Archive for December, 2015

TechGraphs’ Guide to Watching the College Football Playoff Semifinals: Return of the Multicast?

While shifting technological, media, and economic sands may be signaling the approaching end of ESPN, the Worldwide Leader’s not dead yet, and it’s closing out 2015 with a bang. Along the lines of last year’s inaugural College Football Playoff Megacast, ESPN will be leveraging its multi-channel capabilities to deliver a variety of simulcasts for the two semifinal games taking place tonight, as well as the other four major bowl games– the Rose, Sugar, Fiesta, and Peach Bowls– spread across today and tomorrow. Although there won’t be as many options tonight as were available during last year’s championship game Megacast, it’s good to see the network continuing to take advantage of its resources by expanding coverage of these games. Viewing details on each of the “New Year’s Six” bowls are below.

Peach Bowl:

Teams: #18 Houston vs. #9 Florida State

Time and location: December 31, 12:00 pm, Atlanta, Georgia

Primary television: ESPN

Alternate television: Spider cam feed on ESPN3/WatchESPN

Audio: ESPN Radio, ESPN Radio app

Spanish-language television: ESPN Deportes

Trophy presentation: ESPNEWS, ESPN3/WatchESPN app

Orange Bowl (playoff semifinal):

Teams: #4 Oklahoma vs. #1 Clemson

Time and location: December 31, 4:00 pm, Miami, Florida

Primary television: ESPN

Alternate television: Spider cam feed and home or away audio plus ESPN visual on ESPN3/WatchESPN

Audio: ESPN Radio, ESPN Radio app

Spanish-language television: ESPN2, ESPN Deportes

Trophy presentation: ESPNEWS, ESPN3/WatchESPN app

Cotton Bowl (playoff semifinal):

Teams: #3 Michigan State vs. #2 Alabama

Time and location: December 31, 8:00 pm, Dallas, Texas

Primary television: ESPN

Alternate television: Spider cam feed and home or away audio plus ESPN visual on ESPN3; Finebaum Film Room, featuring in-studio analysts and guests, as well as live viewer telephone calls on SEC Network

Audio: ESPN Radio, ESPN Radio app

Spanish-language television: ESPN2, ESPN Deportes

Trophy presentation: ESPNEWS, ESPN3/WatchESPN

Fiesta Bowl:

Teams: #8 Notre Dame vs. #7 Ohio State

Time and location: January 1, 1:00 pm, Glendale, Arizona

Primary television: ESPN

Alternate television: Spider cam feed on ESPN3/WatchESPN

Audio: ESPN Radio, ESPN Radio app

Spanish-language television: ESPN Deportes

Trophy presentation: ESPNEWS, ESPN3/WatchESPN

Rose Bowl:

Teams: #6 Stanford vs. #5 Iowa

Time and location: January 1, 5:00 pm, Pasadena, California

Primary television: ESPN

Alternate television: Spider cam feed on ESPN3/WatchESPN

Audio: ESPN Radio, ESPN Radio app

Spanish-language television: ESPN Deportes

Trophy presentation: ESPNEWS, ESPN3/WatchESPN

Sugar Bowl:

Teams: #16 Oklahoma State vs. #12 Ole Miss

Time and location: January 1, 8:30 pm, New Orleans, Louisiana

Primary television: ESPN

Alternate television: Spider cam feed on ESPN3/WatchESPN

Audio: ESPN Radio, ESPN Radio app

Spanish-language television: ESPN Deportes

Trophy presentation: ESPNEWS, ESPN3/WatchESPN

The big addition here is the simulcast of the ESPN Deportes Spanish-language television broadcast on ESPN2 for both semifinal games. ESPN also plans “cross-platform coverage” of the national championship game, which it will announce next week. At a minimum, I expect a return of the general “film room” coaching analysis channel, a televised (i.e., not just online) alternate camera feed, and, in the unfortunate event that Alabama topples Michigan State tonight, the SEC Network Finebaum broadcast for the January 11 championship game.

(Header image via Wikimedia Commons)

On the End of the Tyranny of the Local Sports Market

FanGraphs’ Nathaniel Grow recently unearthed an interesting tidbit buried deep in a court filing involving Major League Baseball. Per Grow’s findings, it appears as if MLB is planning on changing up its service.

“beginning next season MLB will make single-team, out-of-market streams available for purchase (alongside the out-of-market package) on MLB.TV.”

It’s a feature that both the NHL and the NBA offer already, but it seems to be a harbinger of a sea change in the world of sports fandom — it’s now easier and cheaper for fans to be region-agnostic when it comes to picking their favorite sports teams.

Not so long ago, and for a very long time, if one found an affinity for a certain sport, their best bet — by far — was to follow the local team. That is, they were best served following the team that held rights to the local TV and radio markets. Those were the teams that kids could watch, listen to, and follow in the local papers (insert “you see, newspapers were these things…” joke here).

Now, fans have a choice, if they want it. It’s probably true that the ensconced fan — those that have been loyal to a team for most of their lives — aren’t budging on this one. But for young fans, or fans of any age that are looking to get into a new sport, it’s a liberating proposition.

The idea behind and NBA League Pass seemed always to revolve around the idea of the misplaced fan — the Cleveland native who was forced to move because of work/love or the offspring of the Yankees fan who moved to the South way back. It was, and certainly still is, a way for one to follow thier favorite team from afar. And these services are great tools for that. But they are also great tools for those looking to play the field — no pun intended. These are also built for the kid in Chicago who loves Giancarlo Stanton or the L.A. native who is a big fan of P.K. Subban. We are no longer tied to our local media markets. We can be free agents.

Again, not too long ago, if people were fans of out-of-market teams, those teams tended to be what’s known in the gambling realm as “public teams.” Think the St. Louis Cardinals or Dallas Cowboys or Chicago Bulls or Boston Bruins. These were the teams that got the most air time of their league’s respective Games of the Week that played on network (and later cable) television. If you didn’t want to follow the local team, your best bet was to latch onto a team that was on TV a lot. No more. Want to follow the Flames in Okalahoma? How about the Padres in upstate New York? No problem. Even college sports are adapting a bit, though only through conference-specific packages.

I won’t get into the specifics, because I already have, but a few years ago I was interested in finding myself a new baseball team. Ten years ago, this wouldn’t really be possible. I would have been stuck with whatever team was playing in my market (i.e. the Twins). But technology allowed me to shake off the shackles of the default.

It’s a microcosm of what technology did to commerce in general. I do believe that the rise of online retailers has been a hindrance to local businesses when it comes to the subjects of scale and wholesale-buying power, but it’s also done wonders for some. I love building PCs, but I could not imagine what I would do if Best Buy were my only option for buying PC parts. I’m lucky enough to have a Microcenter in my town, but if I didn’t I could always turn to Newegg or Tiger Direct to fill my needs. I could shop around.

The same now goes for sports fans. Think your team is dumb for supporting a domestic abuser? Sick of the local baseball team’s refusal to adopt even a modicum of advanced statistics in their daily operations? Go somewhere else. Find a better option.

In the grand scheme of things, we still have little power. TV money rules the kingdom, and blackout rules and other nonsense will still burden us peasants for some time, but there’s some light shining through. Yes, it will cost us money. Yes, the delivery methods aren’t perfect. But we are slowly being allowed to make our own decisions in the realm of fandom. We aren’t tethered to the local club. We might want to be. It’s usually easier and makes for accessible small talk with other locals. But we don’t have to.

My name is David Temple. I live in Minneapolis and I watch the Houston Astros during baseball season and the Edmonton Oilers during hockey season. I am the new face of the sports fan. It’s breaking my bank, but it’s lifting my spirits. Long live team-specific streaming packages.

(Image via Bernard Spragg)

How Playing Hockey Video Games Actually Taught Me How Hockey Works

It’s a bit of an odd dichotomy to be a sports fan living in Minnesota and not know anything about hockey. My excuse is that I grew up in Wisconsin, where football is king, and never even had a chance to play hockey in school. But I moved to Minnesota over 10 years ago. They air high school hockey games on the regional sports network here. I should have learned a little by osmosis at least.

I was too busy going to baseball games in the summer and pretending to care about the NFL in the winter to ever give hockey a try. It’s a shame really, because I found that the more of the sport I caught, the more I enjoyed it. So last year, when the NFL finally pulled enough BS to make me quit it pretty much entirely, I thought I’d give hockey a try. The only problem with that plan revolved around that fact that I didn’t really know anything about hockey. I’m not talking about not remembering what player played on what team. I barely knew the rules. So, like any enterprising 30-something with disposable income would do, I tried to solve my problems with video games.

Let’s preface this by saying, with the exception of simply knowing the name of some of the game’s biggest stars (Ovechkin, Crosby, Kane, etc.) essentially everything I knew about hockey came from whatever I ingested by watching The Mighty Ducks 50 times as a child. As it turns out, regular hockey is WAY LESS exciting than movie hockey, and movie hockey isn’t very good at explaining rules, strategy, or really even giving a general sense of the flow of the game. Needless to say, when I fired up NHL 15 last year, I had a steep hill to climb.

NHL 15 had its flaws, certainly, but the gameplay was always spot on for me. The graphics were great, the controls were responsive, and I had the ability to tailor the game in a myriad of ways. I could make my games easy or hard, fast or slow, and even get granular with how I wanted things like puck handling and passing accuracy to behave. I didn’t play much with these in the beginning, however, because I was too busy getting my butt handed to me.

Playing a video game based on sport you know nothing about is like driving a car in a country where the traffic laws are totally foreign. You have a good understanding of the mechanics of the whole thing, but not quite sure how to put it all together. Here’s how those first few days went:

1. Start game
2. Immediately get scored on
3. Check replay to see why
4. Glean nothing from replay
5. Get back into game
6. Get called for a penalty/violation
7. Pause game
8. Google said penalty/violation on my phone
9. Return to step 2.

I didn’t know what the blue lines were for. I didn’t understand offside or icing or interference of delays of game penalties. I didn’t know that if you shot the puck at the opponent’s net after an offside was called, the other team takes umbrage with it at a fairly aggressive level. I didn’t know that my goalie could be checked if he was out of the crease, because I mostly didn’t know what the crease was.

But soon enough, after enough failings and enough Googling, I understood the basic ins and outs of hockey. The hockey I watched on TV started to make more sense. When I watched the playoffs, I could understand a little more of what Doc Emrick was saying. It was some solid progress.

That was last winter, and I came into this season looking to understand a little more about strategy and basic fundamental gameplay. So instead of a general season playing as one team, I waded into the waters of creating my own player via the Be a Pro feature. I was about to go to school. NHL 15 taught me about how hockey was played. NHL 16 taught me how to play hockey.

OK, that last sentence may have been a bit of an overstatement. I’m not saying I’m ready to lace up and bang against some other out-of-shape dudes in a rec league or anything, but playing a season as a single player helped me better understand what everybody did and where they were supposed to go.

I think I’m on my seventh created player. The first six didn’t last very long. I tried playing as a center, but that didn’t do it for me. I tried a right winger but I made him right handed which isn’t the best idea because of the bad forehand angles (something I learned like three games in). I made some guys too big or too small for their position or juiced all the wrong attributes during creation, but finally I settled on a very solid player.

His name is Jacques Jacques. I wanted to make him have just one name like Pele or Cher, but the game wouldn’t let me. Regardless, Jacques was a last name prerecorded by the announcers, so it kind of sounds like they’re just using his one name. I even create a backstory for Jacques. Basically, he’s from somewhere outside Yellowknife, and he was discovered as a 17-year-old competing in unsanctioned MMA fights. He’d never played hockey because he was too busy logging or drilling for oil. But a scout found him and convinced him to learn hockey. It’s basically a mix between the plot of The Air Up There and Wolverine’s backstory from the first X-Men movie.

Jacques grows his playoff beard in November. That's how confident he is.

Jacques grows his playoff beard in November. That’s how confident he is.

Anyway, I played a whole minor league season with Jacques and ended up being the first overall pick. I was an Edmonton Oiler. The game, however, did not adjust the rest of the draft after that, so the Oilers still ended up with Connor McDavid. Needless to say, the Oilers are doing pretty well.

It’s kind of hard to explain everything I learned while trying to make my way through a digital hockey career, but the progress has been substantial.

I now understand things like general positioning — where the left winger should be in a given offensive formation. In the past, line changes always seemed so random to me, but now that I actually skate to the bench to rest, I’m starting to pick the best times to do so given where the puck, my teammates, and the opposing players are. I’m starting to decipher the fine lines surrounding what is and isn’t boarding and what is and isn’t interference. Whenever a goal is scored, I go to the replay to try and find out how. Where were the weaknesses in the defense? Who made a good play to get open? Was the goalie beat or was it a fluke deflection?

I see articles all the time about how schools are using games like Minecraft to teach kids things about teamwork and geometry and even basic computer programming. Educators have long used games as a teaching tool. And a silly as it sounds, NHL 15 and 16 honestly helped me learn about hockey. I now have a GameCenter subscription. I watch the Oilers and my hometown Wild or any other game that I find interesting. I’m understanding more and more why certain players or teams are really good.

I still have a lot of learning to do, but I can at least hold my own in a conversation with a hockey fan. I can detect a good play or a misstep when watching on live TV. I now have opinions that I yell at the TV.

Anyone can mindlessly play Madden or FIFA for hours on end. I’m not saying there isn’t value in that. But if one wants to really dig into the specifics and the minutiae of the sport, video games can actually be great for that too. I now know some stuff about hockey, which isn’t something I could have said two years ago. Now I just need to acquire a taste for lutefisk, and I’ll be a true Minnesotan.

TechGraphs News Roundup: 12/12/2015

Welcome back, fair TechGraphs readers. Here’s hoping your fantasy football wishes turned into caviar dreams and you all made your respective playoffs. Unless you play DFS, in which case this week was less important — if you don’t live in New York state, that is. More on that later. In the meantime, here are the sports-tech stories we found interesting this week.

We might as well start with the big news of the week. A while back, New York’s attorney general said that daily fantasy sites — most notably DraftKings and FanDuel — constituted gambling. Since gambling is still illegal, said attorney general  took DFS to trial. On Friday, the judge granted the injunction. Then, the appellate judge overturned that ruling. The overruling doesn’t put DFS in the clear in New York forever, they are just allowed to continue doing business until the legality of their operations are further discussed. Nothing is certain yet, but it’s some temporary good news for DFS players in New York.

Polygon goes over some of the HUGE numbers that October’s League of Legends tournament drew in terms of online viewers.

EA appears to see the writing on the wall, as they recently announced that they have opened an esports division.

While netting isn’t necessarily the cutting edge of technology, they can play a big role in keeping fans safe. Because of this, MLB has recommended that all teams increase their use of netting to increase the safety of spectators in the stands.

New Balance is working on a very cool idea that allows runners to 3D print the soles of their shoes to better fit their specific feet and running style. It’s still in R&D at this point, but it’s an excellent use of the emerging technology.

Yahoo has released a new app that serves as a sort of TV Guide for Internet streaming. While it doesn’t include sports yet, it’s fairly easy to see that getting implemented soon enough (or another company picking up where Yahoo is leaving off).

The Cowboys ran into a little bit of tech trouble on Monday Night Football. Because of the way NFL rules work, this in turn (and fairly) meant the Washington Professional Football Team also had tech trouble.

Showtime is trying to get people to watch boxing in a VR environment. You yourself can try it for free. The bout already happened, but the it seems that just showing off the technology is the main point of the demonstration.

That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend and be excellent to each other.


New Tech Partnerships Prove the NBA is King of Fan Engagement

The NBA is really good at making their brand as visible as possible on the Internet. They have been for some time, actually. Whenever I have discussions online or in person about what sports leagues can do to make online engagement better, I have long used the NBA as the high watermark. It’s probably true that basketball as a sport is slightly more akin to displaying highlights, in general. Dunks and half-court threes and buzzer-beaters only take a handful of seconds compared to a a touchdown pass or even an impressive deke leading to a goal. Nevertheless, the NBA hasn’t been resting on its sport’s inherent excitement. It’s making big pushes to engage current fans and win over new ones.

Leagues like the NFL have always held a firm grip on their property when it comes to things like highlights, and the MLB has currently upped their actions against people posting GIFs of what they consider to be their property. The NBA, conversely, gives fans and creators carte blanche when it comes to posting videos online. The NBA has their own YouTube channel where it posts plenty of highlights and videos itself, but one can also find tons of dunk compilations, replays of old All-Star games, or even the goofy one-off things that happen in any given game.

But they’re not stopping there. They just recently partnered with a company called AVGEN. And AVGEN’s software does some really cool things. From The Verge:

On a basic level, AVGEN is software that automates the video editing process that creates highlight reels. According to Aviv Arnon, WSC’s VP of business development, “We analyze the video itself to figure out where the players are on the court, where movement is, [and] do audio analysis to figure out the perfect ins and outs for every moment.” That means analyzing fans screaming in the stands and color commentary, as well as player stats to determine what plays meant for the game as a whole. Most importantly, the software uses image recognition to also identify players and the types of plays being made. So if an outlet wanted to create a highlight reel of DeAndre Jordan’s slam dunks, they’d simply need to specify those terms in AVGEN before getting a clip minutes later. That clip can then be shared to the waiting eyes on YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter on the fly, ready for easy consumption. Which is great, since the NBA has 3 billion cumulative views on YouTube alone.

This process takes away the labor and time needed for interns to comb through video, edit it down, and post it online. It’s been streamlined and automated, as it should be. AVGEN’s process takes away the biggest problem of MLB’s recent GIF crackdown. MLB says it doesn’t want people posting GIFs or videos of cool highlights on Twitter because that highlight is property of MLB. But MLB has a long history of, well, taking a good amount of time to actually post that material online. It’s way less fun to share something when it happened 20 minutes ago. The NBA never cared about highlight sharing the way MLB did, but event then they made the process smoother by letting a machine do the posting for them. They cut out the middle man that no one was avoiding in the first place. That’s progressive thinking.

Now that they’ve made consumption easier, the NBA has turned to increasing the ease in which fans can actually contribute — most notably in terms of All-Star voting. Certainly, the NBA has long allowed fans to vote for their favorite players online and via mobile, All-Star voting has now been ported to a platform that people have already baked into their daily online activities — searching crap on Google. The NBA and Google have entered a partnership in which fans can vote for the All-Star game right from Google in their desktop or mobile browser. All one needs is a Google account and the ability to search for “NBA All Star voting.” They’re then presented with an embeded voting platform right in their current screen.


Google’s All-Star Voting Screen

Again, the middle man is being cut out here. The barrier of entry is lowered. Nobody knows that actual URL to vote for the All-Star game, so they’re just going to Google it anyway. With this new partnership, fans don’t even need to leave their search engine to do what they sought out. No Tweets are necessary, no SMS messages need to be sent.

The NBA isn’t reinventing the way fans engage with its league online. They are simply making it easier and more convenient. These are incremental improvements — improvements that any other league could easily make. The NBA — like any other league — is not without its problems. But they are hands down leading the charge when it comes to proliferating their brand online. And when sports are competing with a seemingly infinite amount of other entertainment streams on the web, every little bit helps.

Imagining a World Without ESPN

Imagine there’s no ESPN.
It’s easy if you try.
No broadcast partner intermediaries to charge us,
above us only direct access to sporting events live.
Imagine all the cord-cutters

living for today[, a day without ESPN].

Today, and for at least the past twenty years, it is difficult to imagine four letters more associated with sports in America than ESPN. Heck, as of 2006, there were at least four kids named ESPN, according to The network invented the concept of a twenty-four-hour sports television channel at a time when ninety-three percent of the television audience restricted its viewing to ABC, CBS, and NBC, all of which still were signing off entirely each night. Part of the invention included SportsCenter, of course, but the network first established its national reputation when it broadcast the entire 1980 NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

While ESPN is thirty-six years old and living the starkly corporate lifestyle these days, its teenage years were wild, at least by broadcast television standards. In the 1990s, the network’s comparatively brash attitude provided it with a cultural identity that existed almost independent of sports. It may be difficult to remember this now, but it’s true: ESPN used to be cool. A selective timeline:

  • 1992: Keith Olbermann joins SportsCenter to host “the big show” alongside Dan Patrick
  • 1993: ESPN2 launches with Olbermann, Suzy Kolber, Stuart Scott, and, later, Jim Rome and Kenny Mayne, who would also work as a SportsCenter anchor; Craig Kilborn joins ESPN as a SportsCenter anchor; the modern era of College GameDay begins; launches
  • 1994: ESPN Presents: Jock Rock Vol. 1 is released, beginning a series of Jock Rock and Jock Jams audio CD releases that featured popular sports-related pump-up songs interspersed with clips of SportsCenter personalities like Patrick and Chris Berman dishing out their catchphrases
  • 1995: ESPN hosts the first X Games
  • 1996: Rich Eisen joins ESPN to host SportsCenter with Scott
  • 1998: The first ESPN Zone opens, in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor; Norm Macdonald hosts the ESPYs
  • 2000: Page 2 launches on, an alternative site that would feature the bylines of Ralph Wiley, Hunter Thompson, Scoop Jackson, and, of course, Bill Simmons
  • 2001: Pardon the Interruption debuts on ESPN
  • 2003: ESPN debuts Playmakers, the network’s first original drama series, about a fictional professional football team

Playmakers was a blend of Friday Night Lights, Entourage, and Hard Knocks, and, aside from the Sunday night NFL game and Saturday afternoon college football games, it was the most-viewed program on ESPN. Despite its wild popularity, the show was on the air for less than three months. Under pressure from then-NFL Commissioner Paul Taglibue, ESPN first restricted promotion of the show and then cancelled it. The NFL didn’t care for the way Playmakers portrayed NFL players — too realistic, it seems — and wanted the show off the air. Mark Shapiro, then the executive vice president of ESPN, defended the network’s decision to adhere to the NFL’s wishes: ”It’s our opinion that we’re not in the business of antagonizing our partner . . . . To bring it back would be rubbing it in our partner’s face.”

Action speaks louder than words, and the cancellation of Playmakers signaled a turning point for ESPN, which began to purge itself of the people and programs that had built its unique identity in the decade from 1993 to 2003. From the viewers’ perspective, it became clear that ESPN was removing anybody whose name had become bigger than the network’s.

That represents an interesting notion of network cohesion, but there really is one explanation for the shift that ESPN executed in the period beginning with the cancellation of Playmakers and running through the termination of Simmons earlier this year: the prioritization of live-sports broadcast rights. Beginning with the 1980 NCAA tournament (and its early agreements with smaller conferences like the Big East), and running through whichever Monday Night Football or SEC volleyball game you just watched, ESPN’s core programming is live sporting events. The network’s adolescent dalliance with original content and individual personalities a thing of the past (what are they doing with Mayne these days?), that live-sports core is almost all ESPN is in late 2015, the remainder largely consisting of an internal #hottake-generating echo chamber.

Live sports is what national sports networks are supposed to be all about, though, right? So where’s the problem? Yes, ESPN has competition now, but FS1, CBSSN, and NBCSN aren’t serious threats to the Worldwide Leader, at least for the moment. Each rival network has tried different approaches, with Dan O’Toole and Jay Onrait’s Olbermann/Patrick Big Show sendup on FS1, and CBSSN and NBCSN attempting to steal ESPN on-air talent (only to see that talent eventually return to the Mothership). But the organizing principle remains unchanged: for a rival to mount a legitimate challenge to ESPN, the accepted view is that those other national sports networks need more live sporting events, and right now, nobody beats ESPN in that department. By both inventing the medium and controlling the market for so long, ESPN has been able to raise the barriers to entry by gobbling up live sports broadcasting rights, starving its competitors of the programming they need to draw eyes to their channels (or the TV Guide to even find their channels) in the first place.

ESPN spends a boatload to make sure its collection of channels remain the go-to destination for live sports events, which are among the most valuable properties in all of television. That’s long been true, but it’s even more true today with the proliferation of advertisement-avoiding DVR technology. In 2015, it’s not unreasonable to begin binge-watching the entirety of The Good Wife, a drama that debuted in 2009, but nobody’s going to start catching up on all of the Vanderbilt baseball games they saved from back in the spring, championship-caliber MLB feeder program that the Commodores are. People watch games live or not at all. That’s why ESPN has unloaded billions of dollars for the right to broadcast live sporting events on their channels. The estimated numbers from FY 2015 provide an illuminating snapshot:

Annual Rights Fee
National Football League
$1.9 billion
Major League Baseball
$700 million
National Basketball Association
$600 million
Major League Soccer
$45 million
$40 million
U.S. Open (Tennis)
$23.3 million
The Masters (Golf)
$25 million
British Open (Golf)
$25 million
College Football Playoff
$610 million
NCAA Championships
$42 million
ACC Sports
$240 million
Big Ten Sports
$100 million
Big 12 Sports
$110 million
Pac-12 Sports
$110 million
SEC Sports
$227 million*
American Athletic Sports
$18 million
Mountain West Sports
$9 million
Little League World Series
$7.5 million
$4.831 billion

* – ESPN splits SEC Network profits with the conference. The SEC received $150 million from ESPN’s primary rights deal, plus approximately $77 million from SEC Network for the 2014-15 season.

By leveraging its capitalization to corner the market on live-sports broadcasting rights, ESPN has insulated itself against serious competition from FS1 and the other national sports networks, to which are left the scraps. Think bull riding, arena football, and auto racing series you’ve never heard of. (Long live SPEED!) In the course of ensuring a low ceiling for its rival national sports networks, however, ESPN has become exposed to competition from another quarter. Rather than worry about its would-be peers, ESPN’s biggest threat now may be its own broadcast partners.

As we have been noting in our regular news roundups here, ESPN has been losing subscribers as a result of cord-cutting, people ditching traditional cable and satellite television providers, and now we have a number: seven million subscribers lost in the past two years. According to parent company Disney, ESPN now is down to 92 million subscribers. Cord-cutting is an obvious problem for the network because of its cost relative to other channels on viewers’ cable and satellite bills. ESPN relies on cost-spreading– everybody with a cable or satellite subscription pays for ESPN regardless of whether they watch it– to make its price more palatable to its actual users, and it relies on its robust portfolio of live sporting events to make itself so in-demand that everyone continues to pay those costs. The other side of that coin, of course, is that ESPN needs all of those subscriber fees to be able to afford its obligations under its broadcast-rights agreements. So far, it’s a model that’s worked very well for ESPN. But what if they lost those broadcast rights that make them a must-have component of every cable and satellite subscription?

ESPN’s programming portfolio, and those of its fellow national sports networks, is increasingly one-dimensional. Is The Doug Gottlieb Show really appointment viewing? Is Scott Van Pelt’s “midnight” SportsCenter? (what time does it start, exactly?) Nah. We’re all tuning in to watch the games. And without the games, would the remnant husks of networks be able to survive?

Perhaps a better question: why are sports leagues still selling off their broadcast rights? The NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL all have their own television channels. (Some collegiate athletic conferences also have networks, although these tend to be more akin to partnerships between the conferences and existing television networks like ESPN and Fox, rather than independent media entities.)  They all have well-developed web platforms, and they all exercise control over the use and sharing of their content online, some more stringently than others. Yes, the NFL received a $1.9 billion check from ESPN last year for the right to broadcast Monday Night Football, but ESPN only cut that check because it knew that its broadcast of that event would allow it to make even more money. Why can’t the leagues eliminate these intermediary networks and realize an even greater portion of the value of their own broadcast rights?

This already is occurring to some extent. There are regular-season NFL games that appear only on NFL Network, and some MLB playoff games have appeared only on MLB Network. Cutting ESPN et al. out of the picture completely would require a not-insignificant capital investment, of course, to expand the leagues’ broadcast capabilities, but the issue merely is one of scale. It isn’t as difficult to create and operate MLB2 when MLB Network’s already up and running. The model exists and is replicable, as the national sports networks themselves have demonstrated. Most importantly, the leagues hold the most valuable asset in the equation. Their products essentially market themselves, and distribution follows demand, which, as everyone agrees, follows the games themselves.

That said, there are reasons why each of the leagues might hold differing views of such a large-scale shift.  For example, while NFL football games may be sufficiently popular on a national level to justify a move to NFL Network-exclusive broadcasting, the NHL might find that its 1,230 games per season are only nationally marketable when bundled with other sports and therefore decide to remain with its regional sports network-based broadcast infrastructure. Still, even if leagues like the NHL and MLB, which have long seasons full of many games that draw only regional interest, wouldn’t be good fits to go 100% national, we still could see them bringing marquee matchups, Winter Classics, and All-Star and postseason games exclusively onto the leagues’ own channels.

Are these the End Times for ESPN? Unless the leagues suddenly and rapidly retrench onto their own platforms, probably not. And if the thought of Roger Goodell, Rob Manfred, Adam Silver, and Gary Bettman executing any changes in their respective leagues that might be described as “sudden” or “rapid” made you laugh, it’s probably because you know that these leagues are conservative institutions that change slowly, if at all. In the end, maybe what ESPN & co. offer the leagues is a product-delivery method that, while not necessarily superior to or more profitable on a transaction-by-transaction basis than a league-owned channel, insulates the risk-adverse leagues from the shifting vagaries of the market, politics, and public opinion, all of which affect the sensitivities of the advertisers and corporate and civic sponsors who ultimately fund the leagues. So viva ESPN, the Worldwide Leader in sports-media insurance coverage.

TechGraphs News Roundup: 12/4/2015

Greetings, fair TechGraphs readers. I hope everyone had a pleasurable Thanksgiving holiday. We took a little time off here at TechGraphs, but we’ll back in full force next week. In the meantime, here’s a look at the sports-tech stories we found interesting this week.

Remember that time that one of sports’ most iconic figures announced his long-rumored retirement on a blog? That was weird.

ESPN is always into using social media to promote games that they broadcast, such as Monday Night Football. The problems come when the game they have to promote promises to be a garbage fire. The game actually turned out to be fairly exciting for everyone who isn’t a Cleveland fan.

On the topic of ESPN, it appears cord-cutters are costing them a not-insignificant number of customers. I don’t know how losing TV subscribers means you should lay off a bunch of great web writers, but what do I know?

For those of you who think HD just isn’t HD enough anymore, you’ll be pleased to learn that DirecTV is planning on carrying 4K content in 2016. No word yet as to which channels will be offered, but since DirecTV still up-charges for basic HD programming, rest assured that 4K will cost even more money on top of the regular bill.

I don’t much at all about esports, but I do know that beefs always help a brand, so keep at it, nerds.

Lots of ESPN news this week, but they have integrated their WatchESPN feature (for those with qualifying cable/satellite subscriptions, of course) with their ESPN app. The idea is that if you are using the ESPN app to check on a score, you’ll be able to just tap a button to pull up the live video of the game. As ESPN carries a lot college basketball on WatchESPN, the addition is timely.

Google is immensely brilliant, interesting, and terrifying company. They seemingly do something incredibly cool and incredibly creepy every day. I would chalk up patenting a blood-sucking smartwatch under both categories.

That’s all for this week. Have a great weekend, and be excellent to each other.