David Moulton: Sports Commentary
Do you remember Bell Telephone?
Until 1984, "Ma Bell" as many called it, provided telephone service to the country and most everyone was OK with that. Everyone except the U.S. Justice Department which ruled that Bell Telephone was a monopoly and ordered that it be broken up.
ESPN is not a monopoly. But they are as big as one. Because of that, they are the most expensive channel(s) on our cable and satellite systems. Even though most people don't watch ESPN, they have to pay for it anyway.
Senator John McCain first tried to change this in 2006. He's back at it. The Arizona Senator has introduced another bill that would blow up the current system of "bundling" cable channels and let customers pay for select channels on an "a la carte" basis.
Sounds simple and dare I say, fair. But if McCain is successful (along with a current lawsuit where Cablevision is suing Viacom to not have to carry certain channels to get others) it could have staggering ramifications in the short run.
Currently, roughly half of your cabel/satellite bill goes towards sports channels (ESPN and all those regional sports networks). Imagine if all the viewers who don't like sports could cancel that part of their bill? On top of that, imagine how many sports fans once they find out exactly how much each channel costs, also start dropping some sports channels.
This would result in BILLIONS of dollars being lost for these sports networks.
Which wouldn't be such a big deal, if national and cable sports networks were not the financial backbone of sports in 21st Century America.
How far could the dominos fall here? Hundreds of regional sports channels would be in dire financial situations overnight. If they go under, where or how do all of MLB/NBA/NHL games they currently broadcast, be seen? Without these channels, many of these teams and leagues business models fall apart!
An even bigger fear is how could ESPN continue to afford all of the sports that they broadcast? Is this how all of ESPN's would-be competitors (Fox Sports 1 and 2, NBC Sports Channel, CBS Sports Netowrk) finally get their hands on some sports programming? Or is there going to be a lot less sports on television?
The NFL would seem to be the league most insulated because the majority of its games are broadcast on network television. The other sports, especially baseball and college football could face a massive upheaval.
Then again, I could be totally off base about all of this. Bundling is forever, life continues as we know it and ESPN will further rule the world.
But there are some powerful forces that seem to be aligning here (politicians, cable/satellite providers, Fox). They have a vested interest in changing the status quo.
Which leads me to conclude we are about to find out if ESPN too big to fail, or now so big that it must be brought down to size?
Now one could argue even with upheaval, all will work out well in the long run. Two generations later, many feel phone service has never been better. Of course all the different types of phone service in my household cost roughly $400/month.
No wonder my mother speaks so glowingly of the good ole days of "Ma Bell."
It seems as if one day (soon?) our television world is going to be bundle-free for one simple reason. John McCain is right. We're all paying a lot of money for channels we don't watch.
Except if the past is any indication, it is likely a cheaper method than paying for only what we do want.
I've long argued that the sports fan needs a viable alternative to ESPN.
Ironically, if a la carte service makes that a reality, I may only be able to afford to watch sports on my phone.