Sports Media Watch presents 20 notable sports media stories of the year 2012. Today, #5-#2, including gold medal ratings for NBC, a pair of major television deals, and the retirement of one of the biggest names in sports.
#5: NBC’s Olympic Success
Sure, NBC’s coverage of the Olympics irritated many viewers. However — and this was key to NBC’s dismissal of its critics — they watched anyway. After NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus said it would be “unlikely” that primetime ratings for the London Olympics would surpass Beijing in 2008, the numbers far exceeded expectations. NBC’s tape-delayed primetime coverage averaged a 17.5 rating, not only up 8% from Beijing (16.2), but the highest average for any non-U.S. Olympics since 1994 and any non-U.S. Summer Olympics since 1976. The Games began with the most-viewed Opening Ceremony of any Summer Olympics, and concluded with the top Summer Closing Ceremony since 1996.
The increases are even more impressive when one considers that none of the London primetime coverage aired live. In 2008, as mentioned previously, some primetime coverage from Beijing aired live in the Eastern and Central time zones, including high-profile events gymnastics and swimming.
The success was not just limited to primetime. NBC had double-digit increases for weekday and weekend afternoon windows as well as late night coverage. NBC’s cable networks also had a slight increase in viewership over 2008, with the NBC Sports Network — which had not previously televised Olympic coverage — setting numerous viewership records.
#4: NBA’s Stern Announces Retirement
NBA Commissioner David Stern is not headed anywhere anytime soon, but the mere fact that he put an end date on his three-decade tenure was news enough. Days before the start of the 2012-13 NBA season, Stern announced that he will retire effective February 1, 2014. Stern’s highly controversial tenure — marred by four lockouts, two shortened seasons, and intermittent power trips — also coincided with a dramatic rise, fall, and resurgence in the popularity of the NBA.
The ongoing 2012-13 season will be the last full campaign for Stern, but he is not going gently into that good night. After incurring fan wrath for the owners’ lockout and the Chris Paul fiasco in 2011, Stern again made himself a target in 2012 for fining the San Antonio Spurs franchise $250,000 for resting their best players in a nationally televised game. Surely, Stern will make more headlines over the next thirteen months.
Current NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver is expected to replace Stern in 2014. Previously the president of NBA Entertainment, Silver is not as nearly combative as Stern, at least publicly. It will be a cold day somewhere before Silver cups his hand to his ear to bask in fans’ boos at the NBA Draft. After 30 years of having a commissioner whose personality often overshadowed the sport, who became larger-than-life to the point that fans believed him to be an all-powerful puppet-master targeting their favorite team, an understated leader like Silver could be a breath of fresh air.
With that said, do not expect Silver to differ from Stern where it really matters. During the most recent NBA lockout, Silver played a starring role — though he was far more conciliatory than Stern in public, and likely in private as well. Silver’s father was even a senior partner at Proskauer Rose — the law firm that employed Stern and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and currently represents all four pro sports in collective bargaining agreements. In other words, new leadership is unlikely to lead to a change in the NBA’s negotiating strategy when the league’s current collective bargaining agreement expires in just over four years.
#3: College football playoff and TV deal
After years and years of fan displeasure with the Bowl Championship Series, major college football finally adopted a playoff system in 2012. The new format, which goes into effect in the 2014-15 season, features seven total games each year — the national title game and six bowls (Rose, Sugar, Orange, and three other unnamed bowls) that will rotate as the site of the semifinal games.
One would have thought that a college football playoff would generate a huge bidding war from the networks. Not the case. Current BCS rightsholder ESPN held onto the entire playoff with relative ease. Rival networks, namely FOX, were said to be interested – but ESPN had no real rival in any of the negotiations. Over the summer, the network snatched up rights to the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl, the three ‘contract bowls’ that were up for bid separately from the rest of the contract. The network spent an estimated $215 million/year on those three games alone, topping the annual rights fee the network currently pays for the BCS.
With the benefit of an exclusive negotiating window, ESPN was able to hold onto rights to the rest of the playoff package in November for a reported $470 million per year. Together, the four television deals run through the 2025-26 season and will cost ESPN nearly $700 million per year — around the same price the network paid for dozens of Major League Baseball games. A steep price for just seven games, but considering the escalation of rights fees over the years, and the massive audiences the playoffs will surely generate, the deal will likely look like a bargain by the six-year mark.
#2: MLB TV Deals
For a league that set multiple record-lows in television ratings over the past five years, Major League Baseball was an extremely hot property in 2012. Every single major sports division expressed interest in a piece of Major League Baseball rights once they hit the open market – Fox Sports, ESPN, Turner Sports, NBC Sports and even CBS Sports. The result was a $12.4 billion haul for a sport whose value extends well beyond television ratings.
Three MLB television packages were up for bid this year, each expiring after the 2013 season. ESPN renewed its contract in August, reaching a $700 million/year deal to keep Sunday and Wednesday night games, add one of the two annual Wild Card playoff games, and – most importantly – eliminate most local blackouts. While ESPN only obtained the rights to one playoff game per year, having hours of Major League Baseball coverage to get the network through the dog days of summer was worth the hefty price tag.
FOX and TBS had more difficulty renewing their deals. At one point in negotiations, it appeared that either FOX or TBS would renew MLB rights, but not both. In that scenario, the two networks’ existing rights would have been combined into one massive package. In the most intriguing turn in the negotiations, Turner Sports and CBS at one point offered a combined bid that would have placed the World Series on CBS for the first time since the early 1990s.
As interesting as that possibility was, Major League Baseball ultimately went with the sensible move and kept the packages separate. FOX held onto the World Series and one League Championship Series, doubled its regular season slate, and added half of the Division Series. A huge chunk of the FOX games — including 40 of the 52 regular season windows — will air on a still-undetermined FOX cable network. TBS, meanwhile, kept rights to the other LCS, but lost dozens of games — half of the Division Series to FOX, half of the Wild Card games to ESPN, and half of its Sunday afternoon regular season schedule.
The top sports media story of 2011 will be posted on Friday, December 28.