ESPN, BCS Deal Raises Questions

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The major television networks and their affiliate stations yesterday said they will push policymakers to support free access to premier televised sports events after ESPN last week contracted to carry college football bowl games on cable and satellite channels.

The National Association of Broadcasters said ESPN's $500 million deal to carry the Bowl Championship Series on subscription-based television channels from 2011 through 2014 would leave out about 20 million television viewers who rely on free over-the-air television.

As a result, the group said it will ramp up lobbying efforts with advocacy groups for the elderly, consumers and immigrants to educate members of Congress about how such deals could affect some viewers.

"The question is whether college presidents and athletic directors at publicly funded institutions should be complicit in disenfranchising 20 percent of citizenry from access to the most popular college football games," NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

The deal between ESPN and college football's BCS represents the latest in a series of major sports events to migrate from free network television to subscription-based television, which on average costs about $55 a month per household, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Already, ESPN carries NBA games and portions of all four tennis majors. ESPN also has the rights to "Monday Night Football," though not NFL playoff games. Last month ESPN won rights to golf's British Open.

Analysts say ESPN was able to edge out rival bidder Fox, which holds the current BCS broadcast rights, by $100 million to get the bowl games because of their lucrative subscription and advertising business models. ESPN charges cable and satellite operators $3.65 a month per subscriber to carry its programs.

ESPN and cable operators acknowledge that millions of viewers would be shut out through the deal, but said the vast majority of viewers are already subscribing to paid video services. And by the time ESPN's contract with the BCS takes effect, officials with the network say, the number of households with over-the-air television will shrink.

"For nearly 30 years, cable's commitment to college athletics has provided millions of viewers countless hours of college programming that otherwise would have never been televised," said Chris LaPlaca, a spokesman for ESPN.

Still, the deal concerns Scott Greenwood, the alumni program coordinator at Auburn University. With students and alumni who bleed orange for their beloved Tigers, it's no small occasion when Auburn makes a bowl game. He said the audience would be even bigger for the championship games, drawing those who may not watch regular season games but want to support their team in a bowl.

"We have alumni associations around the country who have game watch locations but of course we want everyone who wants to watch to be able to watch," he said.

Those television viewers typically are an older, lower-income demographic that also includes many non-English speaking Latinos, according to the FCC.

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin has pushed for a restructuring of cable pricing plans that would allow consumers to pick individual channels at lower costs, just as consumers are able to buy individual songs digitally off iTunes and other Web sites instead of spending more for a CD with several songs they don't want.

"This is part of an overall trend we've seen of sports programming moving from broadcast to pay services. I'm concerned about that for viewers," Martin said. "I'm particularly concerned about it today because we're seeing every year increasing prices of cable services."

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