Broadcasters are jealous of ESPN and ABC. As the first national sports network, they pushed their way up the food chain, from ping pong and bowling to professional games including baseball and football. And along the way, they were able to grow the number of sports channels adding ESPN 2 and Classic Sports along the way. But most importantly, they were able to get from cable operators the largest license fees for transmitting these games to their subscribers. And where did most of this content air before cable? The best stuff came from broadcast TV.
As ESPN picked up national rights, other sports networks formed to distribute regional rights. From that list came Sportschannel, NESN, YES, Pac-10 and other area networks, all getting license fees to present their games on cable TV. More and more games were taken from broadcasters and "free TV" saw less and less "over the air" sports. Today, media companies are trying to recreate the ESPN model; NBC has taken Versus and turned it into the NBC Sports Network. CBS Sports Network came from the earlier CSTV (College Sports TV), and now Fox is planning their Fox Sports 1 channel.
So what will feed these national sports networks as well as the current regional ones. First, their will be bidding wars for current assets on cable like MLB, NFL, and NHL (when they stop striking). But games that are still shown free on broadcast networks, regional baseball games, Saturday college games, and yes, I believe Sunday afternoon football games will leave broadcast for cable. The demand for content and the dollars promised to air will eventually move all these games to cable. No more games on NBC, CBS, Fox, or ABC; all will migrate to cable. How long? My prediction is within 10 years.
And as the license fees for these cable sports networks rise, the cost of cable subscriptions will as well. The consumer will either have to pay much more for sports on TV or do without. And as audiences decline, so will interest in the game. Some viewers may migrate backwards to their radio feed for games, while others will simply learn to do without. Younger audiences have already found it hard to enjoy the games; the costs for families to attend professional games make it a special event rather than a frequent outing. And some younger fans have migrated to their gaming devices and are less interested in watching a game on TV. Costs are out of hand and the rise of another sports network simply quickens the pace of change.