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The mailbag is posted early today because I’m on the road to Atlanta for the SEC title game. And by “SEC title game” I mean Alabama’s murdering of the Florida Gators in front of a live television audience.
If you’re a member of the Outkick crew in town for the game or living in Atlanta, I may Tweet out a location to come grab drinks with me tonight. So add that into your evening mix.
Here we go with the mailbag.
“I name you the supreme commissioner of college football and you have unlimited power, what do you do to make the sport better?”
I would expand the playoff to eight teams and eliminate all conference title games and divisions.
I’d play those four first round playoff games on college campuses of the higher seed and include all five regular season conference champions and three wild-card teams. We could use the committee seeding for playoff purposes.
So your playoff this year would look like this:
#1 Alabama against #8 Oklahoma
#2 Ohio State against #7 Penn State
#3 Clemson against #6 Wisconsin
#4 Washington against #5 Michigan
By eliminating the conference title games you’d erase a superfluous game and keep college athletes playing the same number of games in a regular season as they play now. Only two teams would play 15 games. Only four teams would play 14. Every other team would play 13 games or less.I do think that matters as we look at the degree to which college players are getting injured.
I hate the idea of divisions in college football with a blinding fury. They are arbitrary, dumb, and reward geography over achievement. (See below for an explanation of how much they’ve hurt the SEC title game over the years).
Sure, you might have some co-champs who never played each other in major conferences, but so what? There’s nothing wrong with having co-league champs. Plus, odds are both teams would advance to the playoff in most seasons.
“Just read your excellent article about ESPN and their vortex of problems and cord-cutters. What are your thoughts about them eventually morphing into “games only”, scrapping OTL, sportscenter, and filling the gaps with infomercials?
Also, where does this leave regional sports networks? Do you see them as an eventual victim and will the pro teams/leagues eventually take over production and distribution via apps streaming and their own cable channels? Although some teams have long term deals with RSN’s, many are up for renewal in the next few years (Cubs, Bulls, White Sox). Where do you see the new partnerships heading?”
I’m not even going to pretend to be an expert on regional sports networks, but the same issues that face the national sports networks also face the regional ones. That is, if cord cutting continues to accelerate then regional sports networks will find themselves in the same precarious situation as ESPN. The networks that have recently signed the most expensive deals are in the worst trouble and those that have deals expiring in the next couple of years are in the best position because I suspect you will start to see these deals becoming much less lucrative.
At its most basic level the story about ESPN’s collapse is about economics — the cable and satellite business is the best in the history of all media. But that business is rapidly unraveling and the business benefit that these cable channels had: 1. distribution and 2. money are both rapidly falling apart. Distribution costs are virtually zero now — that is, I can reach the same number of people with my Periscope and Facebook Live shows as a major media company can and for much less cost — and the money is rapidly diminishing because the subscribers are declining in a hurry.
So what should be the plan going forward?
I’m going to expound on this with a full column next week, but I think all sports networks eventually are going to have to answer this question — what do we produce that people really want to watch? Putting on games doesn’t count because that’s not really your content. That’s the league’s content that you buy to put on your network. If the leagues ever decide to put the games on themselves they could easily hire their own production staffs from ESPN, Fox, CBS and NBC talent and produce the games themselves.
At some point in the years ahead I suspect they’ll do this.
My big idea on sports content going forward is this — you have to produce content that creates die hard fans. You don’t have to appeal to everyone — those days are over — but you do have to find an audience of people that really, truly love what you do and will do whatever it takes to watch it. These audiences don’t even have to be that large, they just have to love your product.
Is there any non-game on any sports network that fits that bill right now? Something that you have to DVR and are willing to watch days later? The answer is no. Right now all sports content produced by sports networks is disposable and designed not to challenge or offend viewers. As a general rule, it’s impossible to make content that people love if some people don’t also hate it. Right now most sports programming is pretty bland. That’s by design. The networks are partners with the leagues and any time they produce content that upsets the league — see, “Playmakers” years ago on ESPN — the league throws a fit.
ESPN, Fox, NBC, and CBS all fail to create content that has a shelf life of longer than 24 hours.
Compare that with everyone else in cable, their goal is to produce content that’s evergreen and lasts forever, right? My kids are going to grow up and one day watch “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” and probably like it just as much as I do right now. But odds are they’ll never watch a single sporting event that happened in 2016. And it’s almost certain that they’ll never watch a sports show on any of these networks. Hell, how many of you even DVR a single sports show at all?
I think sports networks are in a precarious place, where they spend billions of dollars on content that they don’t actually own, they’re just renting. And I believe the future will be about owning your audience and your content. Right now every sports network is essentially a middleman, they exist only because the leagues allow them to exist. Why do the leagues allow them to exist? Because they can pay more than the leagues can make by selling the games themselves. But will that always be the case? I have my doubts. Especially because, as I have shown you with ESPN, the business that allows the networks to pay for all these sports rights is rapidly declining.
Plus, why rent when you can own?
For instance, I think Fox should have bought the UFC. Instead of paying billions of dollars for the content over the next generation, why not spend billions up front to own it forever? Take this a step further: wouldn’t it make more sense for Facebook to buy the entire NBA, for instance, than pay to put their games on? You may think this is a crazy idea, but Facebook is worth $332 billion right now. Let’s say the entire NBA, every franchise, is worth $50 billion. If Facebook wants to get into sports, which the leagues desperately need, this is the only way I see it making sense.
Why not buy the entire league and monetize it that way? That’s the way I’d approach things if I were advising the big tech companies — Apple, Google and Amazon, right now. Hell, the real play for these companies might be to swear off real traditional sports rights and just buy up all the Esports leagues.
Think about it — why are there individual team owners? Why doesn’t a huge corporation just buy every NBA team or NFL team or Major League Baseball team and then produce the content surrounding the teams and leagues they own? The obstacle, clearly, is getting every owner to sell, but I think, increasingly, that would make more sense than having 30 or more different NBA, Major League Baseball or NFL team owners all managing a league and renting its games to a distributor.
I’m going to write much more about this in the near future, but for now these are some of my thoughts.
The big takeaway is this: all sports TV networks are middlemen, are they really necessary in the future?
“A friend recently visited ESPN and in the meetings he attended, the subscriber loss was addressed. It appears that ESPN is currently working on a plan to provide consumers with a direct media service. A “skinny ESPN” if you will. I didn’t get any details of the plan, but I was told that ESPN expects higher revenue from this service, than from cable subscriptions.
This makes sense in theory. Say ESPN rolls out a direct-to-consumer package costing anywhere from $9.99 to $15.99 a month. That number is already higher than the $7 we already pay through the cable companies. Could ESPN successfully launch this service and achieve the subscription volume to surpass (probably not replace) their cable subscription revenue?
The challenge for ESPN would be how to build this package. There would surely be disputes between them and the cable companies. A likely compromise being that ESPN would lower what they charge a month, and the cable companies giving leeway for ESPN to be able to go over the top and direct to consumers.”
Yeah, this over-the-top network is clearly what ESPN is trying to sell to the investment community, but it’s ultimately a bad business.
Let me explain why.
Right now ESPN has 88.4 million subscribers and makes in the neighborhood of $7.5 billion a year off this audience. (Each cable and satellite subscriber pays roughly $7 a month all year long).
No ESPN show has ever had more than 28.3 million viewers. (The college football playoff in 2014 is the highest rated programming ESPN has ever done.) The next most watched show is generally Monday Night Football, which averages around 10 million viewers. The point I’m making here is that even the most popular shows have a fraction of the overall subscribers watching them. That’s because the majority of people who pay $84 a year for ESPN don’t watch the channel on a regular basis.
And once you go to shows that ESPN actually owns, the ratings collapse even further. The most popular non-live sports event that ESPN airs is Pardon the Interruption. Most days PTI has less viewers than “Gunsmoke” on TVLand Classic, somewhere around 700k people a day. I’m not trying to disparage PTI, I love Tony Kornheiser, I’m just pointing out that even the most successful sports programming has a relatively small audience.
That’s all background for this point — once ESPN goes over-the-top — assuming ESPN can even do this under the contracts it signed — it rapidly loses the casual subscriber because Comcast and DirecTV and Dish Network and the like all drop ESPN from their basic tier of programming channels.
The question you have to answer is two-fold: 1. how many people actually watch ESPN every month? and 2. how many of those people are willing to pay for ESPN? Let’s assume that ESPN’s average viewership in a month is 15 million people. (Which is probably high since ESPN’s product is so seasonal — football dominates — but let’s give them 15 million viewers every month.)
Okay, of that 15 million, how many people would pay for ESPN? Let’s give them an insanely high percentage and say 10 million households would pay, that’s two-thirds of the people who watch in an average month.
What would you need to get from those 10 million households to make up $7.2 billion?
You’d need each household to pay $720 a year or $60 a month! Even if you doubled it and said that 20 million households would pay for ESPN, that’s still everyone paying $30 a month in an over-the-top offering.
Okay, how does that compare with the existing marketplace?
So far HBONow has roughly 1 million subscribers with its over the top network.
If HBO, which has tons of huge shows with massive demand, and regularly produces 20 million + viewers for Game of Thrones, can only get 1 million subscribers at $20 a month, do you really think ESPN can get 20x that?
All of this doesn’t even consider what would be a massive issue — sports are seasonal. The vast majority of subscribers would only want ESPN for football season. And even then only for the point up until the NFL playoffs start, at which point the games are on “free” TV. So the odds are that even those people who subscribed would do it for much less than 12 months a year. My guess is the average subscriber would only sign up for five months, roughly September until the end of December.
So the reality is you’d probably need to either charge more for football season or demand a 12 month contract.
Further, did you know that only 2 million DirecTV households sign up for NFL Sunday Ticket every year? That’s 10% of DirecTV’s 20 million subscriber base. Now the Sunday Ticket is exclusively offered by DirecTV, but only 10% of DirecTV’s subscribers are signing up for it. We have to assuem that a decent percentage of those people only have DirecTV for the Sunday Ticket as well. If we assumed the NFL Sunday Ticket were available to all cable and satellite subscribers, I’d guess that the market would be only around 8 million or so households.
So I’d suspect that’s probably what ESPN’s ceiling would be for an over-the-top network.
Put simply, there is no way on earth that an over-the-top ESPN network can come anywhere close to replicating the revenue it gets from the existing cable and satellite marketplace.
“I’ve been a fan since Dixieland Delight and admire your work and the courage it took to make the leap. I even shared some of your show (via podcast) to my wife in the spring when you waxed poetically about doing what you love and following your talents. She’s made a career change and is much happier now. So thanks.
Moving on from the ball fondling that you love so dearly, while pretending to work today, I was thinking about your division-less conference proposal. I’ve also been high on going away from college football divisions for a long time..
Please see the attached Word doc illustrating what the last 25 years in Atlanta would have looked like without divisions. The only potential negative I took from it was the Florida-Tennessee rematches that would have taken place constantly in the 90’s.
SEC Championship games (if no divisions and two best teams went)
Order of qualifications: 1. Conference record, 2. Head-to-Head (if multiple ties, record among participants against each other), 3. Overall record, 4. Playoff committee chooses (and I used rankings).
Note: 13 would be the same game; 12 would be different
Most appearances: 16 for UF; 11 for Bama; 8 for UT; 5 for Auburn; 4 for LSU; 2 for UGA
1992: Same (UF vs. Bama)
*1993: Florida vs. Tennessee (Auburn was on probation)
1994: Same (UF vs. Bama)
1995: Florida vs. Tennessee
1996: Florida vs. Tennessee
1997: Tennessee vs. Florida
1998: Tennessee vs. Florida
1999: Same (UF vs. Bama)
2000: Same (UF vs. Auburn)
2001: Tennessee vs. Florida
2002: Georgia vs. Florida (Bama probation)
2003: LSU vs. Ole Miss
2004: Same (Auburn vs. Tenn)
2005: LSU vs. Auburn
2006: Same (UF vs. Ark)
2007: Same (LSU vs. Tenn)
2008: Same (UF vs. Bama)
2009: Same (UF vs. Bama)
2010: Auburn vs. Arkansas
2011: LSU vs. Alabama
2012: Same (UGA vs. Bama)
2013: Auburn vs. Alabama
2014: Same (Mizzou vs. Bama)
2015: Same (UF vs. Bama)
2016: Same (UF vs. Bama)
This is fantastic work.
Isn’t it crazy that if you took the two best teams in the SEC that the SEC title game changes half the time?
This means that nearly half the time we’ve been arbitraily rewarding playoff spots to the SEC title game for the past 25 years.
College football divisions are the spawn of Satan and must go.
“Is there a more secure location for a 30 minute period in Alabama than room where Saban gets his hair colored in? Two probable scenarios:
1) A follicular consultant (eccentric gay guy, right? Has to be) is driven in from Birmingham at 2am crawling through the Saban’s woods to get to a storm shelter. Inside there is a series of hallways guarded by steel doors, requiring retina scanning to open. Saban sits in silence in a low lit room at the end of the final hallway. No words are spoken as the hair is dyed. The consultant leaves the way he came, signing a non-disclosure agreement as he leaves.
2) Miss Terry dyes it weekly after Sunday brunch.
Also, how much is a video of Saban getting his hair dyed worth? It’d be a bidding war between Saban and every SEC fan base to own those rights.”
I love this question so much.
Who does Nick Saban’s hair coloring?
And how is male hair coloring so underdiscussed? A huge percentage of men color their hair. Why? Because idiots like me don’t even think about it. My hair has started to go grey and I don’t think I’m going to dye it, but I’m 37 years old.
By the time I’m fifty years old I will definitely have a decent amount of grey hair.
Yet look at how many college coaches have zero grey in their hair.
Why do they do this? In fact, doesn’t coloring his hair seem totally anti everything Saban stands for? It’s entirely based on vanity, wastes time, and offers no tangible benefit.
Unless, do you think dark hair is a part of the process? Do you think Saban thinks it’s important for recruiting to make the players he’s recruiting think he’s younger?
I’m filled with questions on this now.
Okay, I’m off to Atlanta for the SEC title game.
Hope y’all have fantastic weekends.