Major Sports Announcement Signals The Death Of Sports On Cable

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On Thursday The ACC and the CW announced that the broadcast network will be the home of weekly football games in the fall and the home of 28 Men’s basketball and 9 Women’s basketball games during the regular season throughout the fall and early winter. The move harkens back to an earlier time when college athletic conferences were not running straight to cable channels for revenue. And it may be a sign of the future when it comes to broadcast network TV.

The ACC’s move comes at a time when there has been a constant drumbeat of bad news for regional sports networks (RSNs) that had their heyday during the peak cable period before cord-cutting became common. College athletic conferences and individual professional sports teams began to set up deals with niche networks built around delivering their specific brand of content to their dedicated fans who could not get enough football, basketball, and hockey, but as soon as cable subscribers hit a certain point the cable operators decided that maybe the niche sports channels outside of the ESPN family were not worth the cost. And while observers thought that the obvious alternative to being part of a cable bundle was an expensive direct-to-consumer play like Bally Sports streaming options it looks like college conferences are the first to go in a different direction. And it’s broadcast TV networks. Yes what was old is new again.

The first shoe dropped in 2022, when the Big Ten, which had made waves via the Big Ten Network, a cable entry, set up a new rights deal for the TV rights for its football and basketball games. Instead of concentrating on setting up new deals with ESPN or FOX’s FS1 it instead landed deals with NBC, FOX’s main OTA network, and CBS. The move is built like NFL TV deals and will feature major contests during all of the prime college football Saturday slots.

The new deal announced by the ACC is not that kind of blockbuster deal, but it is one that other conferences will look at later and wish they had done. The deal with the CW gives the ACC a presence on a nationally available channel that can be had via an antenna without any need to pay for cable or a streaming service. And as more people drop expensive bundles, whether they be via cable and satellite services or from companies like YouTube and Hulu, getting ahold of live sports will be key.  Just watch the broadcasts, which will feature lower-demand contests turn out to be the top-rated weekly broadcasts on CW.

At the moment most sports leagues, whether they are college sports conferences or transparently professional sports leagues like the NBA, NHL and MLB put most of their content on cable sports channels. But as those very channels run into more and more financial issues, due to the weight of paying for those rights and the loss of revenue as cable providers shed customers, negotiations for TV rights are going to hit a plateau. Cable networks are going to have less money to throw at leagues and other entities are going to jump into the conversation. The CW, which is now 75 percent owned by media company Nexstar is making a major identity shift from being a network with content aimed at teens and kids at heart to a general content and sports-centric audience. Last month it was announced that NFL stalwart, Inside The NFL was going to move from Paramount+ to the CW. The show began on the premium network of premium network HBO where it ran for 31 years before jumping to showtime in 2008. After the brief stint on Paramount+, it finds itself on the home of Superman and Lois. The CW is also rumored to be trying to set up a deal for Big 12 sports.

A lot of sports types don’t understand the significance of the ACC move. But I do. This move is not a sign of weakness for the ACC. It is a sign of big things to come from the CW. And it is a major warning flare for cable sports networks. All of the people joking about the CW being a teeny-bopper network with comic book shows and teen soap operas miss the point of the impact of adding major sports to its lineup. Does anybody remember the perception of FOX before it grabbed the NFL from NBC? It was the home of The Simpsons and Beverly Hills 90210, The Tracy Ulman show etc. Its hits were cult classics in the making. It was long before the birth of FOX News or FOX Sports and its other family of networks. But its bet on the NFL worked. The ACC is not the NFL. But it is the home of Florida State, Clemson, The University of Miami, Duke, UNC, and many other name-brand athletic programs. And while the Duke V UNC basketball matchup won’t be jumping to the network viewers will be able to see schools’ top recruiting classes in action there.

This and the Inside the NFL move will seriously increase the clout of the 5th network and if the ratings come in looking good, it could mean more broadcast channels and college sports leagues set up similar arrangements. Earlier this year there were reports the Pac 12 may set up a deal with ION, another broadcaster with no clout in the sports world, Ion. A network known as a place to find reruns of procedurals and genre content. Again on the surface, it looks like a story about how the mighty have fallen. But what it really means is that the college conference with hubs throughout the west coast and Midwest will have games available to audiences for free throughout their footprint.

It will not be long before Stadium, which is available over the air and via tons of free streaming services picks up a major deal. It is already the home of smaller college sports conferences. Stadium is the closest thing to an over-the-air ESPN in the marketplace at the moment. At the moment it does not look like ESPN. But with each staff cut ESPN looks less and less like ESPN as well. And that talent has to go somewhere. As the talent moves, the ratings will grow. As the ratings grow the ad revenue will grow. Do you see where this is going? Do you think it’s going to take all that long before say an NHL Hockey team decides to cut ties with Bally Sports for lack of payment and partners with a network like Stadium or CW for non-national TV access? I don’t

The key for all of these deals working is to educate viewers as to how to find the content.