Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Out of Time (literally?): The CBJ-Fox Sports Ohio rights deal

It's interesting to see how this postseason recap series keeps evolving.  I still want to get to the on-ice performance of the CBJ (Yeah, I'm a masochist like that), but the world of the blogger means you go where the information takes you.

How fitting that today's winds are blowing in the world of television broadcasting, seeing as the NHL and Comcast/NBC just sealed a deal for the new media conglomerate to broadcast (at least?) 100 NHL games per season across its many platforms for the next 10 years...for the cool price of $200 million per year (with all sorts of new money flowing to the franchises).  Among the highlights are an NBC-broadcast NHL game on "Black Friday" following Thanksgiving - the earliest nationwide broadcast NHL game in memory - and national distribution of every single Stanley Cup playoff game.  The deal also gives Comcast/NBC total control of the digital rights to all of the games that they broadcast over every possible device, leaving me to wonder what's going to happen to the 110% awesome GameCenter Live online package or the slightly less awesome Center Ice television package, but that's another issue for another day.

Point is, today's about hockey on television.  And wouldn't you know, I stumbled upon an article today that opened my eyes real wide.  It should do the same for you, too.

First, some background.  Back on May 6, 1999, the Dispatch reported on the initial Columbus Blue Jackets TV deal in an article entitled, "BLUE JACKETS GO CABLE ROUTE - FOX SPORTS OHIO GETS EXCLUSIVE DEAL 65 GAMES ON IN FIRST YEAR" (Sorry, no link available). In the article, it's released that the CBJ and Fox Sports Ohio agreed to a five-year deal with an option year. Michael Yormark, then-CBJ vice president of integrated sales, said of the deal, "The penetration of Fox locally and statewide is a tremendous benefit to market the Blue Jackets brand." One can't argue with Fox Sports' market penetration even today, but it's not perfect vis a vis the Columbus Blue Jackets.  It's widely understood that it's been hard to get the CBJ games at times in the Cleveland area, but that's probably attributable to the popularity of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers up there despite sucking worse than the CBJ.

And then we get to the article that made me sit up.  On September 17, 2003, the Columbus Business First newspaper offered an article, "Fox Sports extends TV deal with Blue Jackets; will broadcast more games."  Put aside the fact that then-president Doug MacLean was so jumpy that he renegotiated his TV deal after only three years of a five-to-six year deal.  What is profound is this little nugget, about the expiration date of the FSO broadcast rights deal (emphasis added):
The Columbus Blue Jackets have extended their television-rights deal with Fox Sports Net Ohio that will allow the cable channel to broadcast the team's games through the 2010-2011 season.
Do my eyes deceive me, or does that mean that the Blue Jackets' TV deal is up?  I followed up on this with Columbus Business First, whose current reporter covering the Blue Jackets didn't know about the CBJ-FSO deal.   I checked with Fox Sports Ohio, and their spokesperson replied, "It is our policy that we do not discuss or disclose details of our contracts." I put an inquiry in to the Blue Jackets and have not yet received a response.

[UPDATE: Channel 10's Rob Kunz suggests that, due to the 2004-2005 NHL lockout, the CBJ-FSO contract was extended for one more season and thus would expire at the end of the 2011-2012 season.  Now that wasn't so hard, was it?  Still, let's keep the discussion going and consider it a prelude to next season's renegotiation.]

Therefore, I'm forced to go with what I have for information, and that suggests that next season commences a new regional television rights deal for the Columbus Blue Jackets.  It's very possible that my historical research is incomplete, but the analysis that I'm about to present below is compelling regardless of the rights contract status:


That works out to an average 1.11 television rating in 07-08, 1.80 in 08-09, 1.39 in 09-10 and 1.09 in 10-11. 10-11's ratings were a whopping 39% lower than 08-09's.  OUCH.
Again, that's an average of 10,000 households in 07-08;17,000 in 08-09; 13,000 in 09-10 and 10,000 in 10-11.  Household viewership in 10-11 was 41% lower than the playoff run year of 08-09.  DOUBLE OUCH.  

Unlike attendance figures (and that's a post for another day, one I'm getting prepared to offer), television ratings largely reflect fan interest in real time.  A casual sports fan can catch wind of an exciting sports team - or a team on a playoff run - and tune in that night.  Thus, the numbers above tell a story that I found somewhat surprising.

It appears every last bit of heightened fan enthusiasm and interest from the 2008-09 CBJ playoff run has been squeezed out of the marketplace over the course of the past two seasons.  Ratings were lower in 10-11 than in 07-08, and household viewership was back to 07-08 levels.  Not a good negotiating position for the Blue Jackets.  Not at all.

So, on the presumption that the CBJ television contract is up for grabs, what is a team that's working from a position of ratings weakness to do?  Of course, the wise-arse answer is, "Win," but winning next season won't help a new contract that will come before the CBJ hit the ice again.  Gotta be more creative than that.  

To be fair, don't think that I don't like Fox Sports Ohio.  I've seen a lot of regional television broadcasting of NHL games since subscribing to Center Ice and then GameCenter Live.  Comparing our homers against other homers from around North America, Fox Sports Ohio doesn't do a bad job...not in the least.  Their announcers work hard, FSO now has a weekly CBJ show of varying quality and the network is committing to broadcasting more games every year.  They aren't delivering "82 in 10" yet, but they're getting closer with even more HD broadcasts.  

Still, a contract negotiation is a time to consider options, so permit me to offer a couple of open-ended thoughts on what the Columbus Blue Jackets might want to consider:

1. Give the store away: Roll over, play dead, and let Fox Sports Ohio pay whatever they want.  At least the CBJ will still be on TV, on cable, on Fox Sports Ohio.  At least in Columbus.  And some other cities.  Sometimes.  Besides, FSO has been with the CBJ since day one...that probably counts for something in the back-slapping world of big-time sports.

2. Bid it out: Ohio DOES have more than one television option, you know...
  • SportsTime Ohio has a pretty robust setup in the Cleveland market.  Might they want to grab a foothold in Columbus beyond their Cleveland Indians games and their ancillary Cleveland Browns coverage?  
  • There's always the possibility that Comcast/NBC would want to expand their regional footprint and get into the Ohio sports world with a new Comcast Sports Net affiliate.  This might be of interest to CBJ fans who want to see their team get more nationwide exposure on (the soon-to-be-renamed) Versus, where "bonus games" generally come from Comcast Sports Net teams like Chicago, Washington and San Jose.  Ohio has a lot of sports action, but is there enough to keep three regional sports networks afloat when the Big Ten Network siphons so much Ohio State programming away?  
  • And what of local television?  Anyone with a local HDTV antenna knows that every local channel has four HD television feeds (4-1, 4-2, 4-3, 4-4, 6-1, etc.).  While I presume that the CBJ couldn't move the major broadcast networks like NBC, CBS, ABC and FOX off the "dash-one" feed, what about the "dash-two" feeds? A network of local stations around Ohio (and perhaps farther, depending on what the NHL allows) could be build in a manner similar to the CBJ's radio network.  I suppose the big question here would be whether it would be worth it to forego cable altogether (keeping in mind that more and more people are cutting the cable cord and going to a combination of rabbit ears and broadband-delivered Netflix, Hulu and other streaming video like the NHL's GameCenter Live).  Could such a package deliver ad dollars beyond the epic "Farmers Only" ads of the pre-Hitchcock days, though? ;-)
  • Columbus used to also have the Columbus Sports Network (which served as the training ground for "Blue Jackets Live" host Ray Crawford!), but that went belly up in 2008.  So it's not a viable option, but it IS an indication that Ohio has an entrepreneurial spirit when it comes to its sports.  
3. Revenue sharing: Gary Bettman rolled the dice with the last NBC deal, one where the NHL received ZERO guaranteed rights fees and instead operated under a revenue sharing arrangement for all advertising on NHL broadcasts.  This was considered insane by sports media experts, yet Bettman and NBC's Dick Ebersol forged a partnership that resulted in innovative programming like the New Year's Winter Classic - an annual event that, in four short years, has only become the most important regular season game on the league calendar.  It also provided Bettman an environment to deliver to his owners the biggest TV rights deal in league history this time around.  Might such a revenue sharing deal be the best that the CBJ could hope for right now...essentially gambling that on-ice improvement would result in increased ratings, more advertisers and higher advertising rates?  (You want high stakes pressure, Mr. Howson?  Then push for revenue sharing.)  

4. Team up with the Columbus Crew: Columbus has two professional teams (No Ohio State jokes, please...), and both are scratching and clawing for attention in the Columbus media (especially the Crew).  The Crew, as you probably didn't know, is in the final year of their deal with the Dispatch's Ohio News Network/ONN cable station.  Instead of competing with each other for television rights oxygen, why not team up and offer a year-round, Ohio pro sports package to television suitors?  Hockey in the fall, winter and spring, soccer in the spring, summer and fall.  You know, a package like this could be very compelling for a Comcast/NBC regional sports network option...hmmm....

When life hands you lemons, you have to make lemonade.  The Blue Jackets have endured their lumps since earning a quick exit from the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs...perhaps it's time to consider hitting the "reset button" and try something new in broadcasting as well as on the ice.  I'm not wed to any particular option at this point, and I'm sure that other options exist.  

What do you think?

5 comments:

  1. Leaving Fox Sports Net would be the stupidest thing they could do. None of those other channels are going to get them viewership in as many homes as FSO.

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  2. I don't know about that, Anon. Sports Time Ohio, in particular, has quite a lot of penetration thanks to their deal with the Indians.

    Comcast is the one that really interests me - they're already in Cleveland and Cinci providing service, I believe, and there's some talk that they may look at expanding into Columbus as a cable provider. Getting the Jackets' on a new flagship sports network would certainly help, and the various CSN affiliates would be able to staff them up quickly, already armed with expertise on covering hockey.

    Still, FSOhio might have something else up their sleeves...

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  3. FYI, everyone, note the update that suggests that the CBJ-FSO contract does not expire until the end of the 2011-2012 season. I went with the information at hand in crafting this blog post, and FSO had the opportunity to correct me yet passed. C'est la vie.

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  4. Good work, DBJ, you've provided quite a bit of food for thought. I had not realized there were that many options available to the CBJ and I, too, am intrigued by the possible addition of NBC/Comcast into the picture.

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  5. I suppose this means another option is ONN, especially if the CBJ have another terrible season -- one so bad that even FSO no longer wants to follow the team anymore. Can you say, "worst-case scenario?"

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