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Do Conference TV Rights Suppress Exposure To Niche Sports?

By Dr. Steve Dittmore

There was a certain irony in this year’s Oklahoma-Georgia college football playoff semifinal matchup at the Rose Bowl. Those two schools collaborated to carry the flag for a group of universities in the landmark 1984 Supreme Court case, NCAA v. Board of Regents, which eliminated NCAA monopoly control of college football media rights and ostensibly put in a place a deregulated free market where conferences sold rights to the highest bidder. The better the football competition in a conference, the more rights fees the conference demanded.


The decision also precipitated a first wave of conference realignment in the early 1990s with schools such as Penn State, Arkansas, and Florida State all finding new affiliations, the demise of the Southwestern Conference, and formation of the Big 12. Obviously, this has led to dramatically increased revenues across many Division I programs.


A condition of conference membership requires schools to license their rights to the conference, which distributes revenue equally among member institutions, and should, in theory, benefit the schools. “When each member of the conference receives equal revenue from the media contracts, it is in the best interest of each school to want stability and exposure for all of the other members of the conference,” wrote Benjamin Leibovitz in a 2012 Marquette Sports Law Review article at the height of conference realignment.


In a 2017 article in the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law, Mark T. Wilhelm considered how the contractual grant of rights might be used to prevent universities from jumping from one conference to another. “The grant of rights attempts to assign the television rights of member schools to the conference,” he wrote. “With the television rights of individual members secured by the conference, presumably, schools will be less attractive targets for conferences adding member schools.”


While there is little doubt conference membership has its privileges and benefits for individual universities, I have been wondering whether it serves the best interest of sports with big fan bases, large youth participation and little media exposure. I’m thinking specifically of women’s gymnastics and men’s lacrosse, both of which are niche sports which enjoy large, loyal fan affinity and an increasing number of youth athletes.


According to data released by The Aspen Institute’s Jon Solomon last September, the two youth sports with the highest percentage increase in participation rates among children 6 to 12 between 2008 and 2016 were gymnastics and lacrosse. Ice hockey was the only other sport to show a slight percentage increase during that period.


Perhaps not coincidentally, spectator attendance at the Division I level for those sports is also strong. Utah averaged 15,000 attendees per women’s home gymnastics meet in 2016-17. Presumably, a high number of those spectators are girls, and their parents, who also participate in gymnastics at the youth level.


The 2017 Division I men’s lacrosse championship match drew just under 30,000 at Gillette Field, placing it behind only football and men’s basketball for attendance at a single-day championship event. The crowd appeared comprised of a high percentage of area youth lacrosse players, wearing their local club gear, carrying their sticks, much like a kid brings a glove to a baseball game, and watching with their parents. It did not appear that students and alumni from the championship teams, Maryland and Ohio State, traveled like they would have had it been March Madness. Of course, the championship falls on Memorial Day weekend, outside the normal academic year.


Given the grassroots interest in sports such as lacrosse and gymnastics it is surprising that their live competitions are not more readily available for consumption. While licensing rights to a conference works well for “revenue” sports such as football and basketball, could fan bases of these niche sports be better served by having rights assigned to a sport-specific platform?


For the purposes of this exercise, let’s consider lacrosse alone. Citing 2014 data from the National Federation of State High School Associations, BuzzFeed reported lacrosse as America’s fastest-growing report, a sentiment echoed in 2015 when the NCAA declared the sport was the association’s fastest growing as well. According to NCAA data, 70 schools competed in Division I men’s lacrosse in 2016-17 (more than 100 DI women’s programs existed) with an average squad size of 46 athletes, second only to football.


The sport is growing in geographic reach as well as participation. Indeed, this past summer the University of Utah announced it would transition from club program to varsity status in 2018-19, becoming the third Division I program west of the Mississippi River (along with Denver and Air Force). This increased interest in the sport brings revenue opportunities for its teams, conferences, and associated sponsors.


Veteran sports media consultant and sport business professor at Columbia University Joe Favorito wrote last April about lacrosse, “With that growth comes more media opportunities and more chances for new brands to engage with both the core and the casual followers. That translates into more dollars and more media and more potential.”


So where do passionate lacrosse fans turn for content? For help with this, I enlisted my 12-year-old son who plays for the one, and only, lacrosse club in Northwest Arkansas. He knows far more about where to tune for news and information about collegiate and professional lacrosse than I do. And the reason he knows more than I do is because he is part of the lacrosse demographic.


Last March, the National Lacrosse League (indoor lacrosse league) signed a two-year agreement with Twitter to livestream a game of the week. A year later, league executives touted its success, disclosing the average viewership of those Twitter livestreams was 344,000 and stressing the typical viewer was under 35, extremely tech-savvy, and not subscribing to cable or satellite package.


Perhaps no one is more tailor-made for that under 35 audience than former Johns Hopkins star Paul Rabil, easily the face of U.S. lacrosse. Rabil’s digital presence includes nearly 75,000 Twitter followers, 225,000 Instagram followers, a podcast, and more than 120,000 YouTube subscribers. His videos target young lacrosse players and run the gamut of healthy eating advice, to how to train for the sport, to his role with Major League Lacrosse’s (MLL) New York Lizards.


Rabil makes regular appearances on the other digital star of lacrosse, The Lacrosse Network (TLN), a YouTube channel with 136,500 subscribers and more than 230,000 Instagram followers. The network’s hosts, Colin and Samir (they never refer to their last names), record weekly highlight shows featuring Division I lacrosse as well as the MLL, the traditional, outdoor version of lacrosse. Last May the duo produced daily behind-the-scenes “vlogs” from the NCAA Tournament at Gillette Stadium, often turning the cameras on themselves to video reaction to scoring plays since TLN does not have rights to NCAA championship game footage.


There is no doubt the lacrosse community must be technologically adept in order to navigate the emerging platforms necessary to watch their favorite sport. Additionally, the lacrosse community is extremely brand conscious and brand loyal. Sport-specific brands such as Warrior, STX, East Coast Dyes, and New Balance appear regularly in TLN and Rabil videos so as to seem native. In 2013, Rabil became the first lacrosse athlete to earn seven figures in endorsements.


So, here we have a sport with a young, tech-savvy and brand-loyal audience, anchored by rapid growth in youth participation. Yet its college programs remain nearly invisible to that audience because the way their rights are licensed, thanks in part to that 1984 Supreme Court ruling. Instead of attempting to cultivate fan bases of individual sports, conferences strike rights deals with traditional linear networks for all sports, instead of where individual niche fan bases might reside.


In fact, the 70+ Division I programs have their rights spread across 10 conferences, each with its own rights arrangement with traditional cable networks, regional sports networks, and online platforms. By my count, no fewer than 10 distribution platforms will air live Division I men’s lacrosse this spring: Altitude, Big Ten Network, CBS Sports Network, ESPN family, FS1, Ivy League Network, Lacrosse Sports Network, NEC Front Row, Patriot League Network on Stadium, and, possibly, Spectrum Sports Wisconsin.


It would be easy to say, “wow, 10 platforms broadcast lacrosse! That’s a lot!” However, the cumulative effect of this fractioning makes it difficult and expensive for the enthusiastic lacrosse fan to know where to turn to watch live events. With less than three weeks until the season begins, the Big Ten Network and ESPN have yet to release their broadcast schedules (at least as my research through Jan. 26 found). But, using last year as an example, the two networks broadcast 33 regular season games, so one would expect a similar amount this year. Meanwhile, FS1 is set to broadcast only one game, Marquette-Notre Dame, on Wednesday, April 11, 2018.


Additional games are available on Big Ten Plus, which requires a monthly fee, and ESPN3, which requires authentication. ESPN’s Executive Vice President for Programming and Scheduling Burke Magnus disclosed on a recent podcast that the forthcoming ESPN+ OTT app would carry a lot of Olympic sports, which could mean an increase in lacrosse streams. However, the five schools in the ACC will likely see their games migrate to the ESPN-owned ACC Network when the channel debuts in 2019-20.


The Patriot League’s agreement with Stadium calls for a whopping 45 games to be streamed by the Patriot League Network on the Watch Stadium OTT app. Some of those 45 games may also be broadcast nationally in a TV market in which the Sinclair-owned Stadium channel is available via digital antenna.


Only the Colonial Athletic Conference is using existing lacrosse-centric platforms for distribution, inking a three-year extension with the Lax Sports Network to stream 11 regular season games of the week plus the conference tournament online and through its OTT app.


When Major League Baseball’s broadcast rules were legally challenged in Garber et al. v. MLB et al. in 2016, it agreed to allow fans to order single-team packages instead of fans being forced to purchase a bundle of all MLB teams. Could a similar thought process be employed in college sports?


By licensing rights for all sports to a conference, universities are not allowing their programs to reach the audience most interested in their content. Consider the NCAA Championship rematch between on April 22 between Ohio State and Maryland. I imagine the Big Ten Network will air the game (schedule has not been released), but as the NLL’s research shows, many lacrosse fans do not have cable.


“Well then those fans should subscribe to cable,” could easily be the retort, but that does not seem a likely outcome. We all know fewer households, not more, are subscribing to cable and satellite providers.


And, yes, I know that under the NCAA’s amateurism model, niche sports benefit indirectly from the current system in which revenues from football and basketball rights are used to improve facilities for Olympic sports such as gymnastics and lacrosse. But wouldn’t distributing niche sports rights to sport-specific platforms help grow fans, instead of alienating them?


I am not advocating that all lacrosse broadcast rights be pooled into one package to be sold to the highest bidder. That is a monopoly, and that is how the NCAA got into the Supreme Court in 1984. Instead, I am wondering out loud about a reimagining of today’s college sports media rights landscape.


It is a vision which delivers niche sports content directly to a growing market in places where the market exists. It is a vision which isn’t concerned about historical, contractual rights arrangements but focuses instead on cultivating an enthusiastic fan base.


It is a vision which emphasizes growing an affinity for a sport and its student-athletes, rather than growing revenues. I suspect indirect revenues would increase as fans consume more content and become more highly identified with brands. I don’t know how else to explain the Syracuse lacrosse sweatshirt my son wears, even though we have never been to Syracuse, other than to suggest his consumption of lacrosse content on new media outlets influenced his behavior.


This reconceptualization won’t work for revenue sports such as football and basketball, where too much tradition in legacy distribution platforms and too much money prevents that. But for niche sports enjoyed passionately by loyal fans, why not think creatively?