Fox will give it a go this August with Fox Sports 1, but Fox is a gigantic media company that already has tons of skin in the televised sports game — $1.1 billion a year for the NFL, $500 million a year (starting next season) for Major League Baseball, $300 million for NASCAR, a few hundred million for college football and basketball, and so on. Plus, there’s plenty of speculation that ESPN helped Fox Sports 1 get off the ground in order to prevent Comcast from making NBC Sports Network competitive — and unless you’re a hockey fan or a dedicated follower of cycling, Formula 1 racing, or Major League Soccer, NBC Sports Network isn’t competitive with ESPN. Neither is CBS Sports Network. Turner Sports keeps its basketball and baseball programming on TNT and TBS for a reason — mainly, the failure of CNNSI.
That said, ESPN started with little more than a studio, a dream, and some video of Australian Rules Football games. Can a new company enter this game the same way? Is it possible to launch a new 24-hour sports network? Let’s explore this idea for a moment, shall we?
Let’s say you’re Jim Bankoff, chairman and CEO of Vox Media. SB Nation is winning awards under your watch and continues to grow into a popular brand and a top-tier sports web site. On top of that, you’ve got a quality video production team filling up YouTube with fun clips and decent shows. You even have a couple of talented dudes who look good on camera and aren’t afraid to poke fun at themselves…[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s8U6eGx7edw]
But ruling the online roost isn’t enough for you. You’ve seen what Leo Laporte has done at TWiT.tv, and you want to take this brand to the next level. You want to parlay your position as a destination web site into a new cable network dedicated to sports: SB Nation TV.
(At this point, let me throw in a much-needed disclaimer that this is strictly an intellectual exercise and is not meant to suggest that anyone at Vox Media is considering such a move, nor is this intended to cast any sort of aspersions upon SB Nation or its staff. I’ve worked with some of these fine gents at FanHouse, and I wish all of them well in their endeavors. In fact, I sometimes ponder if it’s a personal failing of mine that I never joined them in these endeavors after I left FanHouse…)
But I digress.
SB Nation TV initially plans to launch as a 24-hour sports news and commentary network, perhaps using the same sort of model as Time Warner Cable’s NY1, which practically uses a DJ to set up a playlist of news clips to be shown during time periods when specific shows like Uffsides aren’t airing.
In fact, let’s go a step further and say SB Nation holds its nose and teams up with Time Warner Cable to share knowledge and push for distribution around the country. SBN TV gets some positive attention for its unique style, offbeat humor and in-depth reporting on topics many people miss, and before too long, it’s found its way into about 36 million homes, thanks in part to it’s low subscriber fee of $0.05/month. Just as a reminder…
$0.05/month * 12 months * 36 million homes = $21.6 million per year
That’s not including ad money, and that doesn’t suck. However, your shiny new TV network can only survive being the “Hipster SportsCenter” for so long before it falls off the face of the Nielsen report. At some point, this sports channel needs to start showing some actual games.
The top five pro sports leagues in the U.S. — NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS — are out of reach, of course. The NFL, MLB, & NHL are locked up through the end of the decade, and the next NBA TV deal is expected to be worth more than a billion dollars, which you don’t have. Even the next MLS deal should be worth more than $40 million/year, and even if you could afford it, why would MLS partner with you? Your network reaches less than half the homes NBC Sports Network reaches. Don Garber saw what happened to Jim Rome after he left ESPN for CBS. The MLS Commissioner wants to move this league forward, not backward.
What about college sports? You’ve got no chance at that, either. ESPN, Fox, NBC, and CBS have deals in place for all the major and mid-major conferences for years to come, and ESPN is paying the NCAA twice your total subscriber fee income for non-revenue sporting events. Maybe, you could team up with the NAIA and find some bloggers willing to write about it? Yeah, maybe not.
So you’re left to dig around for lower-tier sports properties. You want some football. What about Canadian football? Sorry. NBC Sports Network has that.
How about the Arena Football League, the original made-for-TV sports property? Uh uh. CBS Sports Network has that. CBS Sports Network also had the United Football League last year, until the Star and Clam ran out of money midway through the season and shut down.
ESPN once started with little more than Aussie Rules Football, which is, in the words of SB Nation’s own Spencer Hall, The Greatest Sport On The Planet. Maybe you can show that? Nope. Fox Sports has the AFL locked up for the time being. The Finals Series in September will probably be prime after-hours viewing on Fox Sports 1.
Right. How about Association football? Is there any top-flight soccer out there? Maybe you could pry the Bundesliga away from the disintegrating Gol TV, but an all-German Champions League Final probably drove the price up, and BeIN Sport USA can outbid you and add it to their coverage of Spanish, Italian, and French soccer. Maybe you could get some South American soccer events, but those might not be so cheap, either.
Any soccer on this continent? Well, there’s the North American Soccer League, the second-tier league in the U.S. It’s the textbook definition of fledgling, but it will have between 10 and 12 teams next season in major league cities — including the reborn New York Cosmos. (Pelé!) Plus, the new NASL is being built from the ground up, much like SB Nation was, so there’s a personality match there. A couple of games a week might attract some viewers. There’s also the U.S. Open Cup, America’s equivalent to the FA Cup, which is very popular among blogs and could fit right into the web site.
How about some lower division basketball, too? No, sorry, the NBA D-League is on CBSSN, and Turner Sports has European hoops locked down on NBA TV.
Baseball? Maybe there are some independent leagues out there you could show. Good luck getting anyone interested in them when you’re talking about MLB during your regular news cycles.
Golf? Forget it. The PGA has deals with NBC and CBS already, and even the developmental tour shows events on the Comcast-owned Golf Channel. Tennis has its own channel, too.
What about lacrosse? ESPN has college lacrosse, and CBSSN has both pro indoor and outdoor leagues at the moment. Cycling? NBCSN has that. Fighting? Fox has UFC locked up, and boxing is all over bigger channels than yours. Poker? The boom is over, and ESPN and Fox’s regional sports networks have any worthwhile events covered. How about the Reebook Crossfit Games, which you covered so well in this video? Yeah, they’re probably not going to ditch ESPN for you. You have a better chance of luring the Association of Volleyball Professionals‘ beach volleyball tour away from CBSSN, but even that would be a hard sell.
Maybe you could bring back Slamball?
You can to see the problem here, and it’s not simply a matter of media consolidation. There’s simply not enough sport to go around, and the games that matter to the most people are already on other, bigger channels. Just getting into this game requires vast resources, which Qatar-backed Al Jazeera had when it launched BeIN Sport. Even then, you’re left with a venerable name like CBS scouring the dregs of the sporting world to find something — anything! — worth showing on CBSSN. (I’ve seen D-League basketball on CBSSN. There were about 200 people in that arena in Fort Wayne watching the Mad Antz, whose dancers fought so valiantly to keep the smiles on their faces, even though their eyes screamed for a hero to put them out of their misery.)
Perhaps if a new sports network really wanted to stand out, it could invent something. There’s an Ultimate Disc league out there looking for an audience. New games like Kronum and Circle Rules Football emerge all the time and find followings, too. Imagine a network ballsy enough to create leagues, games, and competitions, then treat those games as if they were part of the zeitgeist of American sport, complete with SportsCenter-style coverage, full access to athletes and coaches, and online fantasy leagues. It would be like looking into a parallel universe, except that universe actually existed in real life.
But would anyone watch?
Fox Sports 1 will pull some viewers away from ESPN, but again, Fox is already a media giant. It’s not a new voice in sports media. If it’s new voices you want, you’ll have to look online. Cable TV is no country for new men. That should be far more disconcerting to sports fans than it is.