The easy answer is to say fans of the Pac-12 are the biggest winners, but it’s not that simple, the increased access will cost Pac-12 fans on their monthly cable bill. The real winner here could be ESPN.
Fearful of ESPN’s near monopolistic dominance of sports programming, many media insiders and fans have long wished for a competitor to rise up and challenge the worldwide leader. ESPN often stands as the lone unchallenged voice of sports perspective: on in every bar across America, first on the favorites list of many internet toolbars and on the radio in every major market. ESPN’s voice is often reasonable, other times just a self-indulgent, agenda-riddled cackling (see: The Decision, The Herd with Colin Cowherd and many more examples)
Networks like FSN have tried before to chip away at ESPN’s castle walls, but have more or less drowned in the moat. For a network to be a worthy competitor to ESPN they have to have a large inventory of premium live events. Turner Sports has an impressive suitcase of assets (Golf, NBA, NCAA Basketball, MLB) and NBC/Comcast/Versus is poised to emerge, but every time a large contingent of valuable sports programming like the Pac-12 gets gobbled up by someone who isn’t a direct competitor, ESPN wins by just standing still. Simply put, the more fractured the sports broadcasting market gets, the more likely ESPN will remain the top dog.
But ESPN isn’t the only winner. We could be smack dab in the middle of the golden years for sports broadcasting professionals and journalists.
When the Yankees formed the YES Network in 2002 no one envisioned the success and resultant tidal wave of niche sports networks. NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, Big Ten, Longhorn, Mtn., Lakers Network…the list keeps growing. The more sports networks, the more jobs available in Sports TV production. After the launch of the Pac-12 network in August 2012 there will be 12 regional or national sports networks in Los Angeles alone.
The business model for these league or team owned networks has gained steam because of the overhead reduction created by owning your own product. Networks like CNN/Sports Illustrated or FSN or Comcast have to pay millions of dollars to acquire broadcast rights, while the Pac-12 network will broadcast their own high-demand product (even after selling off some of it to Fox/ESPN for approx. 3 billion).
The difference can’t be understated. While a network like FSN would dedicate huge amounts of capital for rights acquisition, the rest of their programming would struggle to get by with spartan production staffs and aged equipment. This affects the viewing experience because outside of the live event production the rest of the programming just couldn’t stand up to ESPN’s. Fans would tune in to watch the games and then flip over to ESPN. The Pac-12 network won’t have to pay for broadcast rights, so in theory they should be able to create more valuable, higher quality, shoulder programming.
But there is a down-side to team and league owned networks, the lack of objective journalism. Don’t kid yourself, the Pac-12 TV network isn’t going to be digging up skeletons of boosters gone bad or investigating the latest DUI cover-up, just like the YES network wasn’t the leader on Alex Rodriguez’s steroid admission. Networks like Pac-12 will follow the story, not generate it.
My advice: The Pac-12 Network should avoid doing any type of show that gives the illusion of being “news”. Have a nightly highlight show, report on injuries and preview match-ups…but do us a favor don’t try to pass it off as “Sports News”.
Where the Pac-12 network and their niche brethren should focus is access. Go behind the scenes with the athletes, tour the dorms and the athletic facilities, get inside practices and show the viewers the camaraderie amongst the players. I may not watch a live swimming event, but if you gave a GoPro® wearable and mountable HD camera (pictured right, go ahead click on the ad and buy one for a friend) to one of the swimmers on the day of a big meet and let them tell a first person story, I would watch. If you created a “Season of Dreams” show that followed the baseball team and told their individual stories, I’d watch. They need to use their access to creatively entice viewers to stick around outside of the live programming.
I haven’t even gotten into what this deal will do for recruiting, these teams won’t even need charlatans like Willie Lyles anymore. SEC, Big 12, Big East, ACC…it’s your move.