Before the decade is out, sports will exist only on ESPN.
This is an oversimplification, of course. Take "sports" to mean the big ticket national and international events like Wimbledon, the World Cup, the Olympics. And take "ESPN" to represent the 24-hour dedicated sports network. With the rise of cable TV, and the ongoing splintering of viewership among special interest channels, there simply may be no room for a niche program like grown men and women playing with balls on the for-everyone networks.
We refer, directly and obliquely, to ESPN landing the exclusive rights to Wimbledon for the next 12 years at a reported price of $40 million a year. That's a huge bump in perceived value from the old contract, which started in 2003, when ESPN and NBC agreed to pay a combined $23 million annually. This time, with the networks bidding against each other, we're told that both were willing and able to pay the new price. What put ESPN's bid over the top was the willingness to show everything live.
Fans have long been vocally unhappy about NBC's tape-delayed broadcasts, and the All-England Club has made no secret of its own displeasure. Ratings for tape-delayed matches suffered, even though they aired at a more convenient time in America. So why wouldn't NBC commit to showing every match from Centre Court live, no matter the ungodly hour?
Matt Lauer, mainly.
NBC's not stupid, and GE didn't become the third-largest public company because it passes on chances to make the most money. The decision comes down to opportunity cost. On one hand, there's the viewership lost by airing a match we already know the outcome of. On the other hand, there's the viewership lost by preempting The Today Show for live tennis. Guess which brings in more ad sales?
NBC, or any network that commits to a long-term TV deal, has to be concerned not only with recouping its money from commercial sales, but also the lost money from whatever's being preempted. For NBC, that's a fortnight of The Today Show, with around 5 million viewers daily; for ESPN, it's the 7am SportsCenter.
Opportunity cost is why sports-only networks like ESPN can afford to offer more than broadcast networks for the World Cup. Somewhat paradoxically, it's because their ratings are lower that they can clog up their programming for two weeks or a month with a single event.
(If we had footnotes, here is where we would point out that the Olympics are a different animal altogether. No one makes money on the Olympics, yet NBC outbid ESPN by more than half-a-billion dollars for the next two Games. That's solely for the prestige, to garner industry awards and brand NBC as a world-class organization. It's a loss leader.)
(The Super Bowl, too, will remain on network TV. It's already a three-ring circus that's custom made for a slow winter Sunday evening with no competition, and it's been presented as everything except actual football for a long time now.)
NBC gets all this. It gets that to compete in the fractured TV market of the next century, it will need its own dedicated sports channel. That's why it will spend a ton of money rebranding Versus as NBCSports or Comcast Sports, and hopefully turn a profit with their NHL deal. That's why, in Wimbledon negotiations, NBC told the All-England Club that it could commit to all live broadcasts as soon as 2014, by which time presumably their new sports network will be up and running, and on basic cable.
The future belongs to sports networks. ESPN, NBC, Fox Sports. Hyperspecific channels, too: No one does golf more comprehensively than the Golf Channel, nor soccer more extensively than Fox Soccer. It's also happening at a local level. Where just a decade ago you watched your home teams on a local network affiliate, now it's all RSNs. In the end, the broadcast networks will be devoid of sports, their programming devoted wholly to inoffensive general interest shows that won't turn off the very large part of the country that doesn't care about sports.
For the average fan, unconcerned with TV execs' bottom lines, this is for the best. For all ESPN's faults, they're never going to bump Federer/Nadal for Mike and Mike. While the pseudosports programming will remain to fill a 24/7 grid, any sports channel that's going to survive will recognize where the value lies. The sport's the thing.