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New Figures Reveal a Slower Erosion of Sports Channels When Compared to Non-Sports Channels

Jeff Kotuby

In yet another sign that live sports are the only thing propping up cable a la Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman in “Weekend At Bernie’s,” Sports Business Journal has new figures that show sports fans’ unwillingness to part with cable over the fear of missing out on the action.

SBJ’s John Ourand reported that, over the past two years, national sports networks’ distribution numbers have decreased at a slower rate when compared to non-sports networks, citing data provided by Nielsen. “Household distribution for ESPN and ESPN2 dropped by 4 percent,” Ourand said, “while subscriber numbers for FS1 and NBCSN both dropped by only around 2 percent in the past 24 months.” (NBCSN went dark at the end of 2021.)

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ESPN - -
ESPN2 - -
FS1 (Fox Sports 1) - -

Only three networks showed growth over the two-year period — NFL Network (+5 percent), FS2 (+5 percent), and beIN Sports (+7 percent) — three sports channels. Interestingly enough, two other league-owned networks, MLB Network and NBA TV, both lost a whopping 12 percent of their subscribers. Furthermore, the Nielsen report showed that the number of homes that subscribe to any sort of multichannel video — cable, satellite, or a live TV streaming service — fell to 82.8 million — the lowest in 15 years.

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$69.99 $64.99 $69.99 $25 $35 $35 $64.99
beIN Sports - - - ^ $11 ^ $11 ^ $11
Fox Sports 2 ≥ $94.99 - - ^ $11
MLB Network ≥ $84.99 ^ $11 - - ^ $11 ^ $11
NBA TV ≥ $84.99 ^ $11 - - ^ $11 ^ $11
NFL Network - - -

In 2021, sports made up 95 of the top 100 live broadcasts, with 75 of them being NFL games. Football is king and explains why the NFL Network is one of the only cable channels to grow in an era of cord-cutting.

Nielsen offers good news — and bad news — for the industry. The good news is that this decline is pretty consistent, giving linear cable execs time to figure out the shift to digital. The bad news is that the industry is one piece going full-stream away from complete chaos ensuing. “All it would take is one major player to decide that the future demands a bolder shift in their best programming to [direct-to-consumer], or, alternatively, that their entire suite of programming should be simultaneously available DTC … and the Jenga tower would collapse.”

Could ESPN+ be the service that blows up cable sports forever? It’s certainly accumulating plenty of gems, including a huge slate of NHL games. If it somehow landed NFL Sunday Ticket, that would be a monster move. As Bally saddles up for its own DTC offering, cable’s days may be numbered.

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