a difference in their favor, consider this fact. ESPN Audio announced last week that "Audience listening to its content via streaming audio increased 8% to over 7.8 billion total listening minutes in 2014.  The numbers include listening to both talk shows and event coverage.  In fourth quarter, 1.9 billion minutes were streamed."

They have the fans watching and listening, the advertisers bidding and spending, the competition helping to promote them, and are commanding higher fees than others to be carried on cable and satellite distributors. They have working and significant financial relationships with NFL, MLB, NBA, and the NCAA, among others. And it is actually costing us as consumers more money than we each realize as our monthly fees increase.

Meanwhile, the announcement was no surprise that CBS will again handle Thursday Night Football in 2015 including airing in prime time again during the first half of the season while NFL Network shows them all, except for opening night and Thanksgiving. This year's deal is estimated to bring in another $300 million to the NFL.

Even as fans continue strong viewing numbers for both pro and college telecasts, the at the game experience is also showing major growth among fans. Even those of us that are "old school" when it comes to sports media have to take notice of just how much the phone and other mobile devices has become a part of live sports. Having sufficient wireless network availability in the stadiums and arenas makes a big difference these days.

Here are some of the statistics just released by AT&T:

Top 10 Collegiate Venues of the 2014 Season by Average Mobile Data per Game

1. Stillwater, OK – 769GB avg./home game
    a. Equivalent to more than 2.1 million social media post with photos
2. Miami, FL – 745GB avg./home game
    a. Equivalent to more than 2.1 million social media post with photos
3. College Station, TX – 668GB avg./home game
    a. Equivalent to more than 1.9 million social media post with photos
4. Waco, TX – 661GB avg./home game
    a. Equivalent to more than 1.8 million social media post with photos
5. Tuscaloosa, AL – 660GB avg./home game
    a. Equivalent to more than 1.8 million social media post with photos
6. Norman, OK – 626GB avg./home game
    a. Equivalent to more than 1.7 million social media post with photos
7. Fayetteville, AR – 590GB avg./home game
    a. Equivalent to more than 1.6 million social media post with photos
8. Athens, GA – 541GB avg./home game
    a. Equivalent to more than 1.5 million social media post with photos
9. Baton Rouge, LA – 522GB avg./home game
    a. Equivalent to more than 1.4 million social media post with photos
10. Pasadena, CA – 520GB avg./home game
    a. Equivalent to more than 1.4 million social media post with photos

College Final Scoreboard at a Glance
•There were 333 college football regular season games played across more than 50 different venues where we provide in-venue coverage via Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS).
•In total, across these 333 games our customers have used more than 100.6 Terabytes of mobile data on our in-venue cellular networks. To narrow that down, it’s the same as 100,631 Gigabytes. Or more simply put, it is equivalent to more than 287M social media posts with photos.
•The top ten data-heavy college venues in our end-of-year data usage rankings play home to many teams that have had success on the field this season.
•Five of the top ten data-heavy college venues play host to a team ranked in the final top 25 poll of the regular season, including the top-ranked team in the country
•In fact, forty-percent of the top ten venues hosted teams ranked in the top 15 of the polls
•Geography also played a key factor in the final regular season college rankings
•Fifty-percent of the top ten data-heavy venues were part of the same southern athletic conference.
•In addition, the South region as a whole dominated in data usage with a season average of 381GB/venue compared to 236GB/venue for the West region, 227GB/venue for the Midwest region and 84GB/venue for the Northeast region.

Top 5 Professional Venues for Week 14 (12/4-12/8)
•Miami – 1,001GB
•Equivalent to more than 2.8 million social media post with photos

•San Diego – 765GB
•Equivalent to more than 2.1 million social media post with photos

•New Orleans – 590GB
•Equivalent to more than 1.6 million social media post with photos

•Green Bay – 424GB
•Equivalent to more than 1.2 million social media post with photos

•Denver – 348GB
•Equivalent to more than 995K social media post with photos

•All figures include only data traffic seen on AT&T’s venue-specific mobile network.
•All data metrics come from only venues with a DAS where AT&T’s mobile network is on-air and under contract. These metrics are not comprehensive of every game played during the pro or college football season.

•This data is compiled from only football stadiums that had home games during this selected timeframe where AT&T is on-air on a DAS.

Finally, sorry to have 2015 start off with two huge sports media losses.

Long time Boston Bruins announcer Bob Wilson died at age 85 from lung cancer. Wilson spent more than 20 years calling Bruins games, including their 1972 Stanley Cup win. Wilson was inducted into the broadcasting wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987 and was last a part of the Bruins broadcasts in 1994. He served as both play-by-play voice and analyst during his stints.

Maury Magill, who was part of WWL New Orleans from 1961 into 2005, passed away at the age of 89. Although one of the nation's original sports talk hosts, Magill is also remembered for having been the radio analyst during the initial season of New Orleans Saints football, and was inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame back in 2000.

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