At the start of the 21st century, marquee sports games were as rare to see on cable television as a satisfied George Steinbrenner.
Take a look at America's television sets today. The event that ushered in prime-time sports bliss, ratings blockbuster Monday Night Football, can be found on cable giant ESPN. Time Warner's TNT hosts National Basketball Association conference finals along with the league's All-Star Game.
Later this month, another broadcast-television staple will jump to cable. For the first time, a baseball league championship series – the National League pennant match up – will be showcased on a cable channel, Time Warner's TBS, while the American League Championship Series will be broadcast by over-the-air network Fox.
About 40 percent of America’s 112 million households with televisions still do not subscribe to cable, according to SNL Kagan Research. Still, experts believe the trend of top sports programming heading to cable will not be stopped. After all, cable networks can count on two income streams (advertising revenue and fees paid by service providers such as Comcast) to cover massive sports rights contracts, whereas the old-time free networks can only bring in cash from advertising.
Andy Zimbalist, a Smith College professor who has authored a number of books on the business of baseball, believes the National League playoffs will incur a small ratings hit by appearing on cable. But he adds MLB – which gets a reported $45 million annually from TBS, who will also televise all four division-series games through 2013 and a national game of the week starting in 2008 – set the rights fees accordingly, with fewer viewers a possibility.
"The issue is, will it hurt ratings enough to damage the fan base going forward?" Zimbalist asked. "My hunch is no. Most sports fans have cable these days."
Ratings are heavily influenced by the markets involved, and the division races seem to be shaking out in TBS’ favor. Big-market teams New York, Boston and Los Angeles have locked up playoff berths in the American League, while Chicago and Philadelphia should draw scads of viewers in the National League.
Even if baseball playoff ratings fall, TBS will still attract tens of millions of 18-49-year-old males coveted by advertisers during its coverage, which could exceed two dozen games this fall, depending on the length of each series. And there's no doubt TBS – which has broadcast Atlanta Braves' games throughout the country for 30 years, but is about to show its last one nationally – is thrilled to be in the postseason ballgame.
Turner Sports President David Levy said his group looked at the TNT model with the NBA, which began almost 20 years ago, and how the playoff ratings hit helped the network grow, boosting other shows in the process. Now, TBS can apply the tested theory to baseball.
"We basically own postseason basketball for the month of May," Levy said, referring to the 40 Games in 40 Nights package. "Now, we'll basically own October, if you will."
Since securing the playoff contract last year, TBS has hired Hall-of-Famers Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. — the former for the booth and the latter for the studio — and will also count on well-known broadcasters Chip Caray and Steve Stone to entice viewers. Unique camera angles it posts on MLB.com will draw fans.
Because Americans aren't used to turning to TBS for playoff baseball, Turner has launched an ad campaign fronted by Bon Jovi, who sings “I Love This Town” amid baseball clips, in about 6,500 movie theatres across the country. Billboards, print and radio ads with the same theme are also getting the word out on the playoffs, which begin Wednesday.
Will the World Series be on cable once the next round of TV talks are completed around 2013? Neither Zimbalist nor Levy were willing to guess. But there's no doubt the once-solid line between free TV and cable when it comes to the biggest sports games is blurring.
Said Levy: "I know that my son, who's 15, doesn't know the difference between broadcast and cable. It's television. You don’t say ‘I watched broadcast TV last night.’ You talk about watching 'The Office,' the Grammys, the Emmys. It's about programming."
And these days on television, the cable networks are, more and more, presenting the top-notch sports programming.
David Sweet, a sports business writer in the Chicago area, can be reached at email@example.com.