Does ESPN Have a Fixed Cost Problem?

Recently ESPN President John Skipper was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal about the numerous challenges facing the company in the age of cord-cutting, as became apparent over the past year. Here’s a telling excerpt from the interview:

WSJ: A lot of your sports rights deals are locked in for years. Given how pay TV is changing, how will that affect your negotiations with the leagues?

Mr. Skipper: It’s too soon to predict. Sports is a growth business. I think it would be foolish to predict that sports rights (prices) will decline. We hold more sports rights than the rest of the sports media combined. All we have to do is use all those rights to create continuing growth in revenue to cover them. To date, we’ve demonstrated that we’ve been able to do so, and I’m highly confident we will continue.

WSJ: Do you have any wiggle room with your league partners to adjust payments if things change and cord-cutting really picks up? Would you want that flexibility?

Mr. Skipper: We don’t have any contingent payment plans. We have rights agreements with defined payments. It’s probably not practical. I wouldn’t particularly entertain it if people came to me and said, “Gee, I’d like to do a deal with you, but if the economy’s worse I’d like to pay you less.”

Of course, there’s a big difference between a sluggish economy and cord-cutting: a sluggish economy is, in theory, a temporary phenomenon. Cord-cutting is a permanent shift in the way we consume our entertainment, and while declaring it a fad that’ll end once my generation has kids might be a good way to try and delude Wall Street into keeping investing into the business, deluding yourself into thinking that to the point of making long-term decisions based on that assumption would seem to be suicide. Indeed, BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield, perhaps the loudest voice on Wall Street casting doubt on ESPN’s long-term viability in the age of cord-cutting, identifies this as the single biggest fatal flaw that could come back to bite ESPN later:


Most of these sports, of course, ESPN “overpaid” for under a very different set of assumptions, that of the sports TV wars and the need and desire to keep valuable sports out of the hands of Fox and Comcast (the latter of which Greenfield has acknowledged elsewhere). In retrospect of course, the best approach for ESPN might have been to let Fox and Comcast have valuable sports to shore up the cable bundle, but to some extent they did that, particularly by tag-teaming with Fox on a number of rights. In the case of the NBA deal, Adam Silver quoted ESPN a price that Fox and Comcast were willing to pay, and ESPN could either pay that price, or wait for the exclusive negotiation window to end, at which point either the price would go up, Fox or Comcast would steal the rights away from ESPN, or both. Perhaps in retrospect ESPN should have let Fox or Comcast steal the rights and have them take the financial hit, but that would mean ESPN wouldn’t be able to sell NBA games (its most valuable non-football content) as part of any hypothetical future direct-to-consumer offering, and more to the point, Fox or Comcast would. As much as ESPN might suffer from accelerated cord-cutting, as it stands they’re much more able to monetize the rights they do have than Fox or Comcast, and those two companies might be poised to suffer much more (especially Fox), though their regional sports network interests might help offset that. It’s worth noting that ESPN consciously left a number of potential rights deals on the table, most notably NASCAR, in order to save up for an NBA deal, so it’s not like ESPN had the right to spend like Midas before; after all, even before cord-cutting became a household word, Disney was vigorously fighting a la carte bills in Congress. (And while ESPN and the NBA haven’t launched the OTT service that was part of the deal yet, its very inclusion as part of the deal suggests ESPN has taken at least some steps to shore up its empire against cord-cutting.)

Skipper argues that his company’s deals allow them to increase revenue, both by selling ads against the content and by using it as justification to raise subscriber fees further. So long as the cable bundle continues to exist, that’s true, even in the face of cord-cutting: the more audiences that find indispensable content locked up with ESPN, and thus find ESPN itself indispensable, the more indispensable ESPN is to cable operators, the more indispensable the cable bundle as a whole is to people that might otherwise consider cord-cutting, and the more audiences find value in any offering that has ESPN in it. Of course, I would argue that because of how much non-sports fans have been subsidizing sports networks, sports networks are probably overvalued compared to if they had to stand and fall on their own merits, so if the cable bundle completely broke up ESPN’s revenues would have no choice but to decline – the commonly-quoted $30 a month ESPN would supposedly have to charge to break even on an over-the-top offering is based on how many people would subscribe to ESPN in an a la carte world in the abstract, divorced from price, or at best at the $8 a month price ESPN and ESPN2 charge cable operators now, without regard for how many people wouldn’t be able to afford it at $30 a month. But realistically, the cable bundle isn’t going to break up tomorrow; Dave Warner estimates that, given ESPN’s continued carriage fee hikes, it wouldn’t even start making less money than the prior year until at least another year from now, and those losses wouldn’t become catastrophic until 2019 or 2020 at the earliest. By that point it’ll be time to renegotiate the Major League Baseball and Monday Night Football deals, allowing those deals, at least, to be brought up to date with the new reality, if ESPN’s able and willing to keep them at all, though it’ll be stuck with the NBA and college sports deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year until mid-decade and running the SEC Network into the 2030s.

But even if cord-cutting reaches the point that ESPN finds itself caught between deals signed under a very different environment and a present-day environment that doesn’t allow them to monetize it, there’s one more factor that could allow them to renegotiate many of those deals or may have justified the negotiation of contingency plans that go beyond a “sluggish economy”: sports entities would be just as upset about a contracting ESPN as ESPN is, even if they’d still be collecting the same money.

The College Football Playoff is the example I always bring up on this front. When the BCS first signed its blockbuster deal moving the Rose Bowl and college football’s national championship to cable in 2008, they made a lot of noise about how people wouldn’t be deprived of the games because ESPN was in the vast majority of homes and those homes it wasn’t in tended to fall outside of valuable advertising demographics, were disproportionately less likely to watch the games to begin with, or otherwise wouldn’t represent any big loss for ESPN and the BCS. That’s not a given anymore; my generation lies right at the heart of the cord-cutting movement, and as I alluded to earlier, not every sports fan, even those that find ESPN indispensable, will be able to pay $30 a month for it. I have always said that no major sports competition wants to go the way of boxing, with all the fights anyone would care about on premium cable and pay-per-view, and $30-a-month a la carte ESPN would be even more of a luxury than HBO, indeed would cost twice as much. There’s no way college football would want its national championship hitched to that wagon (assuming they actually want the playoff to succeed); the entire sport’s mindshare would plummet.

So if cord-cutting started accelerating to the point where ESPN is in only a third of households, I would imagine the CFP would want the playoff moved to ABC, and in return ESPN would be able to win lower rights-fee payments. Similarly, the NBA could win more regular-season and playoff games on ABC in exchange for lower rights fees, and the same might go for college conferences although there would be more restrictions there (in football, most of them are probably already on ABC as much as they realistically can be, except for the SEC which has exclusivity with CBS). This process is already starting: witness the move to simulcast this year’s NFL Wild Card playoff game on ABC, as well as the much-hyped move of regular-season NBA games to ABC Saturday Primetime, even if they’re coming out of ABC’s Sunday slate at the moment.

Of course, this depends heavily on broadcasting itself continuing to remain viable, and I’m not sure it should continue to be necessarily free if it does. Still, the fact remains that the cord-cutting revolution is going to put a big hurt on all media companies, and ESPN might be able to weather it better than most, and have a better chance of getting out from under the rights-fee payments Greenfield worries about than the text of the contracts might suggest. A big bellwether is going to be the Big Ten negotiations that should wrap up sometime this year; the most likely outcome seems to be ESPN and Fox sharing the rights, and for ESPN to leave them on the table entirely would effectively be admitting that Greenfield is right and ESPN has paid too much for sports rights overall and is now trying to ratchet them down quickly in the age of cord-cutting, to the point of letting competitors have a property as valuable as the Big Ten, which may be second only to the SEC among college conferences. At the same time, it would be foolish to simply ignore cord-cutting and the prospects for its continuation when valuing the Big Ten rights, so if ESPN and Fox pay in the same vicinity of what they would have paid in the pre-cord cutting era, it might be less a mistake in and of itself, as Greenfield might see it, as a sign that ESPN still believes its rights portfolio will prove to be worth what they’ve paid for it even if cord-cutting accelerates. On the other hand, if they pay substantially less but still leave the Big Ten walking away with a decent chunk of change we’ll get a better sense of the real value of sports rights when they aren’t inflated quite so much by the cable bundle. But if they pay a fraction of what might otherwise have been expected, maybe even behind inflation compared to ESPN’s existing deal and what Fox is paying for the conference’s football championship game? That’s when it’ll be time to panic, both regarding the struggles ahead for ESPN and the house of cards (no pun intended) all of sports has come to be built on.

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