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The Greening of the US Sports Ecosystem

As a college student in the summer of 1974, during cable TV's truck-chasing era, I sold cable TV. When students returned to Ann Arbor in September, going door-to-door selling 12 channels of cable TV for $5 per month was a breeze. Even the blind and deaf were buyers.

I would meet objections by pointing out that cable costs less than taking your family to a movie or a baseball game, especially when factoring in food, drinks, and babysitter fees.

It was true then. It's true now. At that time, however, we were hungry for more entertainment options. Now, we are quite sated.

Casual sports fans complain about high fees and unwanted channels, while Netflix, Hulu, Apple, Amazon, Google, and Roku provide only limited choices.

We have arrived at an inflection point that is complicated by retransmission consent and lack of pricing discipline in the sports ecosystem supply chain.

Competing cable, satellite, and telco distributors (MVPDs) have little leverage in the face of sports programmers. Balking at the affiliate fees sought by a popular sports network and dropping the channel translate into subscriber defections.

Sports networks, armed with pricing power, have little incentive to bid judiciously for programming. Soaring rights fees can be passed through to MVPDs via higher affiliate fees.

Teams and leagues use windows, geographic limitations, and an auction atmosphere to effectively force "winning" bidders to rationalize their investments via higher affiliate fees.

And programmers are becoming middlemen. Their suppliers -- teams, leagues, college conferences, and sanctioning bodies -- have their own networks or demand equity.

We could put a caption here but we think you get the drift.
We could put a caption here but we think you get the drift.

Sports interests have challenges, too. In 2012, the average NBA player made $5.2 million, according to Forbes. The average MLB player salary was $3.2 million, followed by $2.4 million for NHL players and $1.9 million for NFL players.

Chicago White Sox owner Eddie Einhorn put it best: "The money goes in one pocket and out the other."

It's not so much that individual sports networks have hiked prices dramatically, it's the rising number of sports networks.

Instead of the handful of services a decade ago, there are now more than two dozen national and three dozen regional sports networks in the US, not counting Fox Sports 1 and the planned SEC Network.

Cross-ownership, vertical integration, and over-the-top competition exacerbate the challenge of developing some sort of pricing discipline.

RSNs once carried a limited number of MLB, NBA, and NHL home games. Now they distribute more than 80 percent of all games. National networks carry most of the rest.

The wholesale cost of sports programming to MVPDs is about $15 to $17 a month, which works out at 40 percent to 50 percent of total MVPD programming costs. Yet sports accounts for only about 20 percent of viewership.

It is heaven for avid sports aficionados. For a shrinking middle class of casual- and non-fans, however, the cost-benefit calculus is tenuous. The perceived value has declined.

Breaking the cycle of exorbitant player salaries, soaring rights fees, surging sports programming costs, and rising consumer prices is no small feat. But it's high time for a comprehensive examination of the sports universe.

Unfortunately, many industry solutions and potential public policy initiatives are fraught with unintended consequences. MVPD consolidation, for example, would cut into the leverage of sports interests, but might adversely affect innovation and competition for subscribers.

Suppose programmers were prohibited from imposing minimum-tier subscriber percentages and MVPDs were free to market high-cost programming à la carte or on a sports tier. Sounds good, right?

Tinkering with tiering, most-favored nation clauses, and retransmission consent bundling, however, might lead to stringent regulatory oversight and regulation of wholesale prices.

What if sports leagues and college conferences were barred from sharing revenue and each team/university was responsible for distributing its own games without geographical limitation?

This might lead to higher rights fees for the most popular large market teams and lower fees for poor-performing small-market teams. How would this affect the competitive balance that leagues have achieved via salary caps and revenue sharing?

How about a closer look at the billions of dollars in public subsidies that have facilitated the massive new stadium/arena construction binge over the past 20 years?

These are complicated issues rife with First Amendment, antitrust, copyright, and contractual implications.

Shed no tears. Most MVPDs, sports networks, and sports team owners have had superior returns on their investments.

As for the consumer, MVPD service remains an incredible bargain, provided, of course, that you're an avid sports fan.

— John Mansell, President, John Mansell Associates Inc.

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mendyk 8/30/2013 | 11:11:06 AM
Global reach John -- I'm pretty sure this issue extends beyond the U.S. at least to Europe and Latin America. The "sports ecosystem" is enormous, and enormously complex. And it's obvious that the economic clout of the sports industry is much greater than its useful value -- though the same can be said for the movie business as well. Do you see any clear path to right-sizing the sports business at least in terms of programming costs?
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