I've talked about this before, but it is worth remembering, one more time, that a lot fewer people care about sports than you and I -- the type of people who read a random sports column on a website, or would write one -- think they do. In a Marist poll two years ago, 61 percent of Americans identified themselves as sports fans, which is a number that's probably a little high. (Depending on how the question was phrased and fashioned, it's likely a lot more people say "sure, I like sports" without spending much time watching them.) Sixty-one percent is not nothing, obviously. But the power of the sports industry goes far beyond 61 percent.
The main reason for this is television. Television -- specifically, cable -- remains the most profitable, widespread way of consuming media in this country, but in the last decade, television viewing habits have changed in ways the industry hasn't caught up to yet. Parks and Recreation remains my favorite television comedy, but when its season finale aired on Thursday, I frankly didn't even consider watching it live on television. I was busy Thursday, which was fine: I could just watch it, flying by commercials, whenever I found the time. Sports are obviously not like this: Watching a full NBA playoff game two days afterward, like I did with Parks and Recreation, would be pointless. In a world where jerks like me always fly by commercials and watch television in ways that are difficult to quantify, sports programming is a godsend to the television industry: Sports fans are the only people left who watch TV like it's still 1984.
This has meant that sports networks -- and thus sports leagues -- have become more powerful (and rich) than ever before; they're essentially subsidizing non-sports channels at this point. Studies have shown that the average cable consumer pays 15 percent of their bill to sports channels whether or not they even know where they are on the dial. If you have a friend who has cable but doesn't watch ESPN, know that they are giving them roughly $5 a month, personally, for literally nothing. This advantage of cable bundling works to the advantage of the sports fan. But only us.
None of this is particularly revelatory, I am aware; it has been covered countless places, not least of which by our own Patrick Hruby. But it may be all about to change soon. And it could alter the current sports landscape in ways I'm not sure we're prepared for.
In yesterday's New York Times, the estimable David Carr mapped out how the cable industry is under siege in a way it has never been before. It's being chipped away at from all directions: The Supreme Court potentially ruling against it in a key copyright case involving the company Aereo; Netflix coming out against the Comcast/Time Warner merger; streaming companies increasing their ability to reliably stream video online; more and more customers watching video on their mobile phones rather than their TVs anyway.
The bundling model of cable companies had seemed indestructible; cord-cutters were waved away as pointless pedants. But the way cable companies work -- the way they've sustained their power -- is antithetical to the way people now consume media. (It's no wonder the service providers are now fighting to do away with net neutrality; they're trying to box us in from all sides.) We are an a la carte culture now: The notion that people should pay for big bulks and bundles of channels -- that they should purchase things they don't want in order to get things they do -- is standing against every emerging consumer attitude, against actual progress. This is just not what people want anymore.
The cable companies will continue to fight, and they'll even win some battles along the way. (Though that net neutrality business is particularly noxious.) But they can cling as tightly, and in the long run, it won't matter: Their business model is outdated, and eventually, it will be borne out as such. Ask the music industry, or the print media industry, how refusing to change can vivisect everything you thought you knew in a short number of years. The cable bubble has long been speculated about; Carr's piece makes the strong argument it is just about to bust.
The effects this will have on the world of sports are mammoth: It'll upend everything. The recent influx of money into the world of sports has been almost a direct result of sports' power over the cable industry, and if that industry is weakened, a lot of that money is going to disappear. The money in sports has grown so fast in recent years that the games themselves have barely been able to keep pace; look at how suddenly disgusting college sports appear when billions of dollars are flowing into the game and players are begging for meal money.
The professional sports leagues have so much money coming in that they can't figure out what to spend it all on; you can't even tell what's a good player contract or a bad one anymore. We have new teams, new conferences, new rules, new everythings, all because of the cable money. If that is threatened, in any way, so much could go away, so quickly. Think of how chaotic sports is right now, with money falling from the skies. Imagine what happens in cost-cutting mode.
There is this sense that because sports are so powerful and so lucrative right now, that this will always be like this, that this bountiful harvest will go on forever. That happens to be the very definition of a bubble. It might not happen this year, it might not happen next year, but at some point, the fever is going to break. The world of sports isn't ready, not by a long shot. Are you?
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