About one year ago, the first shots were fired in the great push to dethrone ESPN from its perch as the undisputed king of the sports hill. NBC finalized its merger with Comcast, CBS removed the “College” from the CBS College Sports Network, and Fox decided it would be a good time to bring sports back to FX. While the past year has seen some high-profile contracts for them to fight over, from the Olympics to the World Cup, it’s nothing compared to the contracts coming up for bid this year, with MLB, NASCAR, the BCS, and the Big East all coming up for bid. Nonetheless, one year in, let’s take a look at how all the combatants are shaping up.
ESPN: The Worldwide Leader did a decent job defending its title, and seeing the threats on the horizon, making an enemy-of-my-enemy deal with Fox to keep NBC from picking up Pac-12 rights – though one wonders if it reconsidered that move when Fox stole the World Cup rights away from them. Other than Wimbledon, though, ESPN’s only real victories tended to be things no one cared about or things where they were the incumbent, usually with no one else caring. Probably the most notable victory other than the Pac-12 or Wimbledon involved keeping the Indy 500 on ABC rather than let the IndyCar series become an all-NBC affair. ESPN is still the king of the hill and still the ones to beat for any contract, but the fact that the biggest contract to come up for bid this year where ESPN was the incumbent other than Monday Night Football was the World Cup, which ESPN lost, could be foreboding. Grade: C.
NBC: Comcast’s efforts to dethrone ESPN from their perch is off to a rocky start, largely because of how strong Fox has come onto the scene. NBC did win the big fights over the NHL and Olympics, but they were the incumbents in both cases. They did win a slate of MLS games previously held by Fox Soccer Channel, but Fox probably feels that’s a fair trade-off for World Cup rights. They did become the beneficiary of ESPN’s decision to effectively leave the horse racing market, but they were boxed out by ESPN and Fox for Pac-12 rights and lost Wimbledon when ESPN could promise to show more matches live sooner than they could.
The Network Formerly Known as Versus did add a piece of NBC’s Olympic pie, but that will only attract viewers to the network for two weeks every two years, and they added no other games that will attract more viewers than the NHL already does. And the now-NBC Sports Network did add “NBC SportsTalk”, “NFL Turning Point”, and “Costas Tonight” to its repertoire, but the latter two shows aren’t getting any more viewers than Versus’ much-maligned “T.Ocho Show”, and “SportsTalk” is doing far worse than that. A combination of conference realignment, potential changes to the BCS, and the long-term nature of many recent contracts, means that the Big Ten in a few years will be NBC’s last best hope to add truly marquee college football to NBCSN’s slate for a long, long time, and the NFL’s decision to pull Thursday Night Football off the market hurts NBC more than anyone else, requiring them to get something on the scale of MLB or NASCAR to have any hope of challenging ESPN. Grade: C-.
Fox: NBC may have started this fight, but if anyone other than ESPN is winning it it’s definitely Fox. With three different college conferences, the UFC, and the shocker of the past year, the World Cup, Fox got right to work re-establishing sports on FX and making their networks as much of a destination for sports as anyone outside ESPN. Most notably, Fox’s family of networks is fast gaining ground on ESPN as a home for college sports. Fox doesn’t have an all-sports network like ESPN or NBCSN, but they’ve still made clear that this is going to be a three-way fight. Grade: B+.
CBS: Realizing that the CBS Sports Network is a looooong way from challenging for any serious sports rights, CBS stayed largely out of the fray, instead focusing on brands that will build an audience another way: through CBSSN’s non-game programming. To that end, adding Jim Rome to their stable was a shrewd move. The loudmouthed radio host will start a replacement for his old ESPN show “Jim Rome is Burning” on CBSSN in April, instantly bringing a sizable contingent of fans who only ever would have watched CBSSN for the occasional Mountain West or Atlantic-10 game. “ROME” should instantly become CBSSN’s most popular program, and for the moment, it certainly looks to be a faster route to relevance than picking up rights like Major League Lacrosse. Grade: C+.
Turner: Turner was making noise about adding more sports to truTV to build on their NCAA Tournament games, but their only real efforts towards that end seemed to involve the NHL. They were considered the other favorites for Thursday Night Football rights besides Comcast, and now face a very real chance of losing MLB games from TBS and NASCAR from TNT, where both packages are fairly forgotten. This year may be as critical for them as for anyone. Grade: D+.