ESPN is still the MVP when it comes to live sports

Syracuse's Michael Carter-Williams (1) dribbles past Marquette's Derrick Syracuse's Michael Carter-Williams (1) dribbles past Marquette's Derrick Wilson (12) during the second half. (Feb. 25, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept. ...

We begin today's look at the wacky world of sports media by borrowing another writer's analogy, as it is too perfect not to:

When ESPN retained rights to (what for now is called) the Big East by matching NBC's offer last week, the Sherman Report blog likened it to the Grinch swiping the last crumb in Whoville, one even too small for a mouse.

That's about right, given that the Big East amounts to sports crumbs these days -- as its modest price of about $20 million a year suggests -- and that ESPN does not need the content as much as the Whos at NBC Sports Network do.

But that is not to say ESPN did anything wrong, even if it at times is accused of having a heart two sizes too small.

Nope, the Bristol Stompers merely were doing what made business sense. They played defense against a competitor while holding on to another sliver of the most valuable programming in television: live sports.

Media companies and advertisers love the stuff, because it mostly is DVR-proof, draws young male viewers like nothing else and, unlike hit-or-miss, frequently-canceled sitcoms and dramas and such, usually delivers entertainment value.

Here's the problem: There are only so many ratings-rich games to go around and only so many human beings with so many hours to watch them, and yet the number of channels devoted to sports continues to grow.

So the lack of supply has run into a mushrooming demand for hours to fill, which in turn has created increasingly desperate high-stakes bidding for sports rights -- both nationally and even more so locally.

(There is a cost associated with all that, one reflected on your cable bill, but that is another very complicated and contentious subject.)

The next big event on the sports TV calendar comes Tuesday, when Fox is expected to announce it will join ESPN, CBS and NBC in the national, all-sports cable channel business by launching Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2.

How can there possibly be enough worthwhile stuff to go around?

"Well, to date, [demand] has been insatiable, right?" ESPN president John Skipper said recently. "And remember, [ESPN is] doing seven 24/7 networks, so it's not like we're going from one to five; we are really going from seven to 11.

"Having said that, what there's not enough of are the marquee, live events that get big ratings. That's going to be a scarce commodity. And ultimately you have to have some of that, right?"

Right, which is why ESPN is in an enviable position, having locked up rights to a lot of major stuff for years.

Still, Skipper said, "What we have to do, of course, is build upon that, start new businesses, make sure our mobile works, grow in Latin America, so that we continue to have the money it will take to buy that marquee product."

The climate will create inevitable ratings challenges. Skipper declined to comment on competitors, but he did note that as content gets spread ever thinner, the effect is evident. NBC Sports Network has endured viewership struggles -- especially during the NHL lockout -- and CBS Sports Network is not rated at all yet.

Fox should be in relatively good position, with one early jewel set to be the "Catholic 7" basketball schools that plan to break away from the Big East, probably this fall, and that are poised to buy the Big East name to take with them.

Everyone relies on low-cost filler in the form of debate and news shows, which have provided a comfortable living for personalities the networks hope will make a dent but who usually don't.

"It's takes time; we're in it for the long haul," CBS Sports Network president David Berson told me recently. "We understand this isn't an overnight fix." NBC Sports Network executives have had a similar take.

Next week it will be Fox's turn. Given the network's history of outside-the-box thinking, who knows what it will come up with to flesh out its schedule? Is Cindy Lou Who available? And what's her take on Tim Tebow?

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