Lately, many sports fans who have tried to watch the Winter Olympics, or NCAA Final Four basketball, or the Atlanta Braves, or the Los Angeles Dodgers have been frustrated for a very basic reason.
They can’t find the !?#&*!? sporting event on TV.
On Saturday night, countless college basketball fans tuned in to CBS, hoping to watch the men’s Final Four March Madness tournament matchups of Wisconsin-vs.-Kentucky and Florida-vs.-Connecticut. Instead of basketball, viewers were treated to reruns of CBS dramas "Person of Interest" and "Criminal Minds."
After some confusion, and perhaps some cursing and throwing of remotes, shoes, and cheese dip, previously unaware viewers discovered that for the first time since March Madness has been televised, the national semifinals weren’t shown on network TV. The back-to-back games, played on what’s often thought of the best night of the year for college basketball, were only broadcast on cable. On several cable channels, in fact, thanks to a curious arrangement with Turner Sports, in which TBS hosted the main broadcast, and sister channels TNT and TruTV showed the same game but with different local play-by-play announcers to cater to each team’s fan base.
In any event, the games weren’t on network TV. That was enough to ruin the night for cord cutters, i.e., folks who don’t have pay TV, who have also missed out on the tournament’s many other games shown only on TBS, TNT, or TruTV rather than CBS.
The arrangement did more than alienate the fairly sizeable portion of fans too cheap to have a pay TV package. Despite an onslaught of coverage telling folks that they games were on cable for the first time ever— according to Adweek, the campaign included digital billboards in subways, ads shown before films in theaters, promos on radio and TV, and a takeover of USAToday.com’s home page—the move to cable did some serious damage to TV ratings as well. Yes, when combined the trio of Turner Sports channels achieved a record high number of viewers for a non-football sporting event on cable, but the shift away from network broadcast also resulted in a multi-year low in ratings overall. The Associated Press reported that an average of 14 million viewers watched the games on Saturday night, down 11% from a year ago when they were shown on CBS. (TBS is in 14% fewer American homes than CBS.)
There’s no mystery as to why any of the parties involved would risk aggravating fans by showing the games on cable rather than CBS: Like so many things, it’s all about money.
CBS and Turner Sports are a few years into a 14-year, $10.8 billion partnership with the NCAA to air the March Madness tournament. One reason that TBS and its siblings agreed to the deal—thereby helping CBS from losing the tournament to ESPN and ABC—is that they were guaranteed the right to air some of the tournament’s premier high-ratings games, rather than just the earlier rounds.
More importantly, these networks, and the powers than be in general in sports and TV, are well aware that live sports is the largest reason many Americans continue to cut a check for a monthly pay TV bill. Time Warner, which owns TBS, TNT, TruTV, CNN, and many other cable networks (and, for a little while longer, Time Inc. and Time.com), obviously has great interest in keeping levels of cable-paying households high. They want cord cutting to hurt, or at least be difficult and impractical for sports fans to circumvent, and moving the Final Four to cable does just that.
The Final Four broadcast is hardly the only example of how larger battles over money and TV rights are frustrating the lives and viewing habits of sports fans—perhaps turning some into former fans in the process. Four years ago, NBC Universal angered hockey fans and the hockey world in general by its decision to air some premier Olympic hockey games on cable rather than the main network. Likewise, fans were only able to view many events from the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi by watching them on cable (or streaming them online, only possible with a pay TV account). Of course, Comcast, the biggest player in pay TV, owns NBC Universal, so it makes a lot of sense to strategically broadcast in-demand sporting events in ways that push people to feel the monthly cable bill is still unavoidable, if not exactly well worth the money.
At 162 regular season games plus playoffs, Major League Baseball plays the most games of any pro sport, and therefore it has the most games aired on TV. But thanks to a trend kicked off largely by the advent of the Yankees-focused YES Network more than ten years ago, fans are increasingly likely to be forced to jump through hoops, or at least cough up extra cash, in order to tune in. For instance, an ongoing dispute between Fox Sports and Dish TV in Atlanta will result in some Braves fans being unable to watch nearly one-third of the team’s games this season.
Over in southern California, a huge brawl over Los Angeles Dodgers broadcasts pits the Dodgers-owed SportsNET LA network and its distributor, Time Warner Cable, on one side, and on the other, a range of pay TV providers such as Cox, Charter, and DirecTV, which so far are refusing to pay the high fees being demanded to include the channel in customer packages. Caught in the middle, of course, are the many fans who use other TV providers, and who often don’t live in areas where they could get SportsNET LA even if they wanted to pay for it.
The result is an absurd scenario epitomized by a recent column from the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke, who on Dodgers opening day hit a handful of bars, as well as a taco shop, bowling alley, and a Burger King, trying—and failing—to find the game on TV. The deal the Dodgers cut for the rights to broadcast games is incredibly lucrative for the club. But as Plaschke warned the Dodgers, the money may come at the cost of quite a few fans. “Dodgers, ask your fans if they are willing to sacrifice watching the games on television for the sake of having the league's richest team,” he wrote. “They would say no.”
Plaschke ran into one sports bar patron, who noted the irony of seeing Dodgers jerseys posted to the tavern’s wall and yet “they can't even get the games," he said. "At least everyone can still watch the Angels."
For the time being anyway.