However much fans may have missed normal sports seasons and game telecasts in 2020, and are hoping this football season marks a return to the comforting traditions of the past, they’d better take a long look at what may be the end of an era. There are so many conflicting currents of massive change washing over sports right now that it’s likely the entire business will be wildly different within just a couple of years. And that has huge implications for “TV,” because we’re going to be watching those sports much differently in coming years.
This week’s latest bit of news was Tubi’s announcement that it’s adding 10 live-streamed sports channels to its lineup of free, ad-supported TV. The channels, created in partnership with corporate sibling Fox Sports, will feature “near-to-live” NFL programming, games featuring Spanish soccer power Real Madrid, as well as content from Major League Baseball, NASCAR and even the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
“‘Sports on Tubi’ embraces our viewers’ passion for sports content across our vast library,” Tubi CEO Farhad Massoudi said. “With a robust pipeline of sports news, live games and classic match-ups, the power of free has expanded for our loyal sports enthusiasts.”
The channels will also feature content from two college athletic conferences, the Pac-12 and ACC, which are separately part of the week’s other big sports TV news. Those two conferences joined the Big 10 in announcing an “alliance” of shared values on several big issues, including game scheduling and an expanded college football playoff.
The alliance was the conferences’ first significant, if rather hazily defined, response to the stunning raid by the SEC on the neighboring Big 12 Conference, taking its two most valuable programs, the universities of Oklahoma and Texas, and punching a giant hole in the economics of that conference’s TV rights.
The UT-OU exit has set off weeks of speculation about what happens to the Big 12’s remaining eight schools, whether they or other conferences will raid programs from each other in an even larger realignment, and what it may mean for the NCAA, which regulates college sports and runs the men’s and women’s March Madness basketball tournaments (a $1 billion gold mine for the organization and its TV partners).
Not incidentally, conference realignment will dramatically affect TV deals, making ESPN’s pricey acquisition of SEC rights a couple of years ago far more valuable, while slashing the value of its deal with the Big 12. The opposing three-conference alliance likely hope to buff up TV revenue for their respective cable networks, by refocusing the 41 schools involved on matchups between each other (a years-long process, given the long time frames for football scheduling).
In turn, all this uncertainty has put on hold conversations about expanding the college football playoffs, which would be a gigantically valuable TV property, but also would kill off most of the traditional college bowl season, and diminish the value or even need for conference championship games.
But further talk on the proposal may be difficult right now. The expansion plan was championed in part by SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, perhaps the most powerful person in college sports but who may face diplomatic challenges outside his own conference membership. Another big champion: Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, now busy seeing if he still has a conference to run.
Just to further complicate the business of college sports, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a crushing 9-0 decision against the NCAA in June over academic benefits that athletic programs may give to their players. Though the decision was narrowly focused, it strongly invited other antitrust lawsuits against an already vulnerable and weakened NCAA.
Days after that decision, NCAA policy bodies effectively gave up a two-decade fight over so-called Name, Image, Likeness rules, clearing the way for athletes to be paid for their social-media presence and commercial endorsements with relatively few restrictions. Some premiere athletes quickly took advantage, like sublime UConn women’s basketball star Paige Bueckers and University of Alabama starting quarterback Bryce Young, whose coach just “let slip” that Young had signed $1 million in endorsement deals without playing a meaningful snap for the defending national champion.
It’s hard to guess at this point the long-term impact on college sports if athletes can make big money there, even in non-revenue sports (how much will Olympic all-around gymnastics gold medalist Sunisa Lee rake in while competing for Auburn University as a freshman this year, for instance).
Throw in Sinclair Broadcasting Group plans to create a streaming service from its two-dozen regional sports cable networks (to launch next spring, with games from more than 40 pro teams), Amazon’s deal to produce and stream 15 Thursday night NFL games a year beginning in 2022, and the inclusion of streaming rights in all the other big NFL rights renewals, and it’s clear a very different landscape for sports on TV is just about here.
If viewers who traditionally had to watch either broadcast or cable outlets to get most of their sports fix now have a broad range of other options, what does it mean for the traditional cable bundle, which new figures suggest lost another million subscribers in the past year. The erosion of the cable bundle may lead to a collapse soon, while further cementing streaming’s premier position for all kinds of valuable content beyond live sports events (the Dick Clark Productions deal, also this week, to stream the Country Music Awards on Amazon is another example of the migration).
In the background is the rise of legal sports gambling. Already some 22 states have allowed gambling, and 10 more have approved but not implemented their own rules. This also is the first NFL season where gambling companies will be allowed to run commercials during games themselves. Given the billions of dollars those seven league-approved companies are expected to spend to grab market share, it’s clear all those traditional truck, pizza, and beer companies will have a new competitor for audience attention during game breaks.
Get used to it. It’s going to be a season like nothing before, but possibly like a lot of what we’ll see in the future.