If someone said a company would be closing down a big national established TV sports network -- one with a decent sports package franchise, including the NHL -- you'd think they didn’t have all their sticks and pucks.
Recently, Comcast’s NBC Sports Network announced it would shutter NBCSN, a big 80-million-subscriber cable network. All that was eye-opening for many.
Sports TV programming has been viewed as the most resilient TV content over the last several years amid other programming viewer erosion. Even this year, the NFL -- with lots of pandemic disruption -- maintained much of its viewership, with only a relatively minor decline.
For many decades, getting a cable network to that size took effort. And once achieved, a valuable asset was assured. Couldn’t Comcast have sold the network to some interested party?
For sure, there are issues here. Selling a cable network means a new owner would need to re-negotiate all cable, satellite, telco affiliation agreements -- especially if the programming content changed dramatically.
All this had Michael Nathanson, senior research analyst of MoffettNathanson Research, wondering: What about the status of more fringe national TV networks? ESPNU has declined to 71 million subscribers; Fox’s FS2, now at 60 million; and CBS Sports Network, around 60 million to 70 million.
Also on the lower subscriber side of things are established networks, such as Fox’s Big Ten Network, at 57 million and NBCU’s Golf Channel at 69 million.
Much of this concern started in August 2015, when Walt Disney’s Bob Iger on an earnings call mentioned a significant drop in subscribers at ESPN. This alarmed investors, and perhaps forced Disney to accelerate efforts in what turned out to be ESPN+, a growing streaming service.
Other legacy TV companies have been considering the same thing -- the streaming premium world, including the somewhat troubled regional sports networks owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group.
CBS and NBCUniversal are already in the game -- but modestly so. CBS has CBS Sports HQ, a free streamer focusing on highlights. NBCU has a niche sports-specific subscription streaming package called NBC Sports Gold, where viewers can access somewhat less popular U.S. sports: cycling, rugby, track & field, lacrosse, auto racing and sailing.
Critics continue to worry about major sports' right fees that TV networks pay for, which in turn, are paid by consumers via high-priced traditional pay TV bundle's legacy monthly fees.
So consider the move: Is subscription sports streaming for big-time sports the right sports TV answer?