Tag Archives: Sport

Is The End Near For Sports?

I know you might be thinking that my headline is just some outrageous form of click bait and that I can’t seriously think that big time professional sports are heading down the same path as traditional big media. Let me throw a few recent articles at you and maybe you’ll come to a different conclusion (which I do hope you’ll post in the comments).

The sports business is based on a few large revenue streams. One is income from the games themselves: ticket sales, concessions, merchandise, etc. What makes many of those things possible is a nice facility – an arena or stadium. We’ve seen franchises move (and piss off their fans) over the stadium issue, sometimes even before the bonds on the last stadium built for the team are paid off. I urge you to watch the John Oliver piece on the relationship between teams and towns but here is why I suddenly think there is an issue. As reported by Mondaq:

bill has been introduced that would eliminate the availability of federal tax-exempt bonds for stadium financing… The bill would amend the Internal Revenue Code to treat bonds used to finance a “professional sports stadium” as automatically meeting the “private security or payment” test, thus rendering any such bonds taxable irrespective of the source of payment.

In other words, it will make public spending on a private facility way more difficult. That will lead to fewer new facilities and a much harder path to growing that revenue stream. Strike 1.

Then there is the largest revenue stream for most big leagues: TV. Kagen recently reported that the U.S.pay-TV industry will lose 10.8 million subscribers through 2021, according to their latest forecast. You might already know that ESPN has been losing subscribers – May 2017 estimates were 3.3% lower than the year before. For every million subs lost, ESPN takes in roughly $7.75 million less PER MONTH – or $93 million a year, and they have already lost multiple millions of subscribers. Yes, some are being replaced via the sale of OTT services, but that requires spending to sign customers, something ESPN hasn’t had to do before. The same subscriber loss issue is true of every other sports network albeit to a lesser degree since their monthly fees are less than ESPN’s. Smaller subscriber fees mean a diminished ability to pay those large rights fees. Sure, other channels (some would say suckers) will step up – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others. But my guess is that the outrageous increases many entities have secured over the last few rights cycles are gone for good. Strike 2.

Finally, costs are not going to go down, at least not without major disruptions such as the two recent NHL lockouts. Players aren’t going to make less (the downside of the salary cap), team personnel probably won’t, at least not without a lot of turnover, and many of the other costs are either already low (minimum wages) or difficult to cut (food costs in the concessions, etc.).  In an effort to mitigate some of the lower revenue and growing costs, some of the entities involved in sports are beginning to do what the airlines have done and make what was once part of the deal (in-flight meals, free bag check) part of an a la carte menu to grow revenue. Specifically, look, for example, at what NBC has done with their Premier League package. They are doing away in part with their NBC Sports Live streaming coverage in favor of a new premium streaming service called “Premier League Pass” that will be in addition to the matches that are already broadcast on live TV. The stand-alone streaming service will cost $50 in addition to whatever you’re paying for your cable subscription. That will bring in more dough but it will also anger fans. Strike 3?

Don’t misunderstand me. I think interest in sports generally has never been higher, and I think any sports entity that doesn’t rely on a big TV contract and employs athletes as independent contractors (I’m looking at you, LPGA) will be in good shape. I just think there is a major disruption coming in the next few years as we’ve seen in the TV and music businesses. Watch out as the next cycle of TV deals begins and if this bill is passed. It’s going to be a bumpy ride, don’t you think?

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Sport At The Service of Humanity

I’ve spent many years in the sports business. Having grown up playing many sports and spending many hours watching them when I wasn’t playing, working in the business was a dream come true. As with many businesses, however, I and many of my colleagues sometimes lost sight of the basic appeal of the product. It’s taken the Pope to help remind me, and hopefully many others, of that. Let me explain.

Any product needs to solve a basic need. Identifying that need and building products that serve it are the basis for any business. What often happens, however, is that we get focused on our own needs and not those of the customer. We worry about profits and supply chains and staffing, and we’d be insane not to focus on those things too. We can’t, however, let them blind us to the fundamental purpose of solving the problem and servicing the need of the customer.

What does the Pope have to do with this? He is running a conference which began today called Sport At The Service of Humanity. It’s billed as the first global conference on faith and sport. No, it’s not about getting every player to thank some higher power every time they score. It’s intended to launch a “movement” to develop ­­life skills through sports ­­ and characteristics across six principles: compassion, respect, love, enlightenment, balance and joy. You should check out the conference’s website here.

There are a couple of things stated in the “declaration of principles” that resonated:

  • Sport has the power to teach positive values and enrich lives. Every one of us, who plays, organises and supports sport, has the opportunity to be transformed by it and to transform others.
  • Sport challenges us to stretch ourselves further than we thought possible.

I liked to hire people who were athletes, and not just because it was the sports business. It was precisely for the reasons stated above. Moreover, ex-athletes “got it.” They understood the sheer joy of sports, and that joy is a big part of the reason why fans watch them.

The Pope’s conference is about using sports to make us better human beings, but I think it can also serve to remind us of a fundamental business principle too. Your product needs to serve people and not just investors. Using your product to make people’s lives better – in this case, to teach life skills – is really the goal of business in my mind. Yours?

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93 Out Of 100

Every year, the folks at Nielsen put out a review of the previous year in sports media. This year’s report is out, and one statistic jumped out at me. In 2005, 14 of the top 100 programs watched live plus same day were in the sports category. Ten years later, 93 of the top 100 were sports. That’s right: despite all of the fragmentation that’s managed to kill most other forms of programming, nearly all of the most-viewed programs watched live or same day were sports. Is it any wonder that demand for sports inventory is so high when it’s the only form of programming that is both widely viewed and watched in real time?

One would think, therefore, that being a sports programming distributor would put one, as Red Barber used to say, in the catbird seat. Looking, however, at the recent negative reports on ESPN’s financial future in the above context might cause some head-scratching (disclosure – I’m a Disney stockholder as well as a former employee). The issues, I think, are several things. First, sports, like any other form of media, is fragmented. You might never miss a NASCAR race but I couldn’t pay you to watch golf. Sure, you’re a college football fan, but turn on the tube any Saturday afternoon and you can choose from dozens of games airing live. That’s fragmentation, and what’s happened is that the rights fees paid to acquire that programming by the distributors bear little resemblance to the audiences and, therefore, the advertising.

Not a problem, you say. There are affiliate fees. That’s true, and in the case of some sports rights deal, such as the NHL and NBC, the rights fee is paid on the come. After all, if NBC can raise what they get from distributors for NBCSN from 10 cents to a quarter (as an example – those aren’t real numbers), their affiliate fees more than double. Hopefully, the demand for NHL or any other brand of sports programming can make that happen.

All well and good until “skinny bundles” show up. Suddenly, people who never watch sports (yes, there are more of them than you think) have the option of reducing their cable bill by not paying $7 a month or more for sports shows they don’t watch. This is what is causing the negative predictions about ESPN. Smalle income from affiliates based on fewer subscribers to sports channels means smaller rights fees available for the leagues and other rightsholders. Smaller TV deals mean…higher ticket prices? More expensive concessions? Smaller player contracts? Labor strife?

93 out of 100 gets an A in most classes. It’s nice that sports is “bulletproof”. So was Superman, but he, and sports, have their weak spot. It will be interesting to see where this goes, don’t you think?

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