Disoriented Sports Fans Can Eat Cake

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Last Monday night, I sat down on my couch with a slice of my wife's delicious chocolate cake eager to watch the big Dallas Cowboys-New York Giants Monday Night Football contest.

I excitedly picked up the remote control, turned on the TV and then switched my cable box to … broadcast network ABC.

You'd figure seven weeks into ESPN's groundbreaking eight-year, $8.8 billion National Football League deal, I'd remember that the games are on channel 36 on my Cablevision Systems lineup, rather than on channel 7. But for me, old habits die hard. For as long as I can remember, it's been the same reflex response: cake … Monday Night Football … channel 7.

But while reflexively I'm still working out some issues regarding MNF on ESPN, conceptually and emotionally I'm fine with marquee sports events like Monday Night Football moving from broadcast television to cable. That's because for years now, cable's national and regional sports-oriented networks have been the primary outlet for so many marquee regular-season and post-season game telecasts from such league franchises as the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League that it's hard to remember when such games were on “free” television.

But not everyone is on the same playing field regarding cable's influence on televised sports. Odd it was to see some comments from sports writers and bloggers regarding TBS's acquisition last week of one of Major League Baseball's two League Championship Series. Fox Sports still has rights to the other LCS, as well as the World Series.

The day after the deal was announced, Barry Horn of the Dallas Morning News described the league championship series as being “exiled” to cable's TBS. Political blogger and self-described New York Yankees fan Doug Mataconis took a more apocalyptic approach to baseball's post season migration to cable on his “Below the Beltway” political blog.

“The biggest bombshell out of this, of course, is the fact that the entire first round of the playoffs from 2007 onward will be broadcast transmitted on cable instead of traditional broadcast networks. Is it only a matter of time before the entire postseason follows?” he asked.

The way things are going, the answer is yes … and it won't be the end of the sports world if it does. Right now we're raising a generation that barely knows the difference between broadcast and cable networks. To them, ABC, CBS, TBS, TNT, NBC, Fox, FX, USA and ESPN are just channels on the boob tube.

And the viewership gap between broadcast and the major cable networks is dwindling faster than a Justin Verlander fastball. ESPN, TNT and TBS are in more than 90 million homes — just 20 million homes less than all of the broadcast networks. Further, that gap is virtually null and void for sports fans: any red-blooded baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, poker, billiards and bowling fan already has a cable set-top box next to his TV or a satellite dish on his roof.

For advertisers, the lines between broadcast and cable should have faded some time ago. The same, hard to reach male 18-49 demo that watched the St. Louis Cardinals-New York Mets National League Championship Series two weeks ago on Fox would watch a Cardinals-Mets NLCS presentation on TBS next year.

“You're seeing no difference on [ad rates] between broadcast and cable on sports,” said Turner Sports president David Levy. “Television is television.”

You're also not seeing too much of a viewer differential between broadcast and cable networks when it comes to prime-time NFL games.

The Giants' blowout win over the Cowboys was watched by a cable record 11.8 million households (extra credit to anyone who knew cable's prior most viewed show was a 1993 CNN Ross Perot-Al Gore debate about free trade in North America). Through eight telecasts, ESPN is averaging a 10.8 household rating, even with broadcast network ABC's ratings performance last season for its 17 Monday Night Football telecasts.

Message to curmudgeonly sports writers and bloggers: stop hating cable and just enjoy the game. Meanwhile next Monday, I will try to remember to turn to ESPN (and not ABC) for the Minnesota Vikings-New England Patriots contest.

I'm also going to have my cake. And eat it, too.

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