ESPN, ABC affiliates tussle over sports

Many affiliates are upset with ABC and ESPN over a decision to remove several Sunday afternoon NASCAR races from the broadcast network to ESPN, leaving them with just three prime-time races to carry.

The move rankled affilates – particuarly in Southern television markets, where NASCAR is very popular.

NASCAR – whose season begins this Sunday with the Daytona 500 – splits its season up among broadcasters with Fox carrying the first portion of the season, followed by TNT for a few weeks, then ESPN/ABC taking over for the rest of the season until the season concludes in November.

While ABC affiliates are unhappy, ESPN claimes the races can pull better Nielsen numbers nationally on their network than they would on sister ABC, where those afternoon races had to compete with the NFL.

Both ESPN and ABC are owned by The Walt Disney Company, and the sports’ divisions of both merged several years ago.

This reflects a growing trend of many sporting events – many of which used to air on the broadcast networks – heading to basic cable. Other recent ABC-to-ESPN moves include The Rose Bowl (and the entire BCS package picked up from Fox), The British Open, NBA Conference Finals, and college basketball, leaving the network with bare-bones programming on weekends, outside of the NBA and college. On Saturdays outside the college football season, ABC usually aired fare like Wide World of Sports, which ended its 37-year run in 1998 (What’s on Saturday afternoons these days? In Dallas, ABC affiliate WFAA-TV recently aired a infomercial block.)

Locally, the Chicago Cubs announced its new 2010 schedule with the majority of games on Comcast SportsNet, leaving longtime rights holder WGN-TV with only around 60 games.

The reason why this is occurring because team owners and cable networks can benefit from a dual-revenue stream: one from advertising; the other from subscriber fees. ESPN and other networks usually collect them from cable and satellite providers, aka MSOs (Comcast, WOW!, and RCN) on a per-subscriber basis for the right to carry their channel on their system.

While ABC affiliates are unhappy with these turn of events, media buyers feel no sympathy towards them mainly because with ESPN and TNT, sporting events can reach their male-targeted targets better, and the pricing is lower.

And some media buyers dismiss the whining from affiliates since they still draw – and profit from – the networks’ popular entertainment fare in prime-time.

As for NASCAR itself, many loyal fans have been upset with ESPN/ABC’s coverage of the auto races for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from technical gaffes to bumping races to another ESPN outlet because of a last-minute programming conflict.