As a media behemoth that at times threatens to swallow the sports world, ESPN is a poor candidate for sympathy. Still, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of compassion for the four-letter monster as it prepares to cover this week’s NFL draft, trying to remain dutifully enthusiastic about a football season with a huge cloud — in the form of a labor lockout — hanging over it.
“These are strange days around the National Football League,” ESPN’s John Saunders said Sunday on “The Sports Reporters,” gearing up toward a draft for “a season that may never happen.”
Still, ESPN’s situation — seeking to impartially cover a story in which it has a sizable interest — is hardly an anomaly. Because sports rights are so valuable and the sums paid so vast, TV networks keep getting dragged into stories they would rather simply report on than be part of.
All the networks announced their NFL schedules for the coming season, for example, with nary a mention of contingency plans. League owners, seemingly, would prefer broadcasters ignore the whole “lockout” thing.
Yet team owners have already been dragged to court over a provision calling for them to receive billions in payments from networks — or so-called “lockout insurance,” which they would later repay — whether games are played or not.
Meanwhile, FOX has become a reluctant player in the soap opera involving Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt. Based on multiple reports, FOX didn’t want to risk endangering its relationship with the Dodgers after Time Warner Cable struck an exclusive 20-year deal with the Lakers, including the planned creation of a new regional network as a direct rival to FOX Sports West.
Any sports network is only as strong as its properties, and FOX would hold less allure to both fans and cable operators — who shell out $2.37 a month to the cable channel per subscriber — without both of LA’s marquee teams.
So FOX offered a $30 million personal loan to the embattled McCourt — a pittance, really, to safeguard its ties to the team. Except Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig didn’t approve, fearing McCourt was ruining one of baseball’s crown jewels with his seat-of-the-pants stewardship.
According to the Wall Street Journal, for Selig the loan became “the final straw in his deteriorating view of Mr. McCourt’s fitness” as an owner. Of course, FOX had been discussing a 20-year TV deal with the Dodgers said to be worth $2.5 billion, so given that the “loan” accounted only a little over 1 percent of that total, you can perhaps fault FOX for the bedfellows it chooses but not its math skills.
Scanning the TV landscape, one suspects the bidding frenzy for rights is only going to become more intense. The major college conferences are angling for rich deals and their own regional networks. CBS and Turner teamed up to fend off ESPN and retain the NCAA basketball tournament, while Comcast’s acquisition of NBC has created another significant rival — combining NBC Sports, Versus and the Golf Channel.
Granted, ESPN and FSN run dedicated sports networks, but channels like NBC — which is struggling in primetime — fret about where the absence of football might leave them. Small wonder NBC just committed $2 billion to a 10-year deal with the National Hockey League, with rights to the 2014 and 2016 Olympics the next big test of everyone’s wallets.
Where does it end? As long as fans have a strong appetite for sports — and watch events live, unlike a lot of primetime shows, where many people zap past the commercials — rights holders have considerable leverage. But the money isn’t a bottomless pit, which explains how a league as rich as the NFL could be in its current labor impasse, and why an NBA lockout is looming.
To his credit, ESPN’s Michael Smith addressed the NFL standoff on “Sports Reporters,” but he failed to mention TV’s complicity in the farce. The owners, he said, aren’t afraid to shut down the league “because they know you’ll come running back whenever football does.”
Running back to your nearest TV set, that is, where amid all this controversy, the folks supervising the networks are trying, without much luck, to stay out of the picture.