There was a lot of misinformed discussion several weeks ago when ESPN announced a series of layoffs of on-air and behind the scenes personnel. The firings were another in a continuing series of moves by the network and its owner over the past several year to rein in costs. Many suggested this was the result of a perceived liberal bias at the network, but the reality is different.
Costs need to be controlled because the network, along with lots of cable networks, has been bleeding viewers over the past several years as so-called cord cutters have made use of new technology to drop cable television and get away from expensive cable bundles. So with fewer possible viewers, ESPN makes less money off advertising and subscriber fees.
While ESPN is shedding employees, in years to come, the question is going to be whether or not to dump the rights to various sporting events, leagues and college conferences. Because while ESPN can save some money cutting staff, the biggest money drain for the company comes from the dollars it pays out to the NFL, NBA, MLB and multiple college conferences. And with these deals due to expire in the years ahead, a huge change in the sports broadcast model may follow.
Let’s look for example at Conference USA, which includes Rice. C-USA is one of the first of the conferences to experience the financial hiccups arising from the cable model. The conference's TV deals expired after the 2016 sports seasons, and the result was not pretty. Fox Sports Net dropped the conference completely. ESPN entered into a reduced deal that has the network broadcasting just five regular season football games and the conference title game. CBS Sports Network stuck around, but again, will show just a few games.
These new deals saw the amount of television money received by each conference school drop from an estimated $1 million a year to about $400,000, which places a tremendous amount of stress on school budgets.
C-USA does have two other TV deals, the first being an agreement with beIN Sports. Known primarily for airing European-based sports events and lots of soccer, beIN last season aired ten football games, ten basketball games and numerous other conference sports. The other TV deal was with the American Sports Network — a network of TV stations owned by the Sinclair Broadcasting Group and some other stations that agreed to syndicate the package. The bad news for Rice sports fans was that Sinclair owned no stations in Houston, thus effectively keeping Rice sports off of the air in Houston.
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But this broadcasting model might again be changing for C-USA and for Rice. ASN has been merged into a group being run by Internet sports content provider Campus Insiders. And Campus Insiders has formed a group called Stadium. Stadium will, like Campus Insiders, stream games on the Internet and over Sling TV, but it will also be streaming content, including C-USA games, for free, on Twitter.
Unfortunately for Rice and the other schools of Conference USA, the Twitter deal appears to be part of its deal with ASN, which means that there will be no additional funds for the strapped athletic department budgets of conference schools. But the new platform will provide fans of Rice and other schools a better opportunity to view team events.
The sports TV rights apocalypse has been rumored to be happening for several years now. The layoffs at ESPN, the inability of Fox Sports One to grab viewers, and the problems various regional sports networks have had over the years in signing carriage deals (as with the failed CSN Houston) have been proclaimed as the harbingers of sports TV doomsday.
It’s probably many more years before the NFL, NBA, MLB and major college conferences feel the financial bites suffered by ESPN employees and Conference USA. But if that day does eventually happen, the travails of Conference USA might make for good study material, and it’s very possible that C-USA will be at the forefront when it comes to streaming games on Twitter.