It's Still Game On for Live TV Sports

ESPN on Monday (Jan. 9) will air live the College Football Playoff National Championship game between the Clemson Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide (pictured) amid questions regarding the continued value of live sports programming on linear TV.

UPDATE, Jan. 10, 2017: ESPN Scores 24.3 Million Viewers for Clemson-Alabama Game

The ratings gravy train that sports networks and the TV industry in general have enjoyed over the years may soon come to an end, MoffettNathanson senior research analyst Michael Nathanson warned in a recent report. Given the ratings falloff for 2016 regular season National Football League games, as well as silver-medal level ratings for the Summer Olympics — and the potential of digital companies such as Facebook and Twitter vying for sports properties and driving up rights fees — TV sports is heading into its future with two strikes already against it, Nathanson argued.

Related: Units of NBC Sports Digital, Turner Expand OTT Sports Deal

In addition, a recent Thuuz Sports survey reported that 84.3% of pay TV subs with DVRs used them to record sports. The results cut into the cable-industry narrative that live sports programming is “DVR-proof,” so the sports-heavy traditional cable bundle is invaluable to fans.

The fact is, some “skinny bundle” offerings are drawing subscribers without a robust lineup of national and regional sports networks, including ESPN.

Live TV sports undoubtedly faces some challenges, but it’s still very much game on for the category, at least in terms of its huge appeal and value to viewers and distributors. When the ratings come out for ESPN’s Clemson-Alabama telecast, it will most likely secure the top spot as the most watched show on cable for the year, beating out Nielsen live-plus-7 ratings for the more than 400 scripted series that will air on cable in 2017. Last year’s CFP National Championship game garnered a cable-best 25 million viewers, and expectations are that this year’s rematch will match or surpass that number.

ESPN’s combined 36.6 million viewers for its two CFP semifinal telecasts on New Year’s Eve topped the disappointing 34.1 million viewers the network generated a year prior for the games.

The year is just getting started, but with live telecasts of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, National Basketball Association games, National Basketball Association and National Hockey League playoff contests, soccer, Ultimate Fighting Championship and boxing events and yes — Monday and Thursday night National Football League games — on tap for 2017, it’s not too early to predict that live sports programming will continue to score big audiences and drive valuable appeal for distributor packages offering such programming.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.