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Sports biz: Forgive me, for I have sinned

Don’t tell anybody this. But I don’t get ESPN.

As in, I don’t have it at my house. As in, if you drop by on Monday evenings in the fall, we won’t be able to watch "Monday Night Football." (What’s that? No, I completely understand. Sorry you’re not feeling well.)

And yet: I am alive to tell the tale.

My non-ESPN-ness happened mostly by accident. I kept meaning to add it back after rejiggering our cable service. But inertia, cheapness and the addition of an Apple TV that plays Major League Baseball games for $99 a season have prolonged the separation.

Not having ESPN puts me in a slim minority of U.S. households. But it also gives me some personal perspective on the biggest conflict in television today.

The short version: Cable company profits are getting squeezed by the rising cost of television content. Companies like Comcast and its satellite TV rivals (Littleton-based Dish Network and DirecTV of Los Angeles) have to pay TV networks like ESPN, MTV, AMC and others for the right to redistribute their programming. Comcast alone paid nearly $8 billion to these networks and others last year.

Why should you care? First, because programming costs are the major reason pay-TV companies slam you with bigger bills every winter. Last year, Comcast’s programming costs rose by 7 percent. In a saturated market –everybody who wants cable/satellite TV already gets it – there’s no way for Comcast and Dish Network to protect their margins but to raise prices. Second, sports channels are the most expensive of the bunch. It’s common for companies like Comcast to pay around 25 cents per month for the right to send, say, CNBC or Discovery Channel to your TV. ESPN, though, charges cable companies more than $4 per month for the right to send ESPN to your house.

Yep. Whether you watch ESPN or not, it’s the most expensive channel on your remote control. If your cable company removed ESPN and a dozen or so other sports networks from your cable TV service, the underlying costs of your pay-TV package would sink. By a lot.

But that’s not going to happen. ESPN’s contracts require that if a cable company offers ESPN, the channel has to be tucked safely into the most widely subscribed pay-TV package. Which means yours. The only alternative is for the cable company to drop ESPN altogether. And that would be economically suicidal.

Why? Because the Big Presumption here is that you won’t live without ESPN. You can grumble about your cable bill, you can switch back and forth between Comcast and DirecTV, but you’re not going to miss Alabama-Auburn or go to sleep before "SportsCenter." This is a time-tested bromide in television today, and it’s what makes ESPN’s owner, The Walt Disney Co., among the most successful entertainment companies in the world.

It also makes living on the other side sort of interesting. For one thing, I’ve been fascinated to see how it’s still possible to be immersed in sports even without ESPN. I don’t have ESPN, but I still gobble up stats, play fantasy sports and know what John Elway is posting on Twitter. I watch highlights online. I get live games over the Internet on MLB.TV. I have iPhone apps that tell me what the score is before you can change the channel.

Do I miss ESPN? Of course. I miss the unexpected thrills its live games produce. I miss the "SportsCenter" banter. I miss John Kruk on "Baseball Tonight." But I don’t miss the ceaseless parade of noisy commercials, I don’t miss the cheap talk-show programs, I don’t miss devoting four hours on a gorgeous Saturday to a college football game, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gotten that sandbox built this summer if I still had ESPN. Yeah, I’m sure I’ll be back someday. But for now, I’m living proof: ESPN isn’t oxygen. And even you, sports fan, can actually exist without it.

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Stewart Schley

Stewart Schley writes about sports, media and technology from Denver. Read this and Schley’s past columns on the Web at cobizmag.com and email him at stewart@stewartschley.com

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