The Internet has made for an explosion in choices for sports fans. Online distribution has turned over the keys of publishing to everyone, and increasingly that means entities like the NFL, the NBA, the NHL and even individual teams can broadcast sports and deliver their own news.
That’s been the case for several years now (check this Nieman Lab series on the subject from 2009), with the rise of NFL Network, NBA TV, the Big Ten Network, and more. But as our TVs and devices have become smarter and audiences have changed their consumption habits, the jockeying between leagues and the media outlets that cover them has become more nuanced. It’s a new era of collaboration and competition.
This was one of the central themes at this year’s Harvard Law School Sports Law Symposium, where executives from teams, leagues, and companies like ESPN, NBC Sports, and Vox Media talked about the transformation of the sports experience on the field and in the media.
The relationship between sports media and sports league has been complex for a long time. Networks cover leagues with one hand and strike multibillion-dollar broadcast-rights deals with the other. News outlets writes about teams, but are also bound by the limits those teams put on media access — and can get tossed from the press box for violating them. But now the growth of league-, team-, or conference-owned TV networks — not to mention websites that can look a lot like disinterested media — change the game. It’s just a few clicks of the remote to move from ESPN to a Los Angeles Dodgers channel or a University of Texas network.
For the hardcore fan — the kind that craves up-to-the-minute news, 24-hour coverage, and minutia from spring training games, NFL minicamps, or postgame press conferences — these networks are a great thing, said Brett Goodman, senior vice president for NBC Sports. The leagues have access to athletes and teams that fans crave and journalists depend on, but can now exercise greater control over the rights to that material, Goodman told the audience. That’s meant a deeper experience and more exposure for fans to their favorite sports.
But behind the scenes, Goodman said leagues are now trying to carve up the rights to content in more complex and finely selective ways. Ed Durso, an executive vice president for ESPN, said acquiring the rights to sports has become a complicated business in the last 30 years. “ESPN’s first affiliate and programming agreements were one to two pages long,” he said. “Now those contracts are hundreds of pages long. We’re all attempting to identify what we’re acquiring, where it goes, and what people can do with it.”
The relationship between media companies and sports leagues has always had degrees of murkiness. Along with the questions around broadcast rights, media companies like The New York Times Co. and Tribune have held ownership stakes in baseball teams. All of this is in the background, as the audience see an expanding patchwork universe of sports content that cross between league-owned channels and media companies. NBA fans can find highlights on SportsCenter — but also NBA.com and NBA TV, as well as a wealth of league-posted clips on YouTube.
What’s changing now is the battle to get rights to material has become more nuanced. Deals are no longer structured just for TV, but for web, smartphone, and tablet distribution. Ideally, what sports broadcasters want is the rights to “all means of media on every platform forever,” Durso half-joked. But the reality is much more complicated. Media outlets and leagues are both competing for the same audience, potentially to create a kind of loyalty to whatever platform they partake in.
The key, Goodman said, is to strike a balance between media outlets and leagues. “The overriding principle is that the best content, however you define it, should be seen by the most eyeballs,” Goodman said. “So give media partners wide access to those kind of things.”
Tom Ward, of the law firm WilmerHale, has represented the NHL and the NFL in a number of negotiations for TV rights. Ward said the approach many leagues are taking is to slice up their offerings for specific providers and specific platforms, ideally to compliment each other. One example is NFL RedZone, the channel operated by the NFL dedicated to scoring plays that’s available through cable, satellite, and on mobile apps. In the broader scope, Ward said that despite leagues movement into producing their own media, most still see value in continuing to partner with broadcasters and media outlets who can help maintain or increase their audience. “It’s the notion of having new and different kinds of package from leagues to increase revenue and also their exposure,” he said.
All of this is happening at a time when television is, while still remarkably profitable, seeing a few signs of the sort of Internet-based disruption that it’s seen in its print-media colleagues. Whether its the growth of Netflix and HBO GO, the over-the-air challenge from Aereo, or the continued efforts of Apple, Google, and Microsoft, TV’s defenses don’t seem quite as impervious as they did a year or two ago. “I wouldn’t define it as the ‘television experience’ any more,” said Durso. “It’s the video experience.”
There are data points for both naysayers and proponents of the digital transformation to point to. Ratings for the early rounds of this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament were up 9 percent from 2012 — but live streams of the games on the web and mobile devices were up 158 percent from last year. It was a similar story for the London Summer Olympics, which Nielsen called the “most-watched event in U.S. history,” while NBC also saw more than a 300 percent increase in live video streams over the 2008 Olympics. (Not to mention an even greater increase in Internet pushback.)
Rather than a replacement for TV, Goodman sees the multiverse of screens as a complimentary distribution channel for sports and news. “Every study we’ve done suggests that the consumer gravitates to the best screen available,” said Goodman.
Solving for those changes in audience behavior has been difficult for both media outlets and sports leagues. While increased choice benefits the consumer, the challenge for the NFL or NBC is to influence users to get their sports fix through legal channels and the properties they own. “I think it’s a good thing that content is aggregated in some places,” Goodman said. “Make it available, but they have to come to us to see it, because we paid for the right to have it.”
As big media companies and leagues continue to wrestle over the rights to content, one possibility is that traditional media will exploit emerging digital channels as a way of providing ancillary programming. Lauren Fisher, vice president and general counsel for Vox Media, said SB Nation wanted to create an alternative destination for fans to experience Super Bowl XLVII away from TV coverage. The night of the Ravens-Niners match-up, SB Nation saw record traffic and comments, which Fisher said is proof audiences want non-traditional sports coverage.
Big events like the Super Bowl or the Olympics provide the perfect opportunity for media outlets to showcase their digital prowess. Broadcast rights typically go to one network, and as anyone who has seen Super Bowl media day knows, access for journalists can become very staged. (Both teams played hard.) Regardless, the appetite for information exists, not to mention the advertising opportunities.
ESPN spends a large amount of time and resources on the Super Bowl each year, despite the fact that it doesn’t show the game. Durso thinks a time will come in the not too distant future when ESPN takes that week’s worth of programming, along with second-screen options during the game itself, and creates a comprehensive bundle of shows for something like their ESPN3 network. Technology, accessibility, and usability will be the key to attracting an audience, he said. “Technology will allow the ability of connectivity to events rise to a new level,” he said.
Image by Morner used under a Creative Commons license.