Leveling the Playing Field

Related: B&C's 2015 Preview

Sports watchers rang in the New Year with the first edition of the National Champion Game on Jan. 12.

Elsewhere on the always busy and lucrative sports docket, the NFL—which for the first time likely hopes it doesn’t dominate the news cycle—looks to cash in on Thursday nights as it attempts to hold off challengers to its throne. And for the second time in a 12-month span, a new commissioner will take the reigns at one of the major professional sports leagues.

Here’s what else to expect on the playing fields this year.

CBS Keeps Its Eye on Thursday

Despite numerous one-sided affairs, CBS’ deal with the NFL to carry seven Thursday Night Football games proved to be a success, with more than 16 million viewers tuning into the contests that ran on CBS and the NFL Network.

The NFL holds an option for 2015 on the initial one-year, $275 million deal; CBS Sports chief Sean McManus previously told B&C the league has given no timetable on a decision, but it’s expected to come not too long after the Super Bowl in February.

Considering that live sports rights are among the most valuable in today’s time-shifted TV marketplace and the dearth of those available—the NBA’s nine-year extension with ESPN and Turner left the NCAA’s Big Ten Conference as the only top property remaining—many expect the NFL to cash in with a long-term deal by once again putting the TNF package out on the open market.

With NBC’s and Fox’s Thursday scripted lineups languishing this season, expect them to each make a big play for what is turning into a profitable franchise.

Cracks in the Shield

“I think the NFL is 10 years away from an implosion,” Mark Cuban, who owns the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, said last March.

The comments sparked a wave of headlines and seemed curious at a time when the football league’s perch atop the TV marketplace was as firm as ever.

However, the outcry over the Washington Redskins team name (though the squad’s on-field struggles muted that somewhat) and the league’s handling of players’ various off-the-field issues—most notably involving former Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice—has left commissioner Roger Goodell in the middle of problems that have nothing to do with X’s and O’s. Needless to say, nobody is happier to turn the page on 2014 than the NFL.

Many fans would argue that the constant rule changes and ubiquity of games (this season saw games played on Sunday, Monday, Thursday and Saturday) have diminished the on-field product. And while it’s true that TV ratings remain high—only the zombies from AMC’s The Walking Dead have been able to topple football—rival leagues such as the one Cuban works in are ready to pounce on a chance to intercept viewers.

The league also faces opposition from Capital Hill as lawmakers seek to end the so-called Sports Blackout Rule, which shutters broadcasts of games in home teams’ local markets that fail to sell out.

It’s often said the NFL stands for “Not For Long,” and now that might pertain to the league’s rule of the TV sports market.

New World Cup Players Take the Pitch

The rise of soccer’s popularity in the United States was well documented in 2014, culminating in record numbers for ESPN and Univision during last summer’s FIFA World Cup. Both networks also received high praise for their handling of the global event.

So it’ll be a tough act to follow as new World Cup rights holders Fox and Telemundo kick off their first year of coverage this summer. While the big test comes in three years with the next men’s tournament—scheduled for 2018 in Russia—Fox can make a strong opening statement about how it will treat soccer with this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup from Canada. By early indications, the network is going big for its first World Cup: Fox will air 16 matches on the broadcast network (with the remainder on Fox Sports 1 and 2), the most for any World Cup regardless of gender. The network also scored an early goal by poaching former U.S. National team member Alexi Lalas from ESPN.

The June 5 finals will kick off at 4 p.m. local time in Vancouver, meaning that in the U.S.—always a favorite to make the championship— coverage will run during primetime on the East Coast. With many media watchers waiting to see how Fox may rise to the challenge, this summer could assuage a lot of fan fears—or amplify them.

The World Cup is not the only new high-profile property Fox debuts this year. The network will air its inaugural telecast of golf’s U.S. Open in June, featuring veteran play-by-play man Joe Buck calling the action.

Field of Streams

For the second-straight year, there will be a change in leadership at a major professional sports outfit, when longtime exec Rob Manfred succeeds Bud Selig as commissioner of Major League Baseball.

While the commissioner-elect has already made his impact felt in re-organizing the league’s central office, which saw MLB Advanced Media chief Bob Bowman gain oversight of all of the league’s media operations and MLB Network CEO Tony Petitti upped to COO (Rob McGlarry will now run MLBN), Manfred told B&C one of his earliest goals is to secure in-market live streaming of games. “I’d like to get that done and out of the way,” he said.

Eric Shanks, who heads one of MLB’s biggest TV partners in Fox Sports, is also keen on making live streams of in-market MLB games available. Currently, only major national events such as the World Series, All-Star Game and Fox’s “Game of the Week” broadcast are available to stream. The hope is that in-market streaming is available by Opening Day.