The post we don’t want ESPN to read

Two weeks ago I did a post on the biggest sports TV ratings of 2008, which went beyond its Sports Media Watch inspiration to cover every sports rating I could find over 2.5 (well, 3.0 anyway), and a few over 2.0. I mentioned that I had found the original post to be one of the most useful references I had in the new year. How useful could such a post be? What can we learn from that post?


We can learn just how devastating the BCS’ move to ESPN really is.


It should hardly be surprising to most people who are paying attention that the BCS Title Game is the biggest event on the sporting calendar outside the NFL or Olympics. It’s got a full two-point margin over its biggest competition, college basketball’s National Championship – but that could easily change with the distribution penalty the Title Game will take from being on cable, especially if the economy drives people to ditch cable or satellite and just go with their antennas. If the depression stretches into 2011, I have a feeling, or at least hope, that ESPN will move at least the Title Game to ABC (and keep the Rose Bowl there).


But if what happened to the BCS Title Game is the wave of the future – big sporting events moving to cable en masse – it becomes imperative that we find real competition to ESPN. ESPN will now not only have the biggest sports property on cable, but the top two in the BCS and Monday Night Football. You have to scroll down to 7.9 to find a cable sports rating held by anyone other than ESPN, and 5.4 to find a second (still behind an unusually strong Home Run Derby). Throw out the Red Sox-Rays series, as you undoubtedly will have to do with TBS picking up the weaker NLCS this year, and you have to go down to 4.8.


The future could be one where ESPN bullies its way to capturing virtually every sport imaginable, marginalizing all but the biggest to smaller channels like ESPN2, and dominating what gets said in the sports conversation. The allegations that it’s guilty of an East Coast/LA bias show that a monopoly is not really something we can trust ESPN with. But no one’s even daring to challenge ESPN’s dominance. Versus was thought to be trying its hand at it… but last week, its president Jamie Davis, interviewed by the Washington Times, denied that ESPN was “what we want to become” and that “we are trying to serve a fan base that we believe has been underserved in the past”. I’m hopeful that Versus’ prior attempts to take baseball or the NFL reflect that there’s more to this than meets the eye, but I’m not optimistic. Other than ESPN and sport-specific networks, the only other cable networks to even appear on this list are TBS and TNT. We’re in trouble if the closest thing we have to competition for ESPN doesn’t even see itself as a sports network, and the biggest non-ESPN sports network doesn’t see itself as competing with ESPN.


Unfortunately, there are pretty slim pickings for a network looking to establish itself as a competitor to ESPN. Aside from the BCS and MNF (and ESPN won’t let go of the latter without a fight with all the NFL programming it has), there’s not much in the way of big events for a cable network to pick out, and before the BCS deal it may have seemed that whatever network controlled the NFL cable contract controlled the world of sports. The NCAA and the major sports are under pressure from Congress to keep their big events on broadcast; the only reason the BCS could shore up with ESPN was because it’s not under the banner of the NCAA, and the non-BCS conferences have been talking about pressing antitrust charges against it anyway.


The only options may be those opened up by the BCS deal, namely the Masters, the Triple Crown races, some high-profile college football games like BCS conference championships and the Capitol One Bowl, and the Final Four and earlier rounds of the NCAA Tournament. I don’t know what their relative commitment to broadcast is; the Masters will probably stay on broadcast for a while, and the Cap One could bolt to ESPN at any moment. But ESPN’s second highest rated MNF game got an 8.7, and the above list consists of the only events I could think of that would top even the fourth highest rated game (7.9). The highest rated of the bunch is an SEC Championship at 9.3 that was an effective BCS semifinal, which you can’t count on; #2 is the Cap One Bowl at 9.1. Even 80% of the 14.4 the BCS Title Game received would be an 11.5, two full ratings points ahead (almost 2.5 over the Cap One). (You might be able to throw the Daytona 500 into the mix as well, but THIS year, it fell below 10.0 if my memory serves me correctly…


(There’s the Olympics, but the Olympics are still legitimately valuable for the broadcast networks.)


The prospects are even bleaker for long-term competition. ESPN has two networks, a connection with a broadcast network, the top sports news web site, a nightly sports highlight show, an international arm, a web-streaming site, a mobile deal and mobile-TV channel, a radio network, a sports news network, a classic sports network that serves as an overflow channel, a college sports network, and a Spanish-language network. To create a compelling bid for just about any sports entity and to truly be seen as an equal with ESPN, you need to be able to compete with almost all those revenue streams.


Fox may be the best positioned with Final Score, News Corporation’s international presence, Fox Sports Radio, Fox Soccer Channel, Fox College Sports, and Fox Sports en Espanol. Indeed Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of most of the regional sports networks was made with creating competition for ESPN in mind, and its failure may have scared off Versus, but what was supposed to be Fox Sports Net’s strength – local programming – turned into its weakness, as many regions pre-empted national programming. The Big 12 and Pac-10 tried to abandon ESPN for a time and put their top cable football games on FSN and TBS, but it only led to people making fun of them for being on FSN. Now FSN has been selling networks like there’s no tomorrow – Chicago, the Bay Area, and New England have all gone from FSN markets to Comcast SportsNet markets, and that’s not counting the ones sold to third parties like FSN New York (now MSG+) or the ones sold to Liberty Media in the DirecTV deal.


Ideally, competition for ESPN would reduce the need and demand for ESPN2, by moving some events that would be on ESPN2 to ESPN. The four major networks all have some online presence, though their streaming capacity varies, as does CNN and Time Warner with SI, USA Today, Sporting News, Yahoo Sports, and AOL Sports/Fanhouse. Yahoo in particular may already have the most popular non-ESPN sports site, so if for some unfathomable reason you don’t already have such a presence, shacking up with Yahoo might be a good approach. (NBC is learning of the perils of launching your own site at too late a date.) Alternately, embracing blogs can help with marketing your brand. An international presence is one of the biggest obstacles unless you’re Fox. For radio, Fox Sports Radio and Sporting News Radio are out there, and Westwood One may be an actual competitor for sports rights (which helps CBS, which owns it). CBS has a top-quality college sports network as well, while NBC would be best positioned other than Fox to launch a Spanish-language sports network alongside Telemundo. (There’s a part of me that wonders if the acquisition of what’s now Universal Sports was made with an eye to becoming a competitor to ESPN.)


Of the above, I think the most important aspect may be the sports highlight show. It may not get a lot of eyeballs, especially in the age of the Internet, but it helps further that notion that you’re a major player. Even if you get the same number of eyeballs as ESPN for big events, people might not associate you with being a leader in sports. Besides, it’s with time on SportsCenter that ESPN blackmails lesser leagues into joining them, or at least that’s the perception. But you need something to promote. You need a reason for sports fans to come back to your network again and again.


Ignoring the NFL, and assuming the BCS moves back to ABC and other big events stay on broadcast, a good way to establish your presence is to have at least an even split of MLB, the NBA, and NASCAR with ESPN. All three are held by ESPN, but all three also have alternate contracts with TBS or TNT, alternate contracts that make them at least equals to ESPN in at least one respect (one LCS, one Conference Finals, and most of the biggest cable races not held at the Brickyard, like the second Daytona race). But even if the Turner networks were to start a sports highlight show and turn one of its networks into a sports hub, they wouldn’t be convincing people to keep coming back again and again nearly as often as ESPN. It’s college sports and other relatively lesser sports that are ESPN’s real hook (not to mention shows like ATH and PTI).


For a network to hold up in comparison to ESPN, at least in my view, it needs to at least tie ESPN by comparison. For all practical purposes, it needs to come close to tying ESPN in the ratings. Outside of the NFL, the largest cable sports ratings in 2008 were:

  • 7.9: ALCS Game 7 (TBS)
  • 5.5: Home Run Derby (ESPN)
  • 5.4: ALCS Game 6 (TBS)
  • 4.8: Western Conference Finals Game 4 (TNT)
  • 4.7: ALCS Game 5 (TBS)
  • 4.6: Western Conference Finals Game 5 (TNT)
  • 4.5: Champs Sports Bowl (ESPN)

There’s a pretty small list of events with ratings 4.5 and above. I didn’t like the move of one LCS to cable, partly because only one LCS was moving there. I might have been okay with both LCSes moving to cable, but Fox needs some sort of presence in the playoffs like ABC does, and you see above that the LCSes can be a more significant property than the NBA’s conference finals. Before the BCS deal, a cable sports rating higher than 5.5 or so may have been sacrilege.


You also see it driven home that not only is Turner the closest thing to competition to ESPN in terms of events, the three networks combine for every cable sports rating over 3.4 in 2008. (Their high ranking may be because the closest thing they have to a connection to a broadcast network is the CW.) FSN and Versus do not even register on the chart at all, failing to break 2.0 nationally even once – but the list does provide a possible template for which sports to go after. First, they need to keep up with ESPN in the acquisition of big events that are currently on broadcast – the ones like the Masters and (what I think is likeliest) the Triple Crown races. In addition to those and the ones listed alongside them above, the US Open in golf, baseball’s All-Star Game, the World Cup, and the Pro Bowl (which will be on ESPN in 2010) should all be targets.


On a larger scale, though, the above list of events that are already on cable provides a basic framework to go after. Simply put: NFL, MLB, NBA. More specifically, the cable NFL package (which I explicitly excluded from this list), Home Run Derby, and the baseball and NBA playoffs. Choose at least one to start building your empire. The easiest picking would probably be baseball, as ESPN is identified too much with its NFL coverage and TNT is identified too much with its NBA coverage. Pick out at least one of the ESPN weekly packages for baseball, plus the Home Run Derby, plus at least a piece of TBS’ playoff coverage. TBS’ Sunday afternoon games are almost a complete flop.


There isn’t much need to go after much else, because taking something away from Turner creates a nice balance between ESPN, Turner, and what I’ll call EK, for ESPN Killer. As long as you seize the Home Run Derby and, if necessary, at least one LCS, you can throw ESPN whatever’s left of the bone you want. And it’s very much within the grasp of Versus to follow through on this in my opinion.


Let’s continue down the list below 4.5:

  • 4.3: Spurs/Hornets Game 7 (TNT)
  • 4.3: Eastern Conference Finals Game 5 (ESPN)
  • 4.3: Allstate 400 at the Brickyard (ESPN)
  • 4.3: Miami (FL) @ Florida (ESPN)
  • 4.2: Eastern Conference Finals Game 6 (ESPN)
  • 4.2: USC @ Oregon State (ESPN)
  • 4.1: Western Conference Finals Game 1 (TNT)
  • 4.1: Tennessee @ UCLA, Labor Day (ESPN)
  • 4.1: ALCS Game 1 (TBS)
  • 4.0: Eastern Conference Finals Game 4 (ESPN)
  • 4.0: Emerald Bowl (ESPN)
  • 3.9: Pocono 500 (TNT)
  • 3.9: Alabama @ Georgia (ESPN)
  • 3.9: Angels/Red Sox Game 3 (TBS)
  • 3.9: Meineke Car Care Bowl (ESPN)
  • 3.9: Alamo Bowl (ESPN)
  • 3.9: Holiday Bowl (ESPN)
  • 3.8: NBA All-Star Game (TNT)
  • 3.8: Coke Zero 400 (TNT)
  • 3.8: Pennsylvania 500 (ESPN)
  • 3.8: ALCS Game 2 (TBS)
  • 3.8: ALCS Game 4 (TBS)

Highlights of this relatively small section include the second NBA contract – the one with ESPN’s half of the conference finals – plus both NASCAR contracts, the NBA All-Star Game, and both regular season and postseason college football games. Only one NASCAR contract and the NBA All-Star Game are on Turner. The rest are on cable.


I’ll get to college football in a second. It goes without saying you want a piece of that action, preferably the top cable contract (not second fiddle like FSN and Versus get with the Big 12 and Pac-10). Throw out the regular season college football, and you want to limit ESPN to half of the second NBA contract, both NASCAR contracts, and bowl games. The bowl games can be thrown out as well, but if both LCSes move to cable, the contract that includes the second LCS comes into play here.


Basically, claim one, and make sure you have no less than one less of what ESPN has. As Turner’s only presence is one of the NASCAR contracts, you probably have to take on ESPN directly here.


I’m going to start my discussion of college with the regular-season conferences, which take care of your needs in football and basketball, so the consideration of balance needs to be made with regards to both. In football, the two “weakling” conferences are the ACC and Big East. In basketball, the two “weaklings” are the Big 12 and Pac-10. Claiming one of each leads to the obvious conclusion that you need to claim one of the remaining two conferences, the SEC or Big 10.


It’s been suggested that recent megacontracts signed with the latter two conferences will give them an edge over the field, especially in college football, so signing a deal with both the Big 12 and Pac-10 and thinking that counts just as well towards your three will lead to a perception you’re signing with two runts, or positioning yourself as a “West Coast network”, especially in conjunction with the Mountain West. I’m looking at you, Versus. But there are major problems going on here. ESPN doesn’t want to give up the Big East because they’re in Bristol near UConn, they don’t want to give up the ACC because they don’t want to lose Duke-UNC, they don’t want to give up the Big Ten and lose Ohio State-Michigan (even though that technically airs on ABC), and you just missed the boat on a hefty 15-year deal with the SEC. Sports on TV as we know it could be dying by the time that deal ends.


The Big 12 and Pac-10 already play a basketball series against one another, so why not split the difference on the other two series, ACC/Big 10 and SEC/Big East? That means the other two conferences are either the SEC and ACC, or the Big 10 and Big East. Whatever you go with, you need to have the first pick of cable networks for at least one conference, and the more bones you throw ESPN the more you need to build your empire even further to compensate.


(The Mountain West could become a BCS conference soon, but the reasons they moved to Versus and the mind-boggling lack of flex scheduling suggest they don’t want Versus to develop the regimentation of time slots in football ESPN has, which is probably required by having so many conferences. That could cut it out of the discussion, and the Mountain West is generally in the lower portion of the BCS conferences anyway.)


Non-BCS conferences are also an important part of the picture, but I’ll get to that later.


What about bowls? FSN’s not going after any, that’s for sure, because of local hockey and NBA coverage. Versus doesn’t want bowls because they want “total immersion” or some such malarkey, but it seems to me that the Las Vegas Bowl – top-line Mountain West against a team from another Versus conference, the Pac-10 – would be perfect for them, serving as a continuation of the “immersion” Versus already provides for those two conferences. Turner has zero presence at the bowls, meaning ESPN dominates the bowl landscape. 23 of 35 bowls, nearly two-thirds, are on ESPN (two more on ABC, the BCS Title Game to air there next year, and three more to move to ESPN in the form of the BCS, bringing the total to over 80%); ESPN is the chief beneficiary of the proliferation of bowls. Not all bowls are equal, but sadly, ESPN tends to lump in even its top bowls with bowls like the Independence Bowl or New Orleans Bowl in its “Bowl Week” promotion.


I averaged the 2005-6 through 2007-8 ratings of all the bowls and came up with these average ratings for the non-BCS bowls (courtesy here):

  1. Capitol One (6.7)
  2. Chick-fil-A (5.0)
  3. Alamo (4.7)
  4. Holiday (4.5)
  5. Cotton (3.63)
  6. Liberty (3.56)
  7. Gator (3.47)
  8. Emerald (3.41)
  9. Outback (3.37)
  10. Meineke Car Care (3.04)
  11. Champs Sports (2.96)
  12. Music City (2.8)
  13. Independence (2.6)
  14. Sun (2.4)
  15. Motor City (2.32)
  16. Las Vegas (2.28)
  17. Armed Forces (2.10)
  18. Hawaii (2.07)
  19. (1.97)
  20. New Mexico (1.89)
  21. Humanitarian (1.58)
  22. GMAC (1.56)
  23. Insight/New Orleans (tie) (1.55)
  24. International (1.45)
  25. Poinsettia (1.447)
  26. Texas (1.3)

Some notes: The EagleBank and St. Petersburg bowls only started this year and aren’t counted. Ratings for the Texas and Insight bowls are depressed by being on NFL Network. Ratings for the Outback Bowl are depressed by airing at 11 AM ET (8 AM PT) against many other bowls, and it deserves better ratings given its conference tie-ins and payout money. Fixing its gametime problem, either by moving to a saner hour or earlier in the week, should be a top priority for the Outback the next time its contract comes up for renewal.


And a shocking number of the highest-rated bowls are on cable.


The broadcast non-BCS bowls are the Cap One on ABC, the Gator and Sun on CBS, and the Cotton on Fox. The Chick-fil-A, Alamo, and Holiday bowls all beat all the broadcast bowls except the Cap One, and the Liberty Bowl beats both CBS bowls. The position of the Sun on broadcast despite iffy ratings is probably because of the potential of Notre Dame going there, which also explains why the Gator and Sun are on broadcast instead of better conference tie-ins. (Both bowls have their potential Big 12 tie-ins ranking behind the Holiday, and ditto for the Sun’s Pac-10 #3. When the Sun picks a Big 12 team it picks behind the Alamo, and the Gator’s ACC #3 pick is behind the Chick-fil-A… which itself picks its SEC pick after the Outback.)


Based on these ratings, the bowl payouts, and more than anything else the quality of the conference tie-ins, I came up with a ranking of the non-BCS bowls:

  1. Capitol One
  2. Cotton
  3. Outback
  4. Chick-fil-A
  5. Holiday
  6. Gator
  7. Alamo
  8. Champs Sports
  9. Sun
  10. Liberty
  11. Music City
  12. Emerald
  13. Meineke Car Care
  14. Insight
  15. Independence
  16. Las Vegas
  17. Motor City
  18. GMAC
  19. Humanitarian
  20. Hawaii
  21. Poinsettia
  22. Armed Forces
  24. International
  25. New Mexico
  26. New Orleans
  27. St. Petersburg
  28. EagleBank
  29. Texas

I identified several subdivisions where the comparison was closer than others. If you’re running EK, you’re paying attention to this list of conference tie-ins, but you’re ALSO paying attention to the above list of TV ratings. The latter is what you really want, but you can turn the former into the latter if you try. Assuming the broadcast/cable status quo holds, that means, from a TV rating perspective, an emphasis on the Alamo, Chick-fil-A, and Holiday. Throw the Outback on there, since its conference tie-ins warrant it, and the Champs Sports after its gerbonkers ratings this year. I’m tempted to add the Liberty as well for its ratings and position on the tie-in list, but that’s opening up a can of worms. Of the first five, claim two – and make sure at least one more is taken from ESPN if one of the bowls you claim is the Champs Sports. (Replace the Champs Sports with the Liberty if you want.)


So we consider the Liberty (or Champs Sports), we throw in the Emerald and the Music City to fill the gap, and throw in the Meineke Car Care bowl as well. Split them half and half? Maybe. Consider, too, though, that the Insight would probably get better ratings if it were off NFL Network. Fairness dictates you also consider the Independence and Las Vegas bowls, and may-y-ybe the Motor City Bowl. Everything else is comparatively minor and not worth worrying about, but it might still be worth going after anyway.


(Note that most people don’t see it this way. A matchup between two BCS conferences is all they see that’s valuable. The Las Vegas Bowl is valued much lower than this by most people. The Pac-10 is considered to deserve better for its fourth or fifth line. The Mountain West actually does deserve better for its first – though it would suddenly make some sense on the off chance the MWC joins the BCS. Why the Liberty Bowl ranks so highly is beyond me, but tradition probably has a lot to do with it.)


Look at the ratings chart. By seizing only the bowls that matter, you’ve pretty much guaranteed yourself that your bowl coverage will almost exclusively (maybe one exception, two if you’re unlucky) get ratings large enough to make my end-of-year chart. Some bowls are better for this than others; I recommend getting bowls that align with your own conference tie-ins. If you’re going the SEC/ACC route, pick up the Chick-fil-A bowl and either the Holiday, Outback, Champs Sports, or Liberty Bowl (or a combination of two of those, preferably not Champs Sports AND Liberty). The Alamo might be an option as well if you have a tie-in with the Big 12. For the second tier, pick up the Music City Bowl and one other; if you pick up the Pac-10, that one other should probably be the Emerald. If you pick up the Big 12 instead, in addition to whatever you do pick the Independence Bowl is a good investment.


If you go with the Big 10 and Big East, a lot depends on your third conference. Align with the Big 12, and the Alamo becomes a must. Even without it that and the Holiday are good choices, though the Outback is an option as well. In the second tier the Meineke Car Care bowl is almost a must-have, just to be sure you have a Big East bowl; the Big East’s other non-broadcast bowl tie-ins fall below the cut line. The Champs Sports becomes a must if you’re aligned with the Big 12, unless ESPN throws you an SEC or ACC bone (unless you’re with Conference USA, as we’ll get to later); otherwise the Emerald Bowl is also an option. Pick up the Big 12 and the Insight is a good investment, maybe even imperative (they’ll certainly be begging to be taken off NFL Network), as well (the Big 10 and Big 12 have a lot of bowl tie-ins with each other). With the Big Ten, the Motor City becomes very interesting indeed.


A note on non-BCS conferences, because if you have just three BCS conferences ESPN can still push itself as the leader in college sports (and you can’t launch a college sports channel to compete with ESPNU). Non-BCS conferences become especially important with the splitting of the BCS conferences, because they could well get more play as gap-fillers. (Especially if you launch a competitor to ESPN2.) In football, there are four non-BCS conferences that matter: the Mountain West, WAC, MAC, and Conference USA. The Sun Belt is too crappy to matter, although taking away one conference like the Mountain West to Versus arguably means we should put the Sun Belt back in to replace it. But before splitting the difference we need to consider the very different scenario in college basketball.


The goal in college basketball, in my view, is to render BracketBusters meaningless outside of what we might call the “low-majors” or even “minors”. A comparison of four-year average RPI shows that, despite the lack of distinction I make in my annual “mid-major conference”, there is a distinction between one “higher” class of mid-major conference, and most of the other conferences, not as large as the gap between the majors and the mid-majors, but significant nonetheless – and in fact there’s a definite spectrum, where some conferences are fairly objectively better than others, even if the rankings of the conferences in-between are far from clear.


The Mountain West, mired on Versus, doesn’t participate in BracketBusters. Is that because they want to see themselves as a major conference, or because ESPN is excluding a conference that doesn’t have a deal with them? If someone took away enough mid-majors, you wouldn’t want ESPN to put conferences into BracketBusters far ahead of the rest of the field simply because they had a deal with them, would you? That would appear to be favoritism.


Three conferences in particular are strong enough to occasionally approach the status of the major conferences. I dare you to find a conference since the shake-up of Conference USA to finish first among the mid-majors not named the Missouri Valley, the Mountain West, and the Atlantic 10. The Mountain West is mired on Versus and ESPN sometimes seems unnaturally obsessed with the A-10 in mid-major terms, leaving the Valley for EK – although after several years of the Valley occasionally finishing ahead of the major conferences in conference RPI, they finished behind the A-10 last year and similarly have only one serious at-large contender this year, so they may be on the decline.

The other true mid-majors are Conference USA, the WAC, the WCC, the CAA, the MAC, and the Horizon League. The Sun Belt is in a weird in-between state between the mid-majors and the low-majors, though they’re closer to the low majors. Obviously, those six should be split half and half, but use caution. Conference USA and the WCC are both more valuable than the middle-pack teams in their league would suggest, because of the presence of major-caliber programs Memphis and Gonzaga respectively. (C-USA actually has a very slight lead over the A-10, in fact.) We’ve seen just how much Gonzaga adds to the value of the WCC to ESPN. Taking at least one of those is imperative, even if you otherwise discount the value of the mid-majors, and no way ESPN is letting you take both.
On the flip side, there’s a danger in putting both West Coast leagues on one network, especially paired with the Mountain West (the MWC and WAC together is enough of a concern for football), and getting branded as a “West Coast” network. So: either C-USA and WAC or WCC and MAC, with the CAA and Horizon split whichever way works out (although the Horizon is on average worse than the other mid-majors, except for Butler which may be joining Memphis/Gonzaga as major programs). The remaining conferences are like minor bowls: go after them, but don’t make them a priority.
(While you’re at it, pick up that “College Basketball Invitational” oddity to make it stronger – they’re trying to be an NIT competitor, not the third-tier tournament – and balance ESPN’s coverage of the NIT.)
Those are the important parts. But there are other things you should keep in mind if you really want to create a viable competitor to ESPN:
  • Golf often gets forgotten in the “major sports”, with all the talk of the modern Big Four (NFL, NBA, MLB, NASCAR) and the two college sports, but its ratings are on par with any other, even for certain non-majors Tiger doesn’t attend, and it even gets coverage on par from ESPN and others, even if it sometimes seems Tiger-centric. The whole sport has been moving to Golf Channel in recent years on all levels, increasing the importance of the majors. ESPN just claimed the entire British Open for its cable network, and the other majors could follow; even for those majors that stay on broadcast, coverage of the first two rounds is important. Split them half and half, and make sure it’s not a situation where you have two first-two-rounds contracts and ESPN has two whole-tournament contracts.
  • The NHL and IRL (along with tennis) are significantly ahead of most of the other detritus, like MLS and the WNBA, that make up the high-minor sports. These sorts of things are the mid-majors, and both of these two in particular are ESPN’s bread and butter. But ESPN may be smarting from losing the IRL and the NHL may be smarting from losing ESPN. We can allow ESPN to reclaim one, but not both.
  • Soccer has a lot of levels and competitions, and ideally there should be plenty for you. In fact true soccer connosieurs have plenty of options for their soccer palate beyond ESPN, including Fox Soccer Channel, which currently has US rights to the English Premier League and Italy’s Serie A. ESPN is making a solid play for the Premier League, and it may appear that EK’s best approach is the third European major league, the Spanish league. But both Spain and the German Bundesliga have their outpost on GOL TV, and those who have it, from what I’ve read, like it far better than Fox Soccer; the problem is it has limited distribution, and because of a bilingual gimmick is often consiged to Spanish-language packages. I don’t think it’s owned by a larger conglomerate at the moment, so trying to hitch your wagon to it and trying to grow its distribution might be a good idea. (ESPN was once rumored to be turning ESPN Classic into its own soccer network.) If all else (including, if need be, France or Mexico) fails, there’s always MLS.
  • But really, all these pale in comparison to the major soccer competitions worldwide: the World Cup, the European Championship (the title game of which, which the US has no stake in, registered on my chart, thus more than doubling almost any MLS game), and the UEFA Champions League. And all three run on ESPN. That needs to change.
  • Tennis is the same as golf. ESPN just triumphantly claimed all four of tennis’ Grand Slams, inheriting the US Open after USA pulled out of sports. The US Open considered an offer from Versus, which would have been great for Versus, bad for the USTA, and good for anyone looking for an ESPN competitor. (Now that we know Versus is the wrong place to look for one, it’s just all bad.) As with golf, split the difference.
  • Other sports: MMA? (UFC runs on Spike and sister promotion WEC runs on Versus. Various competitors keep springing up.) Horse racing? (NBC runs two Triple Crown races and ABC runs one, while ESPN runs the Breeder’s Cup.) Poker? (Look up Poker on Wikipedia and, along with ESPN’s World Series of Poker, the World Poker Tour is credited with poker’s rise in popularity. After getting placed on odd networks like the Travel Channel and GSN, it’s now on once-ESPN competitor FSN.) Lacrosse? (Split between ESPN’s outdoor MLL and the indoor, and barely covered stateside, NLL.) “Action sports”? Outdoor programming like fishing? Rodeo? (The PBR already runs on Versus.) Volleyball? Bowling? Cricket? Rugby? Don’t forget those high minors of MLS, WNBA (probably hitched to the NBA), and Arena Football (which ESPN partially owns right now and which is collapsing anyway).

This is really more important than any other consideration right now: it’s even harder to rise up to the level of ESPN right now. ESPN will stumble through the recession like any other business, but to try and start a competitor from scratch may be suicide. In retrospect, the last glimmer of a window for at least several years, maybe ever, for a competitor to ESPN may have closed this past fall with the SEC and BCS deals; for there to not even be a network on the rise, the closest things being FSN and Versus (and Turner if they wanted to become a full-fledged sports destination), does not bode well for any real challenger to ESPN to show up anytime soon. The one saving grace is that an ESPN stumbling through recession is an ESPN with less money to spend on rights fees, but chances are a potential ESPN competitor is hemmoraging money as well, or doesn’t have any and is finding it hard to get any starting capital. Although it’ll claim it’s not a monopoly because of the existence of the broadcast networks and competing sports sites, all things considered, it’s ESPN’s world and we’re all just paying the rent, and realistically, that’s not changing in the near future.

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