Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The High Cost of Watching Our Teams

The "How much more is it going to cost sports fans to watch the games?" question continues in much of the sports media news of the past week. The pro leagues and teams are already doing their best to stay one step ahead, as they see that more and more consumers are giving up their cable or satellite service due to rising costs.

It looks like new MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred knows how important the TV revenue stream is, based on his interview with Forbes Magazine since taking over office. He somehow managed to place blame on distribution rights to the telecasts, acting as though MLB actually wants to help the fans in this regard.

Yet, at that very same time, MLB is "in negotiations" with Fox Sports regarding distribution rights for its own MLB packages within the Fox regional sports networks' territories. It is all about streaming rights for the "local" telecasts which Fox has the rights for. It is actually an issue because MLB Advanced Media wants to maintain control to stream these games via their MLB-TV pay package, which the Fox regional networks currently cannot do. This impacts an average of one-third of all regular season telecasts. If MLB winds up with streaming rights for Fox Sports telecasts, it would mean that consumers could possibly avoid paying Fox Sports or one of its providers for those games.

While it is understandable that Fox wants to protect its large investment, the point is that as of now consumers paying extra for the MLB package (whether the Extra Innings package via cable/satellite providers or the MLB-TV streaming capability) cannot access every game due to local blackout restrictions. This, in effect, forces consumers to pay for cable/satellite to view the local team telecasts (if they are interested in doing so), which means that fans are paying extra twice in order to have access to every live telecast.

At the same time, this week's story about the large number Comcast customer service issues is the latest factor in delaying review of the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Not that anyone is in a hurry about that, but for Dodgers fans it adds to the stalling off of getting Dodgers telecasts on to any more cable/satellite systems with the new season now less than 60 days from starting.

The Dodgers situation has a lot more to do with MLB than MLB lets on. Reports are that MLB already received the bulk of its share of the funds for the 25 year huge contract, so it is not like they would want to renegotiate. If the merger happens, Comcast would likely expand the distribution, as they have done for their own (Comcast's) regional sports networks. TWC continues to hold the line or offer arbitration which means they would receive a pre-determined amount which may not be good for consumers either. Now with this merger possibility stalled again, it looks bleak for local TV again this season in the L.A. area.

All while MLB "negotiates" with Fox Sports and acts frustrated about the Dodgers TV situation.
The passing of Ed Sabol, the founder of NFL Films, brings to mind how much he and his organization shaped sports media and the coverage of all things NFL. Fans over the age of 40, who go back to the days before cable TV came along, recall how NFL Films helped make football the "national" game that it is.

Innovations such as "The NFL Game of the Week" TV show made a huge impact. This was back before fans could see extensive highlights of out of market games. Giving fans in Ohio the ability to watch close up, slow motion, and ground level replays of a Dallas vs. San Francisco game (for example) was a huge factor in creating league wide interest. This type of film (video) helped to create interest in various teams around the league, instead of leaving fans with only highlights of the local team.

The NCAA Final Four telecasts will again be "Teamcast" on April 4th and 6th along with the regular national telecast. While Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery, and Grant Hill will call the main telecast, fans will also be able to watch the same telecast as described by each team's regular announcers and favoring their team. This remains a great idea, giving fans of the participating team the chance to hear their regular announcers while others have the regular national telecast. If any of the games turn into a blowout, it provides a chance for fans to sample the different announcing crew.

ESPN's College Game Day show for football season will have a new host, as Rece Davis will take over starting in August. Davis replaces Chris Fowler in the role, with Fowler having moved into a primary play-by-play role this past season. While it is understandable that ESPN likes the publicity and enthusiasm of bringing the show from different campuses, it would be nice if they reduced the number of panelists on location and had Davis be in their studio. Having a crowd screaming, cheering, and waving often becomes too much of a distraction from the information being presented.

ESPN again received the benefit of its publicity machine for no good reason on Feb. 3. Late that morning, the Chicago Sun-Times web site posted a "Breaking Sports" story that "an ESPN Blogger Predicts the Cubs to be better than the White Sox in 2015". How about the Sun-Times? Breaking this huge story more than two months before the regular season even starts. And before any of the baseball writer specialists it employs could make such a prediction.

This was not a "breaking sports" story anywhere, but ESPN also announced six MLB spring training telecasts for next month:

Thurs Mar 19 - NYY vs. Philly 7:00 ET
Tues Mar 24 - Atl vs. Philly 1 PM ET
Thurs Mar 26 - LAA vs. Cub 7 PM ET
Fri Mar 27 - Bost vs. Atl 1 PM ET
Thurs Apr - NYY vs. Det 1 PM ET

Moving from the front office into broadcasting took on a slightly different twist last week when former Carolina Panthers GM Marty Hurney, along with a partner, have leased WZGV 730 in Cramerton/Charlotte NC and WZGM 1350 in Ashville. In addition to running the stations, Hurney also co-hosts "Inside the Lines" from 1 to 3 PM weekdays on WZGV. I have a feeling there won't be very much disagreeing with him on the air moving forward.

Two major market sports stations are, coincidentally, losing their Program Directors during the first half of 2015. Jason Dixon has left Detroit's WMGC 105.1 and the struggle to come anywhere near The Ticket, which consistently ranks in the market's top three stations overall. Acquiring the rights to the Pistons broadcasts certainly didn't help, at least not this season as the team is struggling almost as much as the station.

Jason Barrett announced that he will be leaving his P.D. position at KGMZ 95.7 The Game no later than June when his contract expires. He was in a similar situation, with The Game miles behind the dominant KNBR 680.

NEW YORK: WEPN 98.7 has extended its contract to air both the Knicks and Rangers broadcasts, which they have done for the previous ten seasons. It remains to be seen whether or not WFAN will want to get in on winter sports local play-by-play or not, but it could well have that opportunity with the Islanders' planned move into Brooklyn for next season. Islanders NYC play-by-play rights have not been contracted for as of yet.

PHILADELPHIA: Tony Bruno has made a triumphant return to local radio, starting back as co-host of the WIP 94.1 afternoon show from 1 to 6 PM along with Josh Innes. Bruno, known nationally from his "Into The Night" syndicated show a few years back, was part of WIP's morning show (on 610 AM) with Angelo Cataldi in the early 90's. Cataldi, of course, is still on the station. Adding Bruno moves Rob Ellis back to the 6 to 10 PM shift on weeknights without play-by-play.

HARRISBURG: WHGB 96.5 (along with WGLD 1440 in York PA) have dropped Phillies baseball broadcasts effective immediately, although it has little to do with the team's horrible 2014 season. The stations became Washington Nationals affiliates, citing that the Nationals' AA team is based in Harrisburg. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the Nationals are heavy favorites to win the Division and be well ahead of the Phillies in 2015. These stations become the only Nationals affiliates in Pennsylvania. The best the Phillies can do, so far, for their broadcasts in the region, is WLPA 92.7 in Starview PA.

SAN DIEGO: While Lee Hacksaw Hamilton awaits his next radio gig, Hamilton has joined XETV Channel 6 as a weekend sports anchor, following more than 25 years as a local sports talk host.

CHICAGO: With Cubs broadcasts about to begin on WBBM 780 (after thousands of years on WGN Radio), the station has named Mark Grote as host of its pre and postgame coverage along with providing scores and updates during the games. Grote, who comes back over to WBBM from sister station WSCR The Score, will also appear on WSCR reporting specifically on the Cubs.

Although the station is making its debut as the Cubs flagship, it only plans to broadcast the weekend spring training games, some of which go head-to-head against the NCAA Tournament games.

WSCR is about to begin its final season under the current contract to air the White Sox games. However, the station again plans what it calls "interactive broadcasts" for four of the few spring training games it plans to air. Once again, this is the only station to do such a thing, during which they stop the play-by-play after five innings to take phone calls on the air from fans while the game site. It's hard to believe they actually think that White Sox fans would rather hear what "Steve from the west side" thinks about the team than what their pitchers and hitters are actually doing at that moment. The games are either worth airing entirely or not at all, especially when there are 21 other hours in the day to merely take calls from listeners.

Comcast SportsNet is enjoying the success of the Chicago Bulls as much as the fans. The network's ratings for telecasts for the first three months of the current season are up more than 60% over the same period last season. In addition the network's pre and postgame shows are each up more than 35% over last season.

DETROIT: Fox Sports Detroit plans to rotate its game analysts this season, which means fewer games for long-timer Rod Allen. While Jack Morris will again handle a few games, FSD has added Kirk Gibson as an analyst for a still to be determined number of telecasts. It's too early to tell if Gibson's role will be determined by his on-air performance and fan reception or if he (Gibson) plans to pursue another job on the field.

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