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What Happens When ESPN Overpays For The NFL?

This week will tell the story about whether Big Media’s summer swoon in stock prices was a temporary blip or the beginning of a long-term secular decline for the space similar to what we saw in newspapers starting 15 years ago.

Or – more likely – it will be both.

That means we could be poised for a temporary comeback in these names, while also having the longer term trend now firmly underway as of this summer and ready to play out over the coming years.

With the market rebound in the month of October, a lot of the big media names were finally able to get up off the canvas.

Disney – which will report on Thursday afternoon – shot up 11% for the month, ahead of the the S&P 500 at 8%. Time Warner, reporting Wednesday, was up 8% in October.

Fox did even better at 13% for the month.

Some of the biggest winners for the month though came down the most in the summer. Viacom was up 15% for the month of October, while CBS was up 17% (and reports on Wednesday).

Some of the cable company earnings last week gave hope that consumers are not cancelling their bundles quite as quickly as some of the cynics have worried about.

This week, we’ll hear from the content owners.

Of course, the most interesting report is going to come from Disney. ESPN basically started cutting costs from the moment they let Bill Simmons walk this past May. If you listen to his new podcasts or others discussing the anger between Simmons and ESPN head John Skipper, it’s often described in highly personal tones.

My view is that ESPN execs got the word from Disney on high that costs were way too high relative to subscriber cancellation fears and the expensive sports rights the network had signed up for over most of the next decade.

Ending the Simmons relationship is peanuts in the grand scheme of ESPN annual profits (maybe $6M a year?). But it was the start of a number of layoffs at the network over the summer and the decision to let Olbermann and Cowherd leave.

All those decisions made more sense in light of the August earnings report from Disney. Now, we’ll get their latest on Thursday. But the job cuts have continued at ESPN. 3 – 400 more people from the network were recently let go.

There were some reports after the latest blood-letting from perhaps those who were let go that ESPN had outbid the nearest rival for rights to Monday Night Football by $500 million a year to win it at just under $2 billion a season.

On a recent Netflix earnings call, executives said they had no interest in participating in the bidding on sports rights which they called excessive.

So, if we are living in a sports bubble, should we expect that sports rights will fall back to earth when they next get negotiated in 5 to 7 years? Not necessarily because there are likely to be a whole bunch of new digital bidders around the table when that happens. More competition is generally supportive of the prices paid.

Just a week ago, Yahoo bid $20 million to the NFL for the right to – by some reports – lose $17 million broadcasting a 6:30am PT game from London between the Buffalo Bills and the Jacksonville Jaguars. You can bet that Apple, Amazon, Yahoo, Twitter, and Google are likely to be as interested in the NFL as much as the broadcast networks the next time the NFL decides to put a package of games up for bidding.

So, in this environment, expect more job cuts at these networks. Expect less grandiose sets for SportsCenter. Expect only a hundred reporters covering sports instead of 500.

The decision on Friday to shut down Grantland was probably an easy one for ESPN and Disney. They aren’t here to have an ego war with Bill Simmons to show him up by keeping Grantland afloat. It wasn’t a big traffic driver and it’s 40 – 50 people, so… shut it down.

I’ll miss all the tremendous writing talent and great personalities but – let’s face it – they’ll all find a home and I’ll keep listening. It just was too expensive for ESPN to keep it going.

I would expect the Nate Silver experiment at 538 will end within the next two years as well and he’ll be back to the New York Times or Bloomberg if they make him a more lucrative offer.

The Undefeated might also be tossed aside as well. I’m actually surprised they recently said it was going to go forward. Why? Shovel everyone through ESPN.com or the Magazine. That’s it. Eventually that’s all that will be left around the actual sports.

If Thursday’s Disney results show more subscriber contraction, expect these kinds of moves to happen faster.

Read more at Forbes which is where this article was originally published

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