ESPN confirmed Tuesday that it has secured rights to the Bowl Championship Series games from 2011 through 2014, making the BCS Championship Game the first major North American sports championship event — such as it is — to jump from free to pay TV.
A whole generation of readers is wondering what the heck pay TV is. ESPN’s free, isn’t it? It’s on basic cable. It’s the rare viewer under 30, and maybe under 40, who thinks of ESPN or other cable networks that carry major-sport playoff games as being significantly different than CBS or NBC.
Doomsayers have been warning since the 1970s that someday, all the big sporting events would be on pay TV, which at the time meant cable. The doomsayers were pretty much right, but only because almost all TV is pay TV now.
Depending whose figures you want to use, something like 88 percent of U.S. households that have televisions pay for cable or satellite service. That leaves roughly 14 million households with sets hooked up to nothing more than an antenna for watching TV. But a Nielsen Company survey last month found that nearly a quarter of those sets aren’t being used to watch TV programming. They’re hooked up to DVD and VCR players and video-game systems.
So we’re talking about less than 10 percent of the country’s TV viewers who won’t be able to watch the BCS games at home starting in 2011. And who are these people? They’re people who have either made the lifestyle choice not to pay for TV programming or who are too poor to do so.
The former group probably doesn’t include a lot of sports fans, or at least a lot of sports fans who don’t have other ways of getting the programming they want, such as a nearby sports bar and an iron constitution. The latter group, well, let’s face facts: Not too many industries have suffered because they failed to capture the poverty market.
So what seemed 30 years ago like it would be a colossal, end-of-an-era announcement is a midweek press release by ESPN. The Sports Leader paid a reported $500 million for four years, ho-hum, outbidding Fox by almost $100 million.
What does it mean for viewers? Not much, for most. ESPN is the best in the TV business at covering college football. Fox ignores it all year, then carries the big bowl games, which isn’t a very good situation, although Fox doesn’t do a bad job at all. But it’ll be a nice switch for college football fans. The crews covering the championship games will have been following the sport all year.
Societally speaking, it’s a shoulder shrug, unless it leads to government or industry subsidies to assist the poor in watching big sporting events played in stadiums that are almost all paid for with public financing. If you want to hold your breath waiting for that to happen, get in line behind the TV executives concocting marketing plans aimed at the poverty-stricken.