In a time of year where people are sorta-kinda-not really working in the office, there were still some sports, media and tech executives aiming to close deals over spiked egg nog. In the process of putting this list together, the NFL and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) made an agreement to bring the league’s Sunday Ticket package to YouTube TV. For those who believe that the NFL is the center of the universe, the last year in speculation over the future of its out-of-market package affirmed the league’s position as the most popular entertainment company in the United States.
The Sunday Ticket talks were voluminous over the past twelve months, though the impact on NFL fandom at large is somewhat overstated (more on that later). As details on the new pact emerge in the coming weeks, there are plenty of other agreements, changes and conflicts that will impact what we see (or not see) on sports television in 2023. Each trend or development includes a prediction, most rooted in a reading of the tea leaves and others could be called wishful thinking.
In no particular order with the exception of our first story, here are the ten biggest sports television stories we’ll be keeping our eyes on in 2023.
Will the NBA move on from TNT and ESPN?
In this scribe’s opinion, no other sports television story will loom as large as the decision the NBA makes on which networks will keep and/or buy broadcasting rights for the next half-decade or more. Why? Because whether the incumbents retain the rights or the NBA chooses new partners, a group of TV networks will have the ability to fill programming schedules with a reliable (though expensive) content provider from late October through late June. Having the NBA on your network guarantees millions of (mostly male, but ethnically and geographically diverse) viewers for advertisers during primetime hours for eight months of the year.
All of which made words from Warner Bros. Discovery president David Zaslav so alarming when he said that the company, through TNT and its management of NBA TV, doesn’t need the league. The comments are widely viewed as a way of negotiating through the media (and oddly by some as more ammunition in the mythical NFL vs. NBA popularity war), but the reality is that not re-upping with the NBA would leave the largest gaping hole of any network schedule on television. Even with the NHL and Major League Baseball on board for the next six years, WBD would have a hard time finding a content creator (other than the NFL) that attracts the relatively diverse mass audience enjoyed by the NBA.
As for Disney via ESPN and ABC, it has a harmonious relationship with the Association, and it’s hard to imagine that truly changing any time soon. Any chance that the NBA would move on from ‘The Mouse’ might have been squashed with Bob Iger’s sudden return as CEO.
What is interesting is how other leagues have emphasized digital rights in recent years. We’ve seen what the NFL has done between signing Thursday Night Football over to Amazon, Apple absorbing Major League Soccer’s digital platform and adding Friday night MLB games, and even ESPN taking over the NHL’s out-of-market package last season.
If the NBA’s serious about getting $75 billion in its next media deals, would its League Pass or even NBA TV come into play? We know that local streaming rights could be in the offering if Sinclair and Diamond Sports can’t get their act together. On a larger scale, does Apple refocus efforts towards the NBA after backing off the NFL Sunday Ticket talks? Will Alphabet want more than just sponsorships and hope to further enhance YouTube TV? Has Amazon proven to be the real deal in sports? And let’s not forget that Disney now has full ownership of BAMTech, which is the underpinning of so many major media platforms.
At the buzzer: Disney/ESPN and WBD/Turner will retain linear rights. However, a separate bidding war for digital rights, including local streaming rights and perhaps the management of NBA League Pass, wages deep into the new year.
Who will do business with Scripps Sports?
Speaking of potential, the NBA isn’t only in the business of national broadcasts as every league that isn’t the NFL relies on local and regional sports channels to show most games in their individual markets. With plenty of talk about the struggles that Sinclair/Diamond Sports are having with their Bally RSNs, a new entrant to the local marketplace wants a place at the negotiating table.
Just over two years after E.W. Scripps acquired ION Television, the legacy media company appears to have the infrastructure in place to add live games with the development of Scripps Sports. While the company says it doesn’t plan on shooting its shot for the biggest of pro leagues just yet, its vast portfolio of O&O affiliates – most of them operated by ION – could provide an alternative in Sinclair territories, should local teams that are signed to Sinclair want to jump ship.
Beyond a turf war between the two media firms over existing deals, Scripps reportedly plans to bid for rights to the NWSL, which would certainly lift the financial tide for the women’s soccer league.
Let’s get bold: Scripps stuns the masses by signing on with another ‘challenger’ brand, albeit a very controversial one below this sentence.
Who wants to LIV (Golf)?
Headed towards its second season, LIV Golf it still in search of a US-based linear broadcaster. Its YouTube viewership has been abysmal, the partnership with sports streamer DAZN hasn’t helped much, and it was so desperate for eyeballs that it reportedly considered buying airtime on FS1 (a report that was vehemently denied).
As broadcasters of the PGA Tour, ESPN, CBS and NBC don’t want any smoke with the established brand. Even those that don’t have deals with the PGA such as News Corp/FOX and Warner Bros Discovery/Turner would like to keep themselves in the tour’s good graces for future deals. Yet, none of them are itching to work with LIV Golf for geopolitical reasons as it’s part of a larger sportswashing campaign from the Saudi government.
Could this be an opportunity for Sinclair/Diamond Sports or Scripps via ION? It would be a massive risk for either firm to take as the upper echelon of advertisers likely won’t come on board. However, as an available content provider that’s unattached to any network, Sinclair or Scripps would provide LIV a footprint that’s far larger than a YouTube channel or DAZN feed. It helps that neither has a relationship with the PGA in any form.
Wishful thinking: Scripps eases into a relationship with LIV by starting with broadcasts from local affiliates in the same market as US tournaments. The May tournament in Oklahoma or August in West Virginia could be ideal test runs.
Will Tom Brady really join FOX?
His comeback on Christmas night withstanding, ‘should the so-called GOAT join the broadcast booth upon his retirement’ is the preferred question, right? Other than the announcement of his mammoth deal with FOX that begins once he finally retires, 2022 has not been a banner year for Brady. Yet he’s still playing at the age of 45, with rumors flying about a reunion with the New England Patriots or a homecoming with the San Francisco 49ers next season. At this point, the only thing that could stop Brady from trading his playbook for a microphone would be on-field health since he seems hellbent on fighting Father Time.
If (according to Joe Buck) and when he does finally join FOX, there’s no question he’ll be the most scrutinized player-turned-analyst in sports television history.
How will HBO Max fare with US Soccer?
Every year, someone is tasked with striking while the iron is hot when it comes to American soccer. Warner Bros Discovery decided to take on the challenge after signing an eight-year, $200M rights deal with US Soccer last March, with 20 women’s and men’s team matches across HBO Max, TNT, and TBS. It’s important to emphasize that just ten of those games will be shown on the linear networks, but all 20 will stream live on HBO Max.
The linear and digital performance of the men’s matches for the first three seasons of the deal will likely depend on whether FIFA allows the US, Canada, and Mexico to automatically qualify for the ’26 men’s World Cup since they are the host nations. If they automatically qualify, USMNT’s lead-up matches will be friendlies instead of qualifying matches with the highest stakes. This may not matter a great deal in ’23, but after their showing in Qatar, the men will certainly have their best viewership in the last decade. Yet, the first serious test of the new pact will come from the women, who will play qualifiers leading up to their World Cup this coming summer. With uncertainty over which games will be available for WBD, it may take a while to find out if soccer is a value add for the streamer.
Golden goal or own goal?: The linear broadcasts may underperform a bit in 2023 as the splintering of soccer television in the US continues. Through its self-reported (but Nielsen-monitored) metrics, WBD will tout record viewership for the USWNT on HBO Max, as is always the case when live sports properties hit a streamer for the first time.
Pac-12 fighting to stay a power in Power Five
Do you envy Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff right about now? Probably not. With USC and UCLA set to move to the Big Ten in 2024, he and the stewards of the conference are in a race to replace the two Los Angeles-based schools AND keep other schools from leaving for greener pastures. Oh, and pray to the sports gods one of its members actually breaks the death grip that the SEC and Big Ten have on the College Football Playoff.
There’s a bit of a chicken or egg scenario at play for the Pac-12: does it forge a new rights deal first and hope it can attract the right schools later or does it bring schools on board and swing for the fences with media afterwards? Regardless, it sounds as if no matter what, the highest of priorities might be to stop the bleeding by making nice with its remaining higher-profile members Oregon and Washington. If they can be wooed by the Big Ten or Big 12, the Pac-12 as we know it is dead, as well as any prospects of sweetheart deals with incumbent partners FOX and ESPN. And despite Kliavkoff’s proclamation, not even the buzz of Deion Sanders coming to Colorado as its new head football coach could make a difference.
Does it get better?: Not yet. No rights deal is made in ’23 as the conference spends the year raiding the Big 12 and the West Coast Conference while hoping to convince Oregon and Washington to stay. In November, Deion Sanders will claim that God told him to join the Big Ten, too.
NFL Sunday Ticket going down the YouTube rabbit hole:
Plenty of ink has been spilled on how the NFL opted to bring its out-of-market package to YouTube TV and YouTube Premium Channels, including here at Awful Announcing. Nothing else within the business of sports television had captured the hivemind quite like talk on where Sunday Ticket would end up, especially when it was reported weeks ago that Apple decided not to pursue it any further after being considered the frontrunner for much of 2022.
Yet, putting aside the hype over the deal, the direct-to-consumer version of Sunday Ticket remains wildly expensive, with a $300+ price tag putting the service out of reach for the vast majority of NFL fans. Satellite TV has fallen out of favor for years, with DirecTV having lost nearly 50% of subscribers since 2014. (DirecTV Stream has also lost users despite being one of the few over-the-top services with regional sports channels.) With more than five million subscribers as of July 2022, YouTube TV continues to grow as it provides endemic access points for users – mobile, desktop/laptop, smart TV and streaming devices. How Alphabet chooses a pricing structure that entices new subscribers and convinces current ones to invest more money will be the hottest story as the 2023 season approaches, assuming the prices were already decided but have yet to be made public.
Guesstimate?: At least for the ‘23 season, YouTube TV subscribers will get a ‘cheaper’ price point than non-subscribers ($250 for the season, $50-60 per month), similar to what Apple is offering its Apple TV+ users for the MLS package.
Sinclair/Diamond Sports acrimony
When talking to Tennis Channel president Ken Solomon last month about the docuseries ‘Rivals,’ he was effusive in praise for the resources that Sinclair has been able to offer his network, and its faith in the regional sports network model. “We’ve got the biggest ratings in every single local market,” he told AA. “The highest rated shows of any sort are the local rights on the RSNs and nothing else of scale.”
It’s hard to disagree with Solomon, but those rights are only as good as the relationships the RSN has with its stakeholders. Throughout 2022, reports of financial strain have put Diamond Sports Group, the joint venture that operates Sinclair’s Bally Sports networks, in the crosshairs of Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL. With bankruptcy rumors abound, life seems to have gotten ugly for the 21 RSNs – and the teams which extract revenue from them.
Outside of cities such as New York and Boston with thriving or at least stable RSNs, failure from Sinclair and Diamond Sports Group in the backdrop of an uncertain economy may shatter the local rights marketplace. Yet Diamond recently changed leadership and pushed Sinclair out of day-to-day operations, which are decisions that may either buy time for a proper retooling or serve as preparation for sale. The three leagues are rumored to consider buying the distressed assets, if only to save the embarrassment of having dozens of teams without cable homes if Diamond goes under. And maybe another fire was lit under Diamond with Scripps Sports lurking in the background.
Does Diamond survive in ‘23?: Barely as its restructuring may give partners some confidence in a new direction for the channels.
More eyes on the WNBA’s media deals in aftermath of Griner’s imprisonment and return
Admittedly, it’s unfair to put the weight of the moderately improved financial state of a basketball league at the feet of one woman, so we won’t. Yet Brittney Griner’s imprisonment and return home from Russia was a constant reminder not only of the ugliness of geopolitics, but of the reality that the WNBA checks aren’t big enough to keep players from going overseas to make their living. Much has been made about why so many players, especially Americans, have signed with club teams in Europe and Asia after the WNBA season ends. However, Griner’s ordeal will certainly force more WNBA players to examine their overseas options more closely than ever before.
Outside of adding expansion teams, there’s no more critical infusion of revenue for a league than the television contract. More money for the league could potentially mean that these athletes could stay home and play exclusively for the WNBA. Does Griner’s situation give the players’ union more resolve to reopen the CBA? And in turn, would the WNBA feel even more pressure to reengage ESPN and CBS to drum up more TV revenue?
Shrinking the pay gap?: This is the hardest to predict. The equitable pay discussion around the USWNT drew more eyeballs and political will in their fight for a bigger piece of the US Soccer pie. Between the complications of breaking the CBA and nudging their media partners, it remains to be seen how and if the WNBA and its respective players union can rally around Griner’s return to the same results.
Still chasing ‘Drive to Survive’
Ever since Netflix and Formula 1 blessed the world with their docuseries Formula 1: Drive to Survive, sports organizations and media companies have been tripping over themselves to build their own versions of the show. The streamer has already linked up with the PGA Tour for one series in early 2023, and will debut a separate show called Break Point – a Drive-like series for tennis – on January 13th, just days before the start of the Australian Open. Outside of Netflix, NASCAR has already tried with Race to the Championship, with NBC belatedly making the series available on Peacock in the final weeks of the first season.
While Drive may not be the sole reason for the increased popularity of F1 here in the United States, it plays a significant role in marketing the racing circuit to American sports fans, especially in the first year of the coronavirus pandemic where sports schedules were in constant flux. Despite deeper roots in this country, the golf and tennis tours have an uphill battle with capturing the sporting zeitgeist through these shows. We’re talking about two historically stodgy, country club sports that were dragged kicking and screaming into the debate over increasing access and awareness to the wider masses.
A sincere imitation?: Copying Drive will have a negligible effect on the PGA Tour, which still rises and falls when Tiger Woods is healthy and competing deep into a given weekend. Break Point will fare better on Netflix thanks to featuring both male and female athletes, but it may not attract more viewers to the sport outside of the Grand Slams on ESPN.