The Future Of Sports Media: More Amazon, Less ESPN?

An ever changing media rights landscape, real estate-driven deals, and more publicly traded assets. That’s how a panel experts described their collective take on the future of the sports business during a discussion at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston this past weekend.

Speaking to a big crowd that largely wanted to know whether the ballooning rights fees paid by networks to teams and leagues in recent years is sustainable, the panel’s answer was, essentially, yes. But that doesn’t mean it will keep coming from the same places.

George Pyne, formerly the president of IMG Sports and COO of Nascar who now runs Bruin Sports Capital, an investor in sports, entertainment and media, told the throng that given the consistent demand for sports content, “it’s premature to say that media rights money will continue to be anything but robust.” But, he says, “the channels of distribution are changing,” arguing that regional sports networks, those local cable channels popping up all over the country in recent years, are largely inefficient. His fellow panelist Jeff Jordan of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, an investor in media properties, explained why: “About 50% of fans today are geographically displaced.”

Yes, that Celtics fan who now lives in Phoenix or the Phillies fan who moved to Charlotte wants access to his team. And he does have it through paid subscriptions from services like NBA TV or MLB Advanced Media. But the panel sees a future possibility of crumbling walls between in-market and out-of-market media services. “Kids now don’t consume channels, they consume properties,” said Randy Campbell, a sports industry investment banker with Morgan Stanley MS +5.48%. “People are cutting cords and unbundling subscriptions. Ratings are down, even ESPN has lost subscribers.”

But don’t expect the sports industry to lose any money it’s getting from the media industry. Rather, expect the media industry to shake out with winners and losers as distribution models evolve. If fans popping on their teams’ games anytime, anywhere becomes the new model, expect Netflix NFLX +0.35%, Amazon and Hulu – or some combination of them – to be a potential big winner, according to Jordan. “I’d be curious to see who will be the Fox of that group,” he said.

Jordan and Campbell are also believers in the value of real estate that surrounds sports venues. Jordan calls it the Disney model that made Orlando, with its hotels, golf courses and other company-owned properties, a much more valuable property than the original Disneyland in Anaheim. Basically, the more of those ancillary experiences you own around the main event, the more money you make. It doesn’t even have to be the main venue – the Dallas Cowboys are building a whole village around their practice facility in Frisco, Texas.

Expect more institutional investors to scour the increasingly complex world of sports-related assets, according to Campbell. If a Fidelity or a Franklin identifies value in media or real estate, “that could lead to sports assets trading like other assets,” he said, at least among some larger market franchises that are more likely to possess those multiple assets. But make no mistake, media is still king in sports. The question is who will be the king of sports media.

Article Written By: Tom Van Riper