As the NFL moves rapidly down the new-media field, Fox Sports president Ed Goren warned that wide distribution could narrow profits -- both for the league and the networks. Expansion of Web- and mobile-casting of live games risks chipping away at the TV-dollar ecosystem.
"At some point, they're going to kill the golden goose," Goren said at a Milken Institute conference in Los Angeles.
Goren acknowledged that multiplatform maneuvers by the NFL are "not an issue" now, as Fox saw major ratings gains last fall. But if the NFL, Major League Baseball and NASCAR continue to look beyond the traditional set, a snowballing effect could occur. Fox will be more reticent to pay billions in rights fees to the three.
"Our ratings will go down, our ad sales will go down and the leagues can find another sucker," Goren said.
So, why are the networks not negotiating deals more forcefully to restrict new distribution opportunities that could hurt their viewership?
"We're not real great business people," Goren said.
He said if Fox were smarter, it would "take a piece" of the Internet and mobile streaming dollars -- and some of the revenues the NFL and leagues collect for operating their own channels.
Even if it wanted to get in the online-streaming business, Fox's current NFL rights arrangement -- unlike NBC's -- does not allow it to simulcast games on the Web. The same goes for MLB and NASCAR events it carries.
Two years ago, NBC began free streaming of its Sunday prime-time games on NBCSports.com and NFL.com.
Earlier this month, the NFL announced a deal with Verizon Wireless, where Thursday and Sunday prime-time games will be streamed live via a new app. Verizon customers with 3G phones and certain plans can receive the service free if downloaded by the end of the year.
Last season, the NFL debuted a RedZone channel on pay TV that provides cut-ins to games when a team nears the goal line. That feed is also coming to Verizon's NFL Mobile this fall. If viewers are tuning in, "then you can't be watching Fox," Goren said.
Like the NFL, the NBA and its owners appreciate how multimedia distribution can boost interest and dollars. "It's grown the fan base," said Len Komoroski, president of the Cleveland Cavaliers, "because so many people have access to the product now, in terms of whether it will be watching [on] television, which is still the core ... [or] whether it be through mobile devices or otherwise."
Komoroski joined Goren on a sports business panel at the conference.
ESPN and Turner have rights to carry live NBA games on the Web and mobile platforms. ESPN has taken advantage through simulcasting. Turner offers coverage online with different camera angles that doesn't mirror what's on-air, aiming for people to use the computer and watch TV simultaneously.