Welcome to October—or, for those of you who dislike sports, the least wonderful time of the year. The next four weeks bring playoff baseball, pro and college football, and the NBA’s season openers. Friday’s revamped MLB wild card games add even more heft to the fall sports calendar. Over the last few months, there’s been interminable debate over the merits of expanding the postseason from eight to 10 teams and the fairness (or lack thereof) of subjecting the wild cards to a do-or-die playoff game. (Disclosure: I worked for the MLB commissioner’s office during its 2011 collective bargaining negotiations with the MLBPA, which included a tentative agreement on the expanded postseason.) But the most interesting legacy of this reformatted round will be how it foreshadows the prospective business model of major American sports.
By now it is almost a cliché to note that sports drives cable television revenue. Sporting events are the only recurring form of programming that viewers insist on watching live. Many observers accordingly ascribe the recent inflation in sports franchise values—most prominently, the more than $2 billion sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers—to the (perhaps over-)heated bidding among cable companies and networks for sports programming rights. If people are genetically, implacably predisposed to watch sports television, then this train will never stop. ESPN’s monthly affiliate fees will reach double digits, your monthly cable bill will blow past $200, more undercapitalized divorcees will flip teams profitably, and Stuart Scott, not Jim Lehrer, will ask the next president to expound on “his trick-down approach.”
But the assumed prominence of live sports in television’s future value chain masks an underlying tension between content and distribution. Twenty years ago, NBA, NFL, and MLB games were more compelling than most other programming but harder to find. The duller-than-dirt 60 Minutes was America’s top-rated show. Michael Jordan and the Dallas Cowboys, meanwhile, were building nationally recognized dynasties, but their out-of-market games were almost impossible to track, let alone watch. The fact that the distribution of live sports grew to meet demand is no surprise.
Fast-forward two decades and sports programming is everywhere, but it’s not necessarily more compelling than everything else. To be sure, 60 Minutes is still duller than dirt and is now but a shadow of its former Nielsen-rated self. But sporting events now face better competition than Morley Safer. In fancy business parlance, there’s a lot more good stuff to watch.
While Web video and other interactive platforms rapidly transform traditional media, sports events anachronistically persist in asking consumers to pay attention for literally hours on end while having no control over who plays and when. Fantasy sports are a decades-old, subversive response to that proposition, but other disruptions are emerging. Thuuz, for one, is an app that automatically notifies you when a game is interesting enough to watch. And though professional golf is arguably better than ever, thanks to some combination of rubbernecking at Tiger Woods’ imploding career and a bizarrely persistent PGA Tour-wide inability to execute proper high-fives, Norm Macdonald’s unlicensed, irreverent live-tweeting of the sport’s major events is more compelling than the official telecasts.
Does it make sense, then, that television networks thematically unrelated to sports bid enthusiastically for their broadcast rights? Only if sports content evolves qualitatively to justify more distribution. The most direct solution is to improve the talent that makes the content. But talent runs in organic, largely uncontrollable cycles. No amount of visionary league strategy can ensure that the next LeBron James will be born in time to turn pro as the first LeBron James retires. Simply livening up the rules of on-field competition, moreover, is difficult in light of today’s sophisticated, unionized players. Here again the NBA is a good example, as its efforts to ban universally panned “flopping” have already prompted the Players Association to threaten to file a charge with the National Labor Relations Board. Even Pixar would have slowed production if it had to negotiate with Nemo over lighting.
The other, less direct way to position sports content for more distribution is to supplement it with features likely to attract viewers. High-definition television has undoubtedly helped, as has gambling (even if leagues are loath to acknowledge it). This is where the new MLB wild-card format comes in.
Expanding the postseason opens the door to inferior teams with inferior records and inferior talent. But sudden-death stakes are uniquely terrifying (for teams) and compelling (for fans). That makes for a more engaging product in both the regular season and the playoffs. The Yankees, Orioles, Rangers, and A’s fell over themselves to win their divisions so as to avoid the American League wild-card game, adding drama to August and September. Expanding from eight to 10 qualifiers also kept more teams in contention deep into the season. Given how close the Phillies and Brewers came to making the playoffs even after trading off important players in July, one might expect more teams to hold onto their best talent going forward, making for even broader pennant races. And if recent sudden-death playoffs are any indication, fans of the Cardinals, Braves, Orioles, and Rangers will watch in droves to see if their teams survive Friday’s one-game playoffs. Casual fans, too, will likely be drawn in by the high-stakes, high-stress games.
Time will tell if these new wild-card games end up feeling essential or gimmicky. But whatever the answer, the new format is the kind of at-the-margins innovation that sports content owners may as well test. For the NBA, NHL, MLB, NASCAR, and other entities with a lot of event inventory, the challenge is to get fans to care about tonight’s game even though it is just one of many. For the NFL, college football, and Olympic sports, the challenge is to lengthen their effective “seasons.” And for all major sports leagues, the overarching question is whether it’s possible to convince fans to consume three-to-four-hour games when the rest of the competing media world is converging on three-to-four-minute bursts.
The optimal spot on the spectrum of sports inventory is probably somewhere in between the current NFL and MLB seasons. That is why Roger Goodell has pressed for 18 regular-season games and college football’s powers that be have finally accepted a multigame playoff. For high-inventory leagues, cutting games is a bitter pill financially, but repackaging them into a new wild-card round, Chase for the Sprint Cup, or FedExCup playoffs might be the ideal solution to the dual problems of too much product and too little drama. Does this mean a best-of-five World Series or NBA Finals awaits down the road? It may depend on how exciting Friday’s games are.