During the last two weeks, Feb. 8 through Feb. 22, eight of the top 10 TV programs in terms of national ad revenue, were in sports -- NBA basketball, college basketball, ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” TNT’s “2016 NBA All-Star Game,” Fox’ s“2016 Daytona 500,” CBS’ “PGA Tour Golf," and NBCSN’s NHL Hockey, according to iSpot.tv.
Only two TV shows were non-sports: CBS’ “58th Annual Grammy Awards” and “The Big Bang Theory” (on CBS, TBS, and in national syndication). And, mind you, the biggest sports franchise, the NFL, ended its season two weeks ago.
Many analysts believe the poster child of all things too expensive in the pay TV world point to sports -- that consumers need to cut or shave down pay TV packages to save money.
But as we all know it’s complicated. Even Verizon last week decided to revamp its controversial Custom TV packages -- packages that originally offered customers’ more “a la carte” in choosing TV networks.
The controversial part of Custom TV was putting the likes of ESPN, NBCSN, and Fox Sports channels on extra-fee tiers for customers. All three network groups cried foul -- with ESPN filing a lawsuit for a breach of contract.
Now, Verizon has retreated -- essentially offering two different Custom TV packages, one without sports, and one with.
More recently, for its part, Walt Disney now says there has been an “uptick” in subscribers for ESPN. It didn’t go into details. All this after alerting financial analysts back in August that ESPN had experienced some declines in subscribers.
But perhaps the main thing for ESPN comes in its ratings. Say what you want about its sky-high network carriage fees of $6 per subscriber per month or more, overall viewing continues at a high level (but maybe not record levels).
That said, ESPN, and other sports networks, will continue to have what advertisers want: live, non-ad-skippable programming from the NFL, NBA, college basketball and college football.
Pay TV programmers will continue to weigh whether to keep sports networks on basic packages, separate tiers, new digital services, or otherwise. Part of this could come from incentives -- advertising-wise.
For years, local cable systems and other pay TV operators have retained high-demand local cable ESPN and other sports network ad inventory to sell as part of their carriage deals. A big question then is: How important has that revenue been for them, and how much will it continue to matter in future years?
Pay TV providers, TV advertisers and viewers will need to figure where sports TV's near-term and future value resides.