Televised sports, and the cord-cutter's plight

Tennis is one of my favorite sports to watch on Television. There are Sundays I wake up with a grand-slam final already in progress. The sound of the crowd, intensity of the players, the "thwack" of racket striking ball, the immersive view on my 46" TV, and laid back commentary draws me in.

Unfortunately for this cord-cutter, the Wimbledon final was shown on ESPN this year. After reading about ABC's long-term deal to televise Wimbledon, it dawned on me I am not likely to witness a Wimbledon Final for the next decade. ABC decided to show 'This Week' instead: an hour of vacuous political argument.

This is one instance of a broader trend where sports programming is migrated to cable while more pedestrian fair is presented on the broadcast networks. The Olympics on NBC were essentially an informercial for NBC Cable channels. Why else would NBC show a special edition of The Today Show on Saturday morning instead of a live hockey game between Russia and the U.S.A.? I have no doubt ESPN acquires rights to televise tentpole sporting events to increase leverage over cable providers.

Circumstantially, these decisions appear driven by the network's desire to manufacture demand for expensive cable subscriptions. ABC/ESPN charges cable providers ever-growing transmission fees for ESPN channels, while NBC/Comcast encourages viewers to abandon network television entirely in favor of 'specialized' cable channels where all the good stuff is ostensibly a click away.

Cord-cutters are obvious losers in this case, but if the strategy is to encourage us to purchase cable I think they've overestimated our devotion to sports, or underestimated our ability to either find alternative viewing methods or simply move on with other productive uses of our time. I suspect cord-cutters are simply written off by networks and cable companies, who would prefer to do business with more affluent and less idealistic customers.

The average sports-loving cable consumer is the real target. A consumer who is being groomed to passively accept the commoditization of their sporting traditions. Less affluent customers will encounter rate increases that will force them to make a tradeoff between the 'priceless' viewing experiences provided by sporting events, and a vague estimate of marginal increase in quality of life from regained disposable income and time from quitting cable.

Cable companies are known to allow temporary respite from higher fees if the customer cares to call and threaten to leave, but that method is less appealing as more hours of "essential" network programming are surreptitiously migrated to cable. This is how capitalism works, and we shouldn't be surprised.

So why should cable subscribers listen to the experiences of pretentious cord-cutters? Because we are living breathing representations the level of satisfaction that can be achieved when you threaten to leave your cable company for a better price, that vague marginal increase in time and disposable income that exists on the other side of cable. We are also the first to encounter negative effects of practices that cable subscribers confront as they negotiate tradeoffs of ever-rising cable bills for themselves. Whether the issue is increasing restrictions on sports viewing or shady internet bundling practices, cord-cutters are the canaries in the entertainment coal mine.

As for sports, my primary objection is sporting events that were once made widely available to a national audience have been taken hostage by monopolistic corporate entities looking to wring every last penny out of American sports fans. Secondarily, the sports themselves are devalued in the process. The leadership at organizations who are responsible for Wimbledon, ATP, NCAA, and the Olympics have sold themselves to the highest bidder and are failing to represent the long-term interests of their sporting traditions.