Five sports media questions to consider in 2019
Will the Alliance of American Football be able to build on its strong start?
The first of a handful of pro football leagues started the week after the Super Bowl, and bolstered by airtime on CBS’s broadcast network, ratings for the Alliance of American Football were surprisingly strong for Week 1. The on-field product produced by the Alliance was also praised, unlike the much-derided, gimmicky XFL from 2001. In addition, the Alliance received acclaim for some off the field innovations, most notably the elementary decision to mike up and film the replay official when reviewing plays for further transparence and clarity.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
But while the Alliance’s start was strong, and filled the post-Super Bowl gap for football fans leading into April’s NFL Draft, will it be able to sustain that momentum and buzz throughout its season? It’s going to be difficult to compare viewership for the rest of the season, because the vast majority of Alliance games will be airing on CBS Sports Network or NFL Network rather than the CBS broadcast network. Not only is CBS Sports Network in far fewer households than CBS itself, it’s also not rated by Nielsen, meaning that we’re not going to be getting weekly viewership and ratings information. NFL Network has two games a week, but again, we’re talking about cable vs broadcast, so it’s not an apples to apples comparison.
Then again, this all could be moot. After Week 2 of the Alliance, stories broke that the league missed payroll in Week 1 and needed a whopping $250 million cash investment. If the league doesn’t run out of money by the time this season is over and rolls into a second season, these questions will remain far more significant than if the league does go bust.
If the chatter around the Alliance remains strong, the league doesn’t run out of money, and viewership holds up week in and week out on NFL Network, maybe more networks will be in the running for its rights nest season, which would only be bad news for the XFL, launching in 2020.
Who’s going to end up buying Fox’s RSNs from Disney?
The future of the Fox RSNs has been up in the air for something like the last six months. They were initially not going to be included in 21st Century Fox’s sale to Disney, then they were, then Disney was forced to divest themselves of the networks, and now, the sale process has slowed to a crawl with fewer bidders than expected interested in buying the cadre of RSNs.
Whew. That’s a lot. So, who’s going to end up with them? The sale of the RSNs needs to be finished 90 days after the Fox sale to Disney is finalized, so we’ll likely have an answer by the end of the spring. The list of bidders includes, to varying degrees, Major League Baseball, Liberty Media, Apollo Global Management, and Sinclair Broadcast Group, though the interest of some of these companies has been downplayed in the media.
The best option for fans would be for Fox to simply re-purchase the networks, but that apparently isn’t happening anymore. I really don’t think there is a nailed on favorite at this point, but Major League Baseball might work out the best, given that nearly all of these RSNs spend six months of the year airing baseball games. But at this point, it’s really anyone’s best guess.
Are the NBA’s ratings woes going to roll into the playoffs?
The juggernaut that is the NBA is finally slowing down. After last year’s Finals were down, this year’s regular season got off to a slow start and never really recovered. At the All-Star Break, local ratings were down 10% on local networks, TNT national games were down a whopping 18%. Why is this? Well, LeBron James going to the Lakers certainly won’t help ratings on the east coast, and his recent injury issues won’t help the ratings of national games during which he was supposed to be featured.
Plus, there’s an issue which isn’t exactly new this year – large market teams in New York and Chicago being terrible. The Knicks and Bulls are two of the league’s marquee franchises, and they’ve been atrocious this season. When you’re turning off fans in those two markets, ratings are going to suffer. In addition, the East’s two best teams are Milwaukee (which is one of the smallest markets in the league, ahead of just Oklahoma City, New Orleans, and Memphis) and Toronto (which is in Canada, meaning that the majority of the team’s fanbase doesn’t factor into local and national ratings).
And then, there’s the Warriors factor. Golden State is just so damn good and dominant that the regular season just doesn’t seem as important to casual fans because they know that when we roll into the playoffs, the Warriors are going to be the West’s top seed and the only question is whether or not they get knocked off prior to the Finals. Dominant seasons are fun when they’re historical, like we saw a couple of seasons ago with Golden State chasing the all-time NBA wins record. Right now, they’re just run of the mill dominant (even though two teams in the East have a better record), and that’s not great for business.
Is Major League Baseball going to rebound from a disappointing 2018 Postseason and a rough offseason?
Expectations were high going into the World Series, with a Boston-Los Angeles World Series making those around baseball salivate. The series didn’t deliver, on or off the field – the Red Sox won in five games (and their one loss was an extra inning marathon), and viewership for the series was the third-lowest of all-time.
Heading into the offseason, expectations remained high, with a free agent class featuring young superstars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. (EDIT: Harper remains unsigned, while Machado has agreed to a deal with the Padres earlier today.) Instead of the focus being on this incredible free agent class, the focus is on why so many free agents are unsigned, how awful it is for the game, and how boring this offseason has been.
Instead of focusing on positives, we’re all rightfully focusing on negatives. We’re not talking about the impact of two bright young stars with their new teams, we’re (still) talking about who those new teams will be. We’re not talking about what’s entertaining about the game, we’re talking about why the game needs to be changed and fixed. We’re not talking about excitement going into 2019, we’re talking about collusion and why so many teams aren’t spending money and seemingly not taking that extra step to compete.
It’s a problem, and one that’s surely going to seep into the regular season. Will it dominate the baseball-related chatter all year, or will it eventually flame out? That’s the big question for MLB in 2019.
Can ESPN+ make more strides in year two?
ESPN+ launched last spring to much fanfare, boasting the full 30 for 30 library, a bunch of third-tier live sports, and not much else. Over year one, the service grew by leaps and bounds, adding plenty of international soccer, the UFC, and a litany of studio shows and docuseries. After reaching one million subscribers (allegedly) pretty quickly, the service soared to over two million (according to ESPN) following its first UFC event.
But how much room for growth is there with ESPN+? ESPN isn’t going to be throwing premium content (think top-tier, or even mid-tier, college football or basketball games) on the service, nor will they be rolling out national broadcasts of NBA or MLB games. Is the name of the game to just use the current inventory of content to continue to attract subscribers, or will ESPN continue to pursue more rights (likely of the niche variety) to attract subscribers?
The initial jolt of ESPN+ subscribers, reaching two million in less than a year, had to have exceeded ESPN’s wildest dreams. But without adding more premium content, will the flood of subscribers slow to a trickle? That’s really the main question going forward with ESPN+, because long-term sustainability is the name of the game
Joe Lucia has been covering sports media since 2011, and is a fan of the Ravens, Braves, and Manchester City. He was born and raised in Harrisburg, PA, but now makes his home in southern California with his wife.