Thursday, July 16, 2015

Why ESPN Is Really Losing Big Name Hosts

Consumers tired of being gouged to watch sports on TV are beginning to make an impact on the TV networks. In a curious development, ESPN continues its new found cost-cutting measures as both Collin Cowherd and Keith Olbermann are vanishing from the network only weeks after Bill Simmons also departed for what are supposedly a variety of reasons.

The network can quietly sit while speculation points to controversial content, which seemingly rarely bothered ESPN before, such as Olbermann's harsh remarks about NFL leadership. As of press time, even Monday Night Football and NBA play-by-play voice Mike Torico has not yet been renewed. Nor has ESPN moved to bring in high profile replacements yet for these shows, while they will soon be saving millions of salary dollars.

Why now? This is really because ESPN has reportedly lost more than three million subscribers over the past two years, with that figure covering only the first part of 2015. With per subscriber revenue of upwards of $5.00 or more each month, it means network revenue is down in the $15 to $20 million PER MONTH range. With contracts in place for the NFL, NBA, and MLB, along with major golf, tennis, and soccer tournaments.

ESPN execs are probably thinking to "Let Fox Sports grab Cowherd, Olbermann, and the rest, and add millions of dollars to its payroll".

Over at Comcast, they are about to test the waters on an online HBO package, which would also include local market over-the-air stations, for about $15 per month. The Boston, Chicago, and Seattle markets will reportedly be offered this "Stream Package" by the end of 2015. Speculation is that Comcast is doing this in hopes of maintaining or bringing back some of its customers struggling with its high cost of monthly service. The most interesting aspect of this is that, obviously, none of the sports networks are included, even the regional Comcast SportsNet service it offers in the Chicago and Boston markets, as well as NBCSN.

Thus, Comcast will be able to test the waters on a "non-sports" offering to consumers. This all tells me that the "big boys" are starting to take notice that consumers are not going to continue to pay whatever it takes to enjoy sports on TV.

Even with the MLB All-Star Game over the air on Fox earlier this week (7/14), the national ratings were the lowest that Fox has experienced thus far, and down almost a half million viewers from last season. I'll say it again. A big reason for the decrease is because of Fox Sports hiding the majority of its MLB national telecasts on Fox Sports 1 on Saturdays, aside from a few prime-time regional telecasts. The casual fan does not spend his or her Saturday afternoons desperate to find the Fox telecast, and it is that same "casual" fan who used to easily find a game every Saturday and therefore know when and where to find the All-Star Game.

In most markets, the Fox prime time telecasts feature the local or regional team that the fans can see all week on the local or regional sports network or station, thus making the Fox telecast less special.

PHILADELPHIA: The Fanatic 97.5 will remain the winter sports king, announcing a multi-year deal to air the Flyers broadcasts while also airing the Sixers. Sister station WMMR 93.3 will air the Flyers games, with Tim Saunders and Steve Coates on the call, when there is a Sixers conflict on 97.5.

CHICAGO: WLS 890 has officially entered the year-round sports game with the announcement that the station will become the flagship station for both White Sox baseball and Bulls basketball starting in 2016. The White Sox come over after 10 seasons on WSCR The Score 670, while the Bulls have aired (for 19 of the past 20 seasons) on WMVP ESPN 1000. Thus, this acquisition takes one team away from each of Chicago's two rival all-sports stations.

Although nothing has been announced yet, and probably won't be until after the 2015 season, the current broadcasters are not necessarily going to be coming over to WLS.

From here, this move was a perfect fit for both parties. WLS-AM, struggling with endless recycled local and national talk shows, can now draw from year round local sports audiences. Since Jerry Reinsdorf (who reportedly once tried to buy WVMP) owns both teams, he succeeds in getting his teams away from the often critical local sports talk stations and on to a station which will not be airing potentially critical programming surrounding the broadcasts.

While WMVP, which just declined in the latest local ratings, loses its one major local play-by-play option (although it will air the Bulls for the coming 2015-16 season), WSCR 670 will not have that problem. The Score is contractually able to begin airing Chicago Cubs games starting in 2016, moving the team over from sister station WBBM 780.

As part of its new deal, WLS will be able to use sister station WLUP 97.9 on nights of conflicts between the White Sox and Bulls.

Also in Chicago, our best wishes to WCIU/WMME-TV Sports Director Kenny McReynolds, who "expects" to be on the air this coming weekend (7/18) following two separate heart surgeries within the past month. I first met Kenny back in the late 70's, and his involvement with local basketball (to the point of having been hired as an assistant coach a couple of times) is also very much a part of the scene.

BOSTON: How about WEEI-FM? The June ratings show the station holding steady at #6 in overall listeners in the market, while rival WBZ-FM Sports Hub dipped to #12 overall and has lost more than 20% of its audience since the baseball season started.

HOUSTON: You know it is the content and not the hosts for KBME 790. When management dumped the Astros broadcasts onto KBME prior to the start of the 2014 season, they didn't really think the Astros would be contenders anytime soon. But the miracle 2015 season for the team has resulted in a significant increase in their radio audience. The June ratings show that KBME's night (7 PM to Midnight) ratings have tripled from June 2014 to June 2015, and rose another 35% from this May to June.

St. LOUIS: Learfield Sports, which has been adding special deals for several universities over the past couple years, has added the St. Louis University Billikens to the fold. Just as it does for the University of Missouri, Learfield has the rights to make deals with local TV stations in St. Louis (and other stations in the region) to air telecasts of basketball games not carried by Fox Sports Midwest or ESPN.

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