As a teenager, my main interests were sport (predictably), music, and teen dramas of questionable quality. One of the best purveyors of such material was The CW – a US network formed in 2006 by the merger of CBS’s UPN and Time Warner’s The WB.
The channel was the home to classics of the genre like One Tree Hill, Gossip Girl, and 90210 and has since continued that fine tradition, alongside a selection of comic book, fantasy, and science-fiction themed drama.
But apart from a brief spell showing WWE Smackdown, what the CW has not been known for is its sports coverage – until now.
Under the ownership of Nexstar, which acquired the channel last year, The CW has been assembling a small portfolio of rights as it seeks to diversify its programming slate and its audience.
The first acquisition was LIV Golf, a deal which was greeted with derision in some quarters given the Saudi-backed tour’s difficulty in attracting interest from established players, but it was an important first step in entering the world of sport.
Since then, it has secured 50 Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) college football and basketball games a season until the 2026/27 campaign. Then, earlier this week, it became the new exclusive home of the Nascar Xfinity Series, the second tier of the stock car racing circuit, until 2025.
No one’s saying this modest and opportunistic collection of rights is going to shake things up over night. But The CW’s interest in live sport is indicative of wider trends in the US market.
The second-tier Xfinity series will be shown live on The CW in the US (Image credit: Getty Images)
Sport is one of the few categories of programming that is best consumed live and can guarantee audiences in a challenging advertising market. Plus, the ongoing difficulties in the regional sports network (RSN) market and the emergence of challenger properties mean there are more rights to go round. This is to the benefit of national networks like The CW, but also their local affiliates.
Indeed, several major league teams affected by Bally Sports’ difficulties and Warner Bros Discovery’s withdrawal from the RSN space have opted for a combination of direct-to-consumer (DTC) and local free-to-air (FTA) coverage to the fill the void.
The CW isn’t the only one getting in on the act. Scripps, which has 62 local television stations in the US and a national network in the form of Ion television, established a new sports division last December. It has secured a multi-year agreement with the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) to show 15 matches a season on Ion and will cross-promote a Friday night window across its local network.
While Scripps has said it has no intention of bidding for major leagues or even the Pac-12 college football conference (which is believed to be considering a streaming deal with Apple), it does intend to go for the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) rights when available.
In a world where more sports than ever are competing for exposure – and where established sports are shifting from cable to streaming platforms – the emergence of new potential homes for programming will be welcomed by properties looking for more competition to drive revenues, as well as by those trying to find more favourable broadcast windows than the likes of ESPN, Fox or NBC can offer them.
The value of live sport has never been more obvious to broadcasters – and it could escalate even further given the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike which could affect the production of scripted programming by the end of the year. Should there be a prolonged disruption, then the networks will look to reality TV, international shows and, you guessed it, sport to populate schedules.
It’s the longest labour stoppage since 2007/08 – a dispute which devastatingly saw the first season of Gossip Girl cut by several episodes.
It’s a good time to be a fan of sport on television, less so for fans of teen dramas.
World Aquatics Championships suffers TV blackout in UK
Great Britain enjoyed a hugely successful World Aquatics Championships in Japan last month, winning eight swimming medals, including two gold. It was the team’s second-highest total ever, leading to suggestions the team could achieve a record haul at the Paris Olympic Games next summer.
But if reaction to the achievement was muted in the UK, then it was hardly a surprise. Despite World Aquatics making 320 hours of live coverage and 17 hours of highlights available to broadcasters around the word, the friends and family of Britain’s medalists would have been unable to watch their feats live on UK television.
The BBC, which had extensive coverage of last year’s championships in Budapest, did not afford the same treatment to Fukuoka 2023, despite the championships being included in the same European Broadcasting Union (EBU) deal. Instead, the BBC served up live audio and digital text commentary.
Commentator Andy Jameson wrote on Twitter that the rights owners had wanted too much money for the rights and that the BBC was unable to reach an agreement. Live streams of the swimming, diving, water polo and artistic swimming events were made available via the free EBU Player, but the absence of linear coverage in the UK is a huge blow for the sport in such a major market.
Very sadly, @BBCSport and @WorldAquatics has not been able to reach financial agreement to show the World Swimming Championships on free-to-air TV in Britain, so the BBC will not be covering it this year. Incredibly disappointing for the sport we love.— Andy Jameson (@Andyjamesonswim) July 18, 2023
One of British Swimming’s greatest championships largely went unnoticed by the sporting public – just a year away from Paris 2024.
The corporation declined to comment to SportsPro, as did the EBU, while World Aquatics had not responded at the time of publication, but it’s a situation that suits no one.
Like Fifa and the Women’s World Cup, many sports talk about DTC being an alternative to traditional broadcast arrangements in a bid to extract additional revenue. But as I’ve discussed previously in this newsletter – blackouts can be truly disastrous.
While the BBC prepares to deliver comprehensive coverage of the World Athletics Championships and World Cycling Championships, it’s a shame that another core Olympic sport has been left in the dark.
The Premier League’s toys of summer
Preseason tours to the US by English soccer clubs were once a novelty – as this article in The Athletic documenting Manchester United’s pioneering visit to the US in 2003 explains in great detail. Now the Premier League is so popular across the Atlantic that several teams visit every summer, the league has a dedicated office in New York, and NBC is paying US$2.7 billion over six years for the competition’s US broadcast rights.
The Premier League Summer Series is the first centralised tour of the US, providing some structure to preseason fixtures and providing a platform for even more of its clubs to build their international fanbases.
All matches have been shown live on NBC and Sky Sports, and the league has opted to use the tournament to experiment with broadcast technology. Referees have been equipped with wearable cameras, giving a unique perspective on goals and other incidents, while players have even been given wearable microphones for unprecedented insight into what happens on the pitch – and what players are really saying to the officials.
Other soccer leagues have done similar, most notably when the Australian A-League mic’d up referee Jarred Gillett during a match four years ago, and many fans would love to see the Summer Series innovations find their way into a regular season match soon.
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