Dream TV title matchups, RSN collapse, XFL/USFL’s future and more: Sports Media Mailbag, Part II

Welcome to the 35th Media Mailbag for The Athletic. Writing a mailbag — as egocentric as it is — is always a fun exercise. Thanks for sending in your questions via the website and app. There were nearly 100 questions, so this is a two-parter. Part I appeared earlier this week 

Note: Questions have been edited for clarity and length.

This has been in my head since college football season with how much has been made of TV network deals and TV ratings. If you could customize the championship games in (MLB, NBA, NHL, NFL, college football and men’s college basketball) to get the matchup that would generate the highest possible ratings, what would they be? I want big-picture generalities here and not tethered to specific records right now. For what it’s worth I’d go: MLB: Mets–Angels; NBA: Celtics–Lakers; NHL: Maple Leafs–Blackhawks; NFL: Cowboys–Steelers; CFB: Notre Dame–Texas; and CBB: Indiana–North Carolina. — Andy J.

Love this question. Based on historical viewership numbers, I would select Yankees–Dodgers, Lakers-Celtics, Blackhawks-Flyers, Cowboys-Jets, Alabama–Ohio State (CFB) and Duke-North Carolina (CBB).

Do leagues ever take into account the long-term benefits of having their games on broadcast (or easy to access national cable networks)? While the NFL clearly has an advantage in keeping a short schedule on free TV, the other sports may be going in the exact opposite direction with streaming packages for RSNs that might cost $20-$30 a month. The best short-term financial decision (those $20-$30 packages) may offer tiny ratings and hurt the sport long-term. Should sports accept less money to get higher ratings? — Andy B.

If local sports rights have to pivot to the streaming model as a result of the Diamond Sports bankruptcy, what would you see as a monthly price point for a multi-sport package? For example, would a $30-a-month fee for the Twins, Wild, and Timberwolves be both affordable and profitable as a standalone? — Dan K.

For this question, I called in an industry expert. Here’s the thoughts of Brad Adgate, a longtime media consultant and contributor:

“Early indications are that $30 is going to be the subscriber rate for streaming. That is what NESN 360 is currently charging and what MSG+ plans to charge at its launch this summer. At first, I thought it was a little high when compared to what Netflix, Paramount+ or even what ESPN+ charges subscribers each month. However, with cable operators, the RSNs charge a higher carriage fee than every cable network except ESPN. While viewers may not be aware of how much sports contributes to the cable bill, and with cost being the primary reason to cancel your cable subscription, perhaps they will get away with the cost, especially if they got a lot of sign-ups. (If not, they can revisit the revenue model and drop the cost, if need be.) There is always an appetite to watch your home team.”



What the Bally Sports saga means for NBA, NHL, MLB broadcasts: Everything you need to know

How are the ratings for A&E’s wrestling series (“Rivals,” “Biography: WWE Legends”) and Vice’s “Dark Side Of The Ring”? Will both of these channels continue with these series for the foreseeable future? — Robert P.

“WWE Legends” averaged 495,000 viewers on A&E on Feb. 19 (the episode that featured the nWo) while the “Rivals” show that followed and featured Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant drew 444,000 viewers. That’s pretty good given they were up against the NBA All-Star Game. The following week, “WWE Rivals” drew 421,000 viewers on Feb. 26. The shows will certainly continue this year. PWInsider reported that filming has started on Season 4 of “Dark Side” but no new episodes yet.

I understand Rebecca Lowe, excellent on NBC’s Premier League coverage, flies in from the west to the studios in Stamford. So I’m not surprised when during a midweek fixture or two, NBC will have Paul Burmeister or Ahmed Fareed in studio instead. I always was curious: Are these guys just working behind the scenes all week at NBC Sports HQ when a request to fill in might pop up here or there? Both feel like solid backups, but what else are these folks up to the rest of the time? — Brian G.

Both are pretty busy. Fareed hosts horse racing and rugby coverage, “MLB Sunday Leadoff” on Peacock, “Sunday Night Football Final” on Peacock and various digital shows. Burmeister does play-by-play for Atlantic 10 basketball, hosts the Tour de France, and is expected to be a play-by-play voice of NBC’s USFL coverage. He’s also the radio play-by-play voice of Notre Dame football away from NBC.

Wrexham promotion odds? — David M.

I’m feeling very good, though a win over Maidenhead United instead of a draw last Saturday would have been huge given the battle with Notts County. I’d put Wrexham promotion at 3-1. Notts County at 4-1.

Do you think a gaming company will ever carry live telecasts of a major pro or college sport? — Matthew B.

The word “major” does a lot of work here. No chance for the NFL or major college football. But are we not already there in some manner with the Bally Sports regional networks?

Any rumblings on CBS obtaining any more sports? In the sport of sports broadcasting, I root for them. Is there a notion that CBS could get in on TNT’s NBA package somehow, sort of how they share the NCAA? Maybe TNT could alternate the finals with ABC but run it over the air on CBS? — John N.

Any chance NBA will give a night, say Friday, to an over-the-air network? Or even put together a bunch of independent stations? Over-the-air regular broadcasts has to be a goal, doesn’t it? — William B.

CBS just acquired part of the Big Ten, which was a nice piece of business. I don’t see them going in on the NBA. I think NBC would be more likely as a network bidder. ESPN likes its ABC Saturday night package. I’m not sure I see an over-the-air Friday play.

Any advice for a college kid who wants to get into the world of commentary? — Aaron R.A.

My best advice is to get on-air reps however and wherever you can if a front-facing job is your goal.

I saw Greg Gumbel yesterday for the first time in a while doing college basketball studio work — he seemed sharp as ever. Reminded me how good he was on “NFL Today” before James Brown took that chair. Wonder if he’d be better returning to that role. What’s Brown’s contract status? — Barry S.

Brown will be in the chair for “The NFL Today” come this fall. It’s a big year for CBS with the Super Bowl, and no changes are expected for “The NFL Today.”

The NFL and NHL are the two most recent of the “Big 4” to renew their TV contracts, meaning eventually coming down the line would be the NBA and MLB. Is there any smoke for either or both of those two in terms of negotiations taking place? — Wes S.

The NBA media rights conclude at the end of the 2024-2025 season, and I can promise you The Athletic will have plenty of stories on it from the NBA and sports business angles. Here’s Bill Shea with a primer.

It’s been a while since Ken Rosenthal was fired from MLB Network. Is there any sense that it’s “cowed” reporting critically of owners in some way? Things like Dan Connolly’s fearlessness and backbone would lead me to say no (as would Rosenthal’s own reporting), but maybe there’s a dynamic we don’t see? — Elias T.

From my perspective, there’s plenty of critical reporting of MLB out there. The sport has a lot of quality reporters, and I haven’t seen a chilling of reporting on MLB. Regarding MLB Network: If you take a direct paycheck from any sports league as part of its media arm, you are navigating very challenging terrain. (Same with reporting on your own newspaper or digital site.) It becomes as much about what stories you don’t pursue, or are not allowed to pursue with resources. How often do you see in-depth segments on NFL Network, MLB Network or NHL Network that offer extended criticism of how Roger Goodell, Rob Manfred or Gary Bettman? Not criticism of league issues but of those specific people?

Would MLB allow local TV broadcast crews to do postseason games? I know that negates value of national packages in those home markets competing in the games, but there has to be a workaround. Most fans would want to hear their local TV guys or at least have that option? — Paul S.

I just don’t see that happening. It would dilute the buy for the national rightsholders, which pays millions annually.

Can you share your views on whether or not media ownership of teams is trending as a positive or negative influence on industry economics, winning and fan satisfaction levels? — Brian B.

Depends on the franchise. The Rogers Corporation, my old employer, has been willing to spend on the Blue Jays lately, so that increases competitiveness and fan satisfaction. Liberty Media owns the Braves and Formula One, and those two products are on the rise. When it comes to the mega-sports franchises, I think they often think of themselves as media companies given content is their product.

With the World Baseball Classic coming up, I was curious if the WBC had any chance of garnering a larger media rights deal in the future? Having it only on MLB Network really handicaps its growth potential, in my opinion. — Max F.

I think how this year’s tournament does viewership-wise will answer your question. The 2017 final between the United States and Puerto Rico drew a combined audience of 3.1 million viewers across MLB Network, ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes. They did 2.3 million on MLB Network. Those are very good numbers. The games will be on Fox, FS1, FS2, FOX Deportes and Tubi this year.

What viewership numbers do you think the XFL and USFL need to stay in business? — Matt W.

For this, I asked our resident XFL expert, Bill Shea:

“If they can hover around 1 million viewers overall, particularly the games on the big networks — ABC and ESPN — I think the XFL will chug along, at least until the networks think they can get a similar audience for a cheaper price. But it’s important to remember that we don’t know their internal success metrics, for either the XFL or USFL. They’ve got some runway thanks to capital commitments, and if the games are also successfully serving as megaphones to promote other network content (and their streaming services), and also bring in ad dollars and aren’t money-losers, they’ll stick with the spring leagues. But in the shifting sands of the current TV universe, everything’s fate is on the table more acutely than ever.”



I watched the XFL 3.0 so you don’t have to (but you should!): Some key takeaways

Any new sports docs or books to look forward to in 2023? — Matthew B.

ESPN Films recently announced they had commissioned “The Yankees Win,” an eight-part documentary on the franchise. The director is Jonathan Hock, one of the best sports documentarians, so I expect this to be good. No date yet on when it will be ready.

While the collapse of RSNs may not be a win for leagues or teams in the short-term, isn’t it a win for fans who, in some cases, even after ponying up for ESPN+ for out-of-market games were being asked to subscribe to their regional sports streaming service to get ALL games for their team? Doesn’t this just make it simpler — one provider, one package, stream all of the games? — Brian S.

Here’s Adgate again: “I completely agree there are many positives to streaming local sports. RSNs for decades have had a profitable and consistent revenue stream that sports fans liked. Cable operators sold local ads and at times, an important game could deliver ratings higher than broadcast TV. For a while, RSNs had helped cable operators stem the move to cord-cutting. Advertisers liked reaching an engaged sports fan watching live with sponsorship opportunities. Local teams benefited from the lucrative media deals they made with RSNs.

“Streaming video I think provides even more positives. … Streaming generally attracts a younger audience, which a sport like MLB desperately needs. Also, streaming allows for better-targeted ads. For example, a car maker could run an ad for an SUV in some areas and a sedan in others. Advertisers pay a premium for a hyper-targeted ad. I am hopeful to see out-of-market fans be able to buy a Boston-only sports package or any other market wherever they live, including overseas. I think MLB wants to move in that direction.”

An interesting podcast series debuts Thursday, hosted and executive produced by sports journalist Bonnie Bernstein. “She Got Game,” an Audible Originals series, showcases the role sports has played in the lives of high-achieving women. The guest list is very impressive — Laila Ali, Bianca Belair, Chelsea Clinton, Dany Garcia, Shawn Johnson, Sheila Johnson, Folake Olowofoyeku, Amy Trask, Aisha Tyler and Julie Uhrman. I heard the Belair and Trask ones in advance and it’s quality stuff.

If you are a women’s basketball fan, I recommend the new book “Hoop Muses: An Insider’s Guide to Pop Culture and the (Women’s) Game.” The book is written by Meadowlark Media staffer (and former ESPN-er) Kate Fagan and Basketball Hall of Famer-to be Seimone Augustus, and illustrated by Sophia Chang. The book offers a great history lesson on how the sport developed — and the stars who helped develop it — and Chang’s art, in particular, pops off the page. The cover is below:

(Photo of the Lakers’ LeBron James and Celtics’ Jayson Tatum: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

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