The Los Angeles Lakers are saying goodbye to broadcast TV, thanks to a lucrative new deal with Time Warner Cable. Starting next year, the Lakers will be the centerpiece of Time Warner's new English- and Spanish-language regional sports networks. The deal will certainly make it easier for team owner Jerry Buss to afford Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and the rest of the league's highest-paid roster. But it's also a sign of how the economics of sports are pushing the game out of the reach of many fans.
An estimated 620,000 local households rely on over-the-air TV, more than in any other U.S. market. And for many years, Lakers fans with rabbit ears have been able to watch a little more than half of the team's games. Although most home games have long been consigned to a Fox Sports cable channel (a deal that costs Fox about $30 million a year), away games have remained on KCAL, and some weekend games have been carried on a national broadcast network.
Under the new 20-year contract between the Lakers and Time Warner, which analysts speculate could be worth five times what Fox pays, all games not broadcast nationally will be carried only on Time Warner's new networks. By law, the cable operator will have to make the networks available to rival pay TV services, such as those operated by DirecTV and AT&T. But it's certain to exact a heavy price, which operators will pass on to their customers.
If history is any guide, those customers will grumble about the higher monthly fees but will pay anyway. The willingness of pay TV subscribers to pay more every year is what enables cable networks to offer professional sports teams and leagues increasingly lavish sums for the exclusive rights to air their games. As a result, major sports franchises have been gradually fading from free TV.
The only way to break the cycle may be for pay TV customers to sign up for less expensive plans, making it harder for regional sports networks to strike multibillion-dollar rights deals. Unfortunately, cable and satellite companies tend to bundle pricey sports networks into their basic programming tiers, so it's all but impossible even for non-sports fans to avoid paying for them. Only if consumers fled in droves to low-priced, Internet-powered alternatives would the Time Warners of the world feel the chill. That's not likely to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, the tens of thousands of Lakers fans who don't have cable should start making friends with the ones who do.