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Television Rights Contracts Bring in Lucrative Revenues for Major Sports Leagues, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

Television rights to NFL games are big business.  After 35 years of airing Monday Night Football, ABC lost the weekly slot, beginning with the 2006 season, to cable sports company ESPN, although the program ultimately remains under its original corporate umbrella since both ABC and ESPN are owned by the Walt Disney Company.  Disney is paying dearly for the privilege.
New deals to air NFL games were announced for 2023-33.  Disney’s deal for Monday Night Football on Disney-owned ESPN amounts to $2.55 billion per year.  ESPN’s deal includes the rights to air 500 additional hours of programming and expands ESPN’s digital rights to stream Monday Night Football on ESPN+.  Fox’s deal is an annual average of about $2.03 billion per year for the Sunday afternoon NFC league package through 2033, while CBS agreed to pay an annual average of about $1.85 billion for the Sunday afternoon AFC package (NFC teams tend to be in larger markets with larger numbers of fans, hence the difference in fees).  Fox previously aired Thursday night games for $660 million per year, but the new rights awarded Thursday nights to Amazon Prime for $1.32 billion per year (the first time a streaming service will exclusively air a full NFL package).  NBC is spending $1.71 billion per year for Sunday night games.  The overall cost to air NFL games during the 2023 to 2033 period amounts to approximately $105 billion.  In the previous package (which expires in 2021), CBS, Fox, NBC and Disney paid $43.1 billion.  In addition, YouTube TV is paying approximately $2 billion per year to air a Sunday Ticket subscription package starting with the 2023-24 season.  Meanwhile, the NFL Network (a cable and satellite network owned by the NFL) airs approximately 13 games and 27 studio shows and it is staffed with dozens of on-air announcers and analysts.
Television viewership of NFL games had been dropping.  Super Bowl LX, which aired in February 2021, had had 91.63 million viewers, down from 2020’s 100.45 million, according to Nielsen.  (The game aired on CBS, which reported that while TV viewership was sharply down, streaming coverage was watched across a record-breaking 5.7 million unique devices, up from 3.4 million devices in 2020 and 2.6 million in 2019.)  However, Super Bowl LXI, which aired in February 2022, averaged an audience of 112.3 million, including 101.1 million TV viewers and 11.2 million streaming viewers.
Meanwhile, prime time U.S. broadcast rights for Major League Baseball (MLB) are locked up by Fox, which negotiated a seven-year, $3.5 billion deal starting with the 2014 post-season.  In late 2018, Fox announced an extension of the deal through 2028 worth an estimated $5.1 billion.  MLB also has a seven-year, $5.6 billion contract with ESPN through 2021 and a smaller ($2.8 billion) agreement for limited games with Turner Broadcasting for 13 regular season Sunday games through 2021.
The National Basketball Association (NBA) began an eight-year, $7.5 billion deal with ABC, ESPN and Turner in the 2008-09 season.  That deal was extended in 2014 for nine years and $24 billion ($2.7 billion per year).  The NBA also broadcasts games through NBA TV.
Soccer is the sport that attracts the most TV viewers on a global basis.  Top teams and leagues are posting phenomenal growth largely due to lucrative television contracts.
In recent years, ESPN had lost millions of TV subscribers as increasing numbers of viewers cancelled their cable and/or satellite subscriptions.  The network dropped from a high of almost 100 million households during 2011 to less than 80 million by 2020.  This is a result of the so-called “cord-cutting” trend, where many consumers are opting-out of expensive monthly cable contracts that offer hundreds of channels—most of which they don’t watch.  Instead, they are subscribing to smaller bundles of channels or viewing on internet-based platforms.  At the same time, ESPN has recently been paying ever-higher fees to leagues for rights to broadcast major sporting events.  Another effort, ESPN+ is a parallel streaming app similar to one offered by HBO.  The service launched in April 2018, and had 25.3 million subscribers as of the end of the second quarter of 2023.

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