An Open Letter to Steve Ballmer

A while back I heard that you had rejected a $60 million dollar offer from Fox Sports to renew their contract to show Clippers games and were considering setting up your own streaming service.

I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. You leaped pretty much directly from being the CEO of Microsoft to owning the Clippers. At Microsoft, you’ve been immersed in the pace of technological change and the increasing role computers have played in our lives for virtually the company’s entire ascent; once in charge, you saw a path for Microsoft to remain relevant in a tablet world, a path that gave Microsoft its biggest OS embarrassment this side of Vista (also released during your tenure) in the short term but which Apple recently affirmed the wisdom of. You already dipped your toe in the streaming-video revolution with the XBox. You see the direction technology is going and the revolution that is already upending the cable industry and the business model Fox’s RSNs run on, and you want to blaze a trail with a new business model in a territory you’re more familiar with than any other owner of a professional sports team not named Paul Allen. You want to set the course for the professional sports team business model of the future that teams around the country hope to follow. So what’s the best business model to go with?

Let’s say you decide to put up a paywall and offer Clippers games as a subscription service. A source quoted in the New York Post thinks you could make up for the money lost by not taking the Fox deal by selling subscriptions for $12 a month to 500,000 homes. Without even looking I’m pretty confident in saying the average audience for Clippers games on Prime Ticket isn’t even a third of that as it is. So let’s assume that, regardless of price, the most households you can get to subscribe to a service that’s offering just Clippers games is 150,000. To make up the $60 million Fox is offering, you’d need to charge $400 a season. Even at $35 a month, that’s going to cut off a substantial number of households that can’t afford that much, forcing you to increase the price higher, forcing more homes out of the service, and so on. That’s before production costs Fox would have covered as well as the costs of hosting the games on your server and sending it out to customers.

Okay, so you don’t care about how profitable the deal is in the short term; you’re getting out in front on a business model that’s more sustainable than what Fox has and you want to control it all yourself. So long as it’s profitable or even takes a loss in the short term, you’re building a streaming infrastructure you can sell out to other teams and taking in all the advertising money instead of letting Fox take it. But even with all that, there’s another, deeper problem. LA is a frontrunning town to begin with, and despite your recent success and the Lakers’ recent floundering, you’re still very much the #2 team in LA, with even record low Lakers ratings not being enough to fall behind the Clippers. The Clippers aren’t even like most other places with two teams in the same sport (including LA’s baseball and hockey teams) in that they don’t draw from any particular geographic area; no one, I suspect, is truly a diehard Clippers fan, they just follow the Clippers because they can’t bring themselves to root for the Lakers. (In other words, most of your fans are probably Bill Simmons-types, in that they’re expatriates from other places who hate the Lakers too much to shift their allegiance to them but still want to see basketball games regularly as long as they’re in LA.) Donald Sterling’s decades of incompetence isn’t going to be washed away overnight; as successful as the Clippers have been in the last few years of Sterling’s tenure and the start of yours, it’s going to take many, many years, maybe generations, to build a fanbase that’ll follow your team through thick and thin, and that assumes nothing goes wrong in the meantime, that the Clippers will remain as successful and attractive as it is today. Your reign has already shown signs of mismanagement of its own, even if not at Sterling levels; what happens if Jimmy Buss gets forced out somehow, either relinquishing control of the Lakers to the more competent Jeanie or outright selling the team?

You’re counting on the team being and remaining attractive enough that people will pay up to see your team’s games that aren’t on national television. If the team starts to fall back to earth, people will cancel their subscriptions and you’ll have less revenue, and it’ll be that much harder to get back to where you were before. To those people, your team will become all but invisible, even further out of the LA sports conversation than under Sterling, and it’ll be that much harder to get those people back if the team does get good again. That’s before even considering all the fans you’d be pricing out of the market to begin with, or the casual fans who won’t elect to pay you for games they might not watch that much of and whom it’ll be that much more difficult to turn into hardcore fans who will pay.

Okay, so let’s say you go in the complete opposite direction and offer Clippers games to everyone in your television territory for free. You could even go one step further and offer Clippers games to everyone period for free, and try to build the team up as “America’s Team”, but the NBA is likely to frown on that; you’d be undercutting the NBA League Pass package and the RSN deals of all your opponents. So let’s just restrict it to your TV territory for now.

According to the Los Angeles Times, last season Clippers games averaged a 1.04 rating on Prime Ticket, a decline from either 1.25 or 1.27 the previous season. That means 1.04% of all television households were watching a Clippers game at any given time over the course of the season. That may not sound like much, but during the 2014-15 season the Los Angeles market boasted 5.5 million households with television. 1.04% of that number is a little under 58,000. Since you’re offering games for free to people who may have cut the cord, we can assume the number could climb a little higher; 1.25-1.27% would bring the number to around 70,000, but for particularly attractive games the number could top 100,000. Are you ready to provide the infrastructure required to deliver Clippers games to 100,000 devices at once, without buffering, lag, or other problems, especially as audiences demand better picture quality through technologies such as 4K? Can you handle the even larger audiences that would come with an “America’s Team” strategy?

This is why the prospect of streaming disrupting the live-event market in the way it’s disrupted the market for on-demand shows has always been overblown. The true reason sports has become so important to the linear television industry is that it’s the one place where linear television’s strengths shine – its ability to scale to deliver content to many people at once. That doesn’t mean you aren’t smart for blowing off Fox – they can only pay you $60 million because they charge hefty subscription fees to every household in the LA area that subscribes to cable, and if only 70-100,000 of them watch Clippers games (and it’s not like the Kings, Ducks, and high-school and lower-tier college sports are that much more popular), the rest of them aren’t going to take it much longer, and it won’t be long before that $60 million rights fee evaporates. Does that leave you completely trapped? Is there a way forward towards pioneering a new sports-rights paradigm for the twenty-first century suited for the challenges inherent in it?

Yes, and it’s a decidedly retro one: sign a contract with a group of broadcast stations.

Due to its size and relative isolation, Los Angeles has pretty much the most broadcast television stations in the country, even if a good number of them are foreign-language and other multicultural stations. Leaving aside the Big Four affiliates, KTLA, KCAL, KCOP, and KDOC are all general entertainment stations with histories with sports, and the first three have all aired Clippers games at various times in the past. As has always been the case all over the country when broadcast stations have aired local sports, they never aired more than a small smattering of Clippers games, which opened the door for regional sports networks to take the rest and, in most cases (including the Clippers), ultimately take them all. For this strategy, which is also a strategy for the very survival of broadcast television itself, that’s going to have to change.

The key is that, in the long term, this strategy is really a modification of the offer-games-for-free strategy, except it’s moving the delivery mechanism to one that’s better suited to the task, one that can better handle large audiences tuning in for at least the highest-demand games, and one that requires considerably less expenditure on infrastructure to start. You’re still producing the games yourself and controlling their distribution and advertising revenue; you’re simply syndicating the games to broadcast stations within your TV footprint as a means to manage demand while maximizing exposure, giving stations control of a small percentage of advertising in the process to target their specific markets. Selling advertising on the traditional linear television model may give you the chance to increase ad rates compared to the usual online model of serving up custom ads based on users’ personal information, a model there’s a lot of resistance to.

The amount broadcast stations can pay you will probably still be inflated by the cable bundle as stations hope to use Clippers games to maximize retransmission consent revenue, but if there’s no major change in the regulatory environment in the near term and cable operators continue to try to prop up their subscriber numbers with “skinny bundles”, that market may remain intact for longer than you think, or at least longer than the RSN market will. Moreover, in the long term linear television of all stripes, broadcast and cable, will be as much a demand-management mechanism for broadband providers as anything else. A typical optical node on a cable operator’s network, which serves as the last relay point before reaching individual households, serves 500-2000 homes, according to Wikipedia; even on the low end of that scale, if 1.04% of those homes are trying to watch a Clippers game that amounts to at least five households, which may not sound like much but which means serving them all with a single linear television stream could reduce the bandwidth demands to a fifth of what they would be otherwise. With continued technological development, especially the advent of ATSC 3.0 which should be finalized by this time next year, you should be able to reach a wide variety of devices with a bare minimum of need for the Internet to deliver video, including being able to reach mobile devices without needing to use viewers’ data plans or going through wireless carriers, something a cable network or streaming service can’t do. People could use any Internet-capable device, including what we call a television today, to watch the game directly from the broadcast signal (or a relay thereof sent over Wi-Fi) while going through the Clippers’ web site.

Of course, all this assumes the broadcast stations in question are even interested. KCOP is owned by Fox, the very same entity whose $60 million offer you rebuffed, and they are not going to take part in undermining their RSN hegemony and substantial investment in cable networks – unless you convince them that that hegemony and those cable networks are going to crumble anyway and at least this allows them to get a piece of your streaming plan and salvage something from the ashes. CBS, which owns KCAL, might be more receptive but has enough cable dreams and investment in retransmission consent of their own to be hesitant. KTLA might have a different problem – the prospect of regularly pre-empting CW network shows – and would only really be an option to the degree we’d like if the CW shuts down or Tribune no longer takes part in it, and KDOC is the smallest of the four stations we’re considering, and might well put up its spectrum for bid in next year’s incentive auction. But that just underscores the importance and impact what you do could have on two industries – and the urgency of it. We already know anything other than the traditional RSN model will help set the tone for the local sports media landscape of the future. But signing up with a group of broadcast stations won’t just establish an infrastructure that might be, technically, the best one available, one with direct and indirect benefits to numerous parties. By pointing the way forward to an era of increased importance and relevance, it might just save the broadcast television industry from itself.

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