The new broadcast partner for Conference USA is known as beIN Sports. Its original owner, Al Jazeera, launched the sports network in 2012. (beIN SPORTS dissociated itself from Al Jazeera Media Network, and is now independent.)
beIN Sports supposedly claims 45 million subscribers in the United States, yet to receive the network, one must subscribe to a premium sports package. It primarily airs soccer, and other European-based sports, and it's not really known for its involvement with U.S.-based sports.
Still, beIN Sports is probably a better sports partner for Conference USA than the American Sports Network is because, while it’s actually possible for Houstonians to get beIN Sports, there’s no way for Houstonians to get ASN because ASN is actually nothing more than a string of TV stations owned by the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, and there are no TV stations in the Houston area owned by Sinclair Broadcasting.
These broadcast partners matter to Houston for two reasons: First is the very basic reason that a majority of C-USA’s football and basketball games for the next several years will be broadcast on either beIN Sports or ASN, which means that Houston followers of Rice athletics will have trouble watching their team play games. The other reason is that C-USA did deals with these two networks because of a decided lack of interest from the big-boy networks.
C-USA did re-up for several more years with CBS Sports Network, and ESPN has actually signed on to broadcast the conferences’s football title game as well as broadcasting five football games in 2016 and five in 2017. But Fox Sports opted not to renew with the conference. That means C-USA is taking a major hit when it comes to the money it earns off its media rights — estimates are the league is going from earning more than seven million a year in media rights fees to just over a million. And the less money the conference makes, the less money the member schools get.
It’s a strange time for sports leagues, conferences, teams and media outlets. While the NFL just got a huge increase for the rights to Thursday Night Football, and the NCAA just gouged CBS and Turner for a 40 percent increase for the men’s basketball championship tournament, others are being forced to take far less money than they were receiving in the past, if they can even get others to pay any money.
The Tennis Channel was unable to sublicense a French Open package to any of the major networks, and the International Champions Cup, which had played to good ratings for Fox in years past, found Fox was no longer interested and ended up agreeing to a deal with ESPN for just over a half-million a year after having been in a three-year deal with Fox that netted just a bit more than $2.2 million.
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The lower rights fees for the likes of Conference USA come amid bad times for the sports networks. ESPN has reportedly lost more than seven million subscribers since 2013, and it has been bleeding employees and talent as it attempts to rein in costs. And FS1, which has yet to get close to ESPN’s subscriber base, has reportedly lost more than two million subscribers since 2013. And the fewer the subscribers, the less money made by the networks, and the less money made by the networks, the less money there is that can be paid for media rights.
Much of what has driven sports in the past several years has been the money from media rights. Major League Baseball has gone the regional route, with numerous teams starting their own regional sports networks that allow the teams to keep the money earned off of subscriber fees. But the cable and satellite providers have been proving less and less willing to fork out the money that comes from the subscriber fees. One of the reasons CSN Houston failed was that providers like U-verse and DirecTV refused to sign deals with the network. That in turn meant that the Astros weren’t receiving the money the network owed for the media rights. And the regional network owned by the Los Angeles Dodgers has yet, after several years, to reach agreement with Cox Cable or with DirectTV, thus keeping the Dodgers off of a lot of L.A.-area televisions.
So if ESPN and FS1 keep bleeding subscribers, they’ll have to start treating more and more leagues and conferences the way Conference USA is being treated. And if the providers refuse to pay the subscriber fees sought by the likes of ESPN, FS1 and the hundreds of thousands of regional sports networks, then that’ll make for even fewer dollars to be paid out to teams, leagues and conferences. That in turn means less money for the teams to pay in salaries, and it likely means a rise in ticket prices, and it could, in turn, lead once again to labor unrest.
Meanwhile, there are Houston and Rice fans who once again will have trouble seeing their teams play on television in Houston. It’s not like Conference USA had too many other options when it came to getting a media rights deal, but the fact that the best it could do is a deal with a syndicated network that has no stations in Houston, one of the country’s largest media markets, is troubling. But at least there’s beIN Sports.