It’s obvious to anyone who follows sports in the least that ESPN is a massive enterprise, but the nuts and bolts that allow it to be as massive as it is – i.e. cable subscriber fees – aren’t as widely known. That, however, could be changing. Just a few days ago, Frank Deford did a story for NPR calling cable subscribers (non-sports fans in particular) “hostage[s] of sports.” He does that because sports channels – of which ESPN is by far the biggest, of course – take in way more per subscriber than any other network. The Worldwide Leader’s current per-household subscription fee: $4.69. The next-closest national cable network? TNT, at…$1.16.
That’s a huge difference…one that helped spur on another “Is ESPN’s power out of control?” story, this one today in Newsweek, by Nick Summers. ESPN has to shell out big bucks of its own to carry live events – costs it passes on to cable companies, which are then passed on to cable subscribers. And Summers quotes Matt Polka, CEO of the American Cable Association (which “represents nearly 900 small and medium sized operators“), as wondering how much longer people will put up with it:
Ultimately, there’s going to be a revolt over the cost. Or policymakers will get involved, because the costs of these things are so out of line with cost of living that someone’s going to put up a stop sign.
This isn’t strictly an ESPN phenomenon, by the way: Summers notes that some regional sports networks charge up to $3.36 per household. ESPN’s merely the biggest by a longshot, and therefore their costs have the most impact. And with two stories in a week highlighting those costs, more and more people can’t help but take notice. We’re not sure if anything as dramatic as Polka’s “revolt” will happen, but once enough people get wind of the fact that ESPN is four times more expensive than any other major cable network, we don’t think the status quo (i.e. higher and higher rates for every subscriber, including those with no interest in watching ESPN) can continue much longer, either.