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How Much Do You Love Sports?
By: Maryann Fabian
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See any good games over the weekend? Odds are that only a handful of you tuned in to watch your hometown baseball team play. According to a Nielsen survey, less than three percent of households, on average, watch televised sports. And less than two percent watch an NHL game. But ESPN and regional sports channels cost your cable and satellite provider lots of money. Is it worth it?

Now, the three percent viewership doesn’t include the Super Bowl, obviously, and your primetime NFL. But outside of a handful of all-star and championship games, the fans just aren’t there. So, where did they go?

“Sports are full proof when it comes to ratings,” Charles Bergmann told the Los Angeles Times back in December. He’s an ad buyer who believes, “Sports fans can’t wait to watch a game.” Cable and satellite TV providers once felt this way, too. They considered sports packages to be a way to draw in new subscribers. Sports networks also used this long-held belief that Americans love sports to charge big fees to cable and satellite providers.

Providers pay an “affiliate fee,” for the privilege of carrying each TV channel in their lineup. The more popular the channel, the higher the fee. ESPN charges $5.15 per subscriber per month. Together, ESPN and regional sports networks account for about 20 percent of what cable and satellite providers pay in total affiliate fees.

An article in The Atlantic goes even further and says that half of your cable bill pays for sports programming. If that’s true and you don’t like sports, you’re basically taking one for the team. Forbes quotes an inside source that says, “The cost of all programming (sports is part of that) for the average operator is approximately $33–$35, per month, per subscriber.”

But armed with this new Nielsen research, the game is starting to change. Let’s call it half time. And the cable providers just came out of the locker room all charged up to fight.

When the Houston Rockets and Astros launched their own network, CSN Houston, only Comcast bought in. CSN Houston wanted $3.40 for each subscriber. AT&T and DirecTV balked. They said it was too expensive to carry as part of the basic cable package. Other teams, such as the Kansas City Royals and Charlotte Bobcats, have also tried to launch their own networks, but they gave up when they weren’t picked up by enough providers.

In a statement about the CSN Houston decision, AT&T said, "We'd like to make the channel available to our customers, but the proposed cost is not fair to pass to all of our customers across Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas, especially based upon our subscribers' historical lack of viewership of Rockets and Astros games. We've offered to make CSN Houston available on an a la carte basis for those fans that want to watch."

Senator John McCain is pushing for a la carte programming. He had good intentions when he recently introduced the “Television Consumer Freedom Act” in Congress. It wants to give consumers the ability to kill channels they don't want to pay for. Only it’s not that simple. Expensive ESPN is part of Disney, which also owns ABC, Lifetime, A&E, etc. Providers cut deals and bundle fees, much like the bundles they offer to consumers.

You would think that the one thing sports has going for it is that people like to watch it live. Online video sites such as Netflix and Hulu aren’t even contenders in this game. But with MLB and other sports offering the ability to stream games live online, it’s become just another reason for customers to cut the cord. Add to that the millennials who think watching traditional pay TV makes about as much sense as paying for a home phone and, Houston, we’ve got a problem.

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About the Author
Maryann Fabian is a copywriter who has crafted the voice of some of this country's best brands.
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