ABC Affiliates Decry Migration of Sports to ESPN

ABC’s affiliates are not only in a battle with the network over retransmission fees, but they are also boiling mad that corporate sibling ESPN is being handed live sports events they were initially supposed to carry.

The most recent move came in January when ESPN announced it planned to take eight Nascar races this fall off ABC for the coming season to run on ESPN. Even before that, though, ABC coughed up the Rose Bowl beginning in 2011 and golf’s British Open in 2010 to ESPN, which is majority-owned by Walt Disney, the full owner of ABC.

Station executives argued that losing live sports events will not only cost them significant ad revenue and take away a negotiating chip with media buyers, but will also hamper their ability to promote other programming to male audiences. The latter is particularly true among ABC’s Southern affiliates, where Nascar viewing is passionate.

ESPN has the ability to cherry-pick sports from (or occasionally move sports to) ABC, because in 2006 ESPN in effect took control of ABC Sports. All sports programming on ABC is now produced by “ESPN on ABC,” as the onscreen logo reads.

“The migration of more and more live sporting events from ABC to ESPN is troubling,” said Bill Hoffman, vp and general manager of Cox Television’s Atlanta ABC affiliate WSB-TV. Hoffman, who is also secretary-treasurer of the ABC affiliate board, said losing sports will cost affiliates “significant” ad revenue and hard-to-reach (and therefore valuable) male viewers. “Not only have we lost these sporting events, but now we also have to compete against those telecasts on ESPN. Nascar is a huge lifestyle in the South. It’s indigenous to the region. And now most of the live races on broadcast are gone.”

Hoffman was the only affiliate executive who would speak on the record, although several echoed his position on condition of anonymity. “It’s a delicate subject, but we [the ABC affiliate board] are in passionate alignment on this,” he said.

A few station execs privately suspect that because ESPN is a big money maker for Disney, the parent company is letting it pull more live sports from ABC in order to justify hefty subscriber fees. ESPN charges cable operators $4.10 per household, according to SNL Kagan, and is said to be seeking a hike.

Len DeLuca, ESPN senior vp, programming and acquisitions, disputed that rationale, saying the Nascar move is purely about ratings. “What we did was take eight Nascar races on ABC on Sunday afternoons that were not getting maximum audiences nationwide [last season] because they were competing with the NFL,” DeLuca said. He believes ESPN will be able to devote more promotional time to those races to their target audience this fall. The 11 Nascar races on ABC last year averaged a 3.5 household rating, lower than Fox’s Nascar average (5.1) and ESPN’s (3.6 for six races), and just slightly higher than TNT’s (3.3).

DuLuca said he is sympathetic to ABC affiliates but noted they will still air more than 300 hours of “good sports programming” this year, including college football, the NBA, World Cup soccer, the Indy 500, the Little League World Series and three prime-time Nascar races. He added that ESPN has “several shows and concepts in development targeting men” to offer ABC affiliates for airing on weekend afternoons.

As upset as the affiliates are, they have little recourse, and they shouldn’t expect much support from media buyers. “The ratings on ESPN may be lower, but the pricing will be lower also,” said Christine Merrifield, senior vp, group client director at MediaVest. “For sports telecasts, a lot of benefit comes from promotion. And ESPN is a promotional machine. ESPN is an engine that targets men across all of its platforms. ABC reaches a lot more women.”
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