The super sports cable rip-off

Not long ago, an important New England Patriots game failed to appear on my cable lineup. There was a way to pay extra for it, but the heck with that.

This game was a matter of utter indifference to me, but its absence visited trauma on a gentleman staying at my house. Given the exorbitant totals I was already paying for cable, the least I expected was The Game with which to pacify the maniac stomping across my oak floors.

But here’s the kicker. My cable bill was jacked up by the ludicrous amounts sports moguls charge for programming, sums far outstripping those paid for Animal Planet and the other civilian channels.

I had long taken comfort in the belief that I was not enriching the billionaire team owners and their badly behaving ball carriers, hitters and dribblers. I was wrong. Their fortunes come right out of my hide as a cable subscriber.

An average of 40 percent of our basic cable bills goes to pay for sports programming. That does not include the premium sports channels, for which fans are charged extra. Thus, viewers whose interests don’t wander far from news, cultural and “lifestyle” offerings are forced to subsidize the sports conglomerates.

Jeffrey McCall, a professor of communications at DePauw University, in Greencastle, Ind., has written on the unfairness of it all. What makes him an especially interesting observer is that he is one of them. He’s a sports fan who says he’d give up cable or switch providers if the schedule didn’t include ESPN and his regional Fox Sports network.

“I do like to watch certain teams and certain games,” he told me.

But McCall considers the cable sports business a consumer rip-off. Consider: ESPN takes $5.50 a month from every cable subscriber’s bill. Cable experts expect that fee to increase to $7 in three years. That’s just for basic ESPN, not its other channels.

ESPN would then be raking in $8 billion a year from ordinary cable customers, and that’s before it even sells commercials. Owned by Disney, ESPN is the biggest profit center in the entire magic kingdom. How does it get away with charging so much money?

“All these big cable companies don’t really have leverage when they negotiate with ESPN,” McCall explains. “The sports fans would raise Cain. They are very loyal, and they demand their stuff.”

The National Football League, meanwhile, makes over $5 billion selling rights to NBC, CBS, Fox and ESPN. That doesn’t include revenues from the NFL Network.

“The NFL, they are a machine,” McCall says.

Add the MLB Network, Golf Channel and the rest and the bills pile up real fast.

That doesn’t leave the rest of us powerless. We can give up our cable TV. We can. We can.

Huge numbers of Americans are canceling their cable subscriptions. (Many use Netflix, Hulu and other Internet-based services to fill the TV gaps.) Some 300,000 customers bailed in the second quarter of this year alone.

Frankly, I’m itching to join them. Sports guy can go to a bar.

Subscribers in and around Los Angeles have sued Time Warner Cable over the $11 billion it paid for the rights to show Lakers and Dodgers games. Guess to whom that sizable bill would eventually be passed.

The suing consumers want the option of paying only for the channels they watch. The sports fans can pay for theirs.

Media experts predict the court will tell the plaintiffs that no one has to buy cable TV. How right it would be. But also how temporary the situation as fleeing cable customers cause this financial model to collapse. It will be hardball all around.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Her email address is fharrop@projo.com

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