Cable Show 2012: Sports Will Stay in Play for Years to Come

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That’s the prediction of panelists at the NCTA convention, addressing the one form of programming it is impossible to copy and that people want to watch live.

BOSTON – They may grumble about strikes, players who behave badly and the ever-rising cost of rights, but there was no question at a panel during the opening general session Wednesday at the NCTA convention that sports are a hot ticket in TV these days.

“Sports at this point is a central part of the culture and there is no better place to be than in sports,” said John Skipper, president of ESPN and co-chairman of Disney Media Networks, adding: “It can't be knocked off and it must be watched live, which makes it unique in programming today.”

“It’s the last thing you have to watch live,” said David Levy, president of sales, distribution and sports for Turner Broadcasting. “Ultimately you are going to pay for that.”

Noting that they have purchased rights to the annual college basketball final tournament far in advance, Levy added, “You have a built-in fan base each and every year. We know there is going to be an audience for March Madness in 2026. With American Idol, we're not sure what is going to happen in 10 years.”

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David Hill, chairman and CEO of Fox Sports Media Group, came to the defense of American Idol as an enduring franchise but also agreed that sports will continue to have a future. “We are social beings,” said Hill, “and sports is tribal.”

Sports also is proving durable in the era of new media, the panelists agreed.

“What we’ve discovered is if you want to engage the world in a single conversation, sports is the place,” said NBA commissioner David Stern. “That’s only been enhanced by what I call the digital watercooler.”

“Sports is inherently social,” said Skipper. “We believe large social networks compliment what we do. I don’t think social networks will buy sports rights, so we are looking to see what we can do together. We are working with Twitter on large sports events.”

Skipper said they believe social media interaction increases viewership of the sports on their channels. “So it’s good for all of us,” he said. “We think there may be some additional commerce in it and we are working on that.”

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Hill, the Australian-born visionary who has revolutionized the technology of American sports with everything from the scoreboard box on the screen to new ways to cover the drama of baseball, said “the next big development for all of us is the second-screen experience. I don’t believe that has been explored in terms of potential as it should be. If you look at multi-tasking that is going on, a valid second screen experience (people watching a second screen in addition to the primary screen) – which could be American Idol - is going to be a huge development down the road.”

Stern was enthusiastic about the ability of social media to engage, enhance and extend interest in the NBA. He said that is why they have used social media extensively, put a lot of content on the Internet and used NBA TV as a tool to promote all of the chatter and discussion about the sport.

However, Stern repeatedly raised a concern about the ability of sports arenas, even the newest ones, to accommodate the interests of the fans.

“We’ve got to worry about the arena experience,” said Stern. “We have got to make sure we innovate. We must re-wire our arenas because we’re dealing with a generation that will not accept being without their handheld devices for three hours, and right now a lot of arenas can’t do that.”

No sports discussion would be complete without some worrying about the rising cost of sports rights. At a panel discussion at the NCTA this week, a Wall Street analyst worried that rights fees were going to put a squeeze on cable to the point it could interfere with their ability to do other things. The Wednesday panelists did not disagree that rights are rising and expensive, but the attitude seemed to be that it is an inevitable part of the value of sports on TV.

“Anybody who thinks they can figure out what rights are going to be worth in 2026 doesn’t really know,” said Skipper, referring to a recent news story about the sale of some sports rights far into the future. “What we will make a bet on is that the value of sports rights are going to continue to appreciate. We would love it if sports rights would come down, but sports rights are going up because the value of sports rights are going up.”

Hill recalled a CBS executive who in 1977 said sports rights had gone as high as it was possible for them to go and they would not go any higher. What he did not recognize, said Hill, is that “sports rights are the purest example of supply and demand.”