Very few Phillies fans are tuning in to hear Tom McCarthy (right) and Matt Stairs comment on the worst team in baseball!
By Harry Allison
If you are a Comcast shareholder, you might want to stop reading now.
No, this is not another description of the effects of the failed merger with Time-Warner Cable.
It is the meat and potatoes reality of having the TV rights to three of the worst teams in sports:
And, as a result, Comcast will have a very difficult time going back to advertisers for rate increases. In fact, given the rock-bottom numbers the Phillies, Flyers and Sixers have attracted, give-backs should be the order of the day.
Phillies viewership has plummeted 65 percent from 2011, the last time the team reached the playoffs. Sixers viewership has nosedived 72 percent over the same period, according to Nielsen.
Even rabid Flyers fans have cooled, with per-game TV viewership down 36 percent.
The numbers – especially for the Sixers, with an average of only 23,000 adults watching their games on TV last season – are startlingly low for storied franchises in the nation’s fourth-largest TV market, observers say.
“Those numbers are embarrassing, no question about it,” said Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and now a media consultant.
SportsNet officials insist that their ratings are cyclical and could be bottoming out. The franchises, they say, will pull out of their slumps – eventually – and ratings will rebound.
“We serve a passionate and loyal fan base,” Brian Monihan, president of Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia, said in a statement. “And while viewership can be cyclical and reflective of the teams’ performance, our passion for covering them remains high.”
Comcast signed a huge TV rights contracts with regional sports networks that guarantee a revenue stream to the franchises; the Phillies signed a $2.5 billion, 27-year deal in early 2014 to televise their games on SportsNet. The Phillies also own part of the network.
“Wow,” Stephen F. Ross, director of Pennsylvania State University’s Institute for Sports Law, Policy and Research in State College, told the Inky.
“My thought is that Phillies would be taking a beating at the gate at Citizens Bank Park, but fans at home would still be watching the game . . . if they had paid their cable bill,” Ross said.
David Goodfriend, chairman of the advocacy group Sports Fan Coalition, said of the Sixers’ viewership that “23,000 viewers is a ridiculously low number. This is a legendary franchise. It would be tragic to have it sacrificed for corporate profits.”
Phillies and SportsNet officials say that comparing the viewership decline between 2011 and the last two years is unfair: the Phillies won 102 games in 2011, the most in franchise history, and were a heavy favorite to win the World Series.
An average of 350,000 adults watched Phillies games that year. The team lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs and never recovered its competitive footing.
Last year, an average of 112,000 adults tuned in to the Phils on SportsNet. Through early June the viewership had improved slightly from last year to an average of 123,000 a game. The Phillies’ record on Monday, going into the break for the All-Star Game, was 29 wins and 62 losses.
John Middleton, a part owner of the Phillies, said in late June when he announced the hiring of the club’s new president, Andy MacPhail, that Comcast – which owns SportsNet Philadelphia through NBCUniversal – had not insisted on radical changes to boost ratings.
“Comcast has given us lots of freedom,” Middleton said. “I see [CEO] Brian Roberts periodically, and he hasn’t suggested one thing to me so far. He may have wanted to suggest five or 10 things, but he’s been very gracious and said nothing.”
Most revenue for Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia is not directly affected by low viewership for the teams because people pay for the regional sports network through fees in their monthly cable bills. Those fees do not fluctuate with TV ratings.
Comcast SportsNet’s advertising revenue, though, is sensitive to TV ratings because ads are sold on audience reach, experts say. About 25 percent of Comcast SportsNet’s revenue comes from advertising and 75 percent from fees, officials have said.
The Sixers’ travails have been well-documented, with the team’s hedge-fund owners embracing a strategy of trading away good players and losing games to claim high draft picks.
The losing part has been a smashing success, with the Sixers posting 37 wins and 127 losses over the last two seasons. But for fans, the unrelenting defeats have been draining.
Scott O’Neil, chief executive officer of the Sixers, said season ticket sales have been strong despite the team’s weak record last year. And the team’s digital audience has been increasing, O’Neil said.
“You can go look at the [Allen] Iverson years or the [Charles] Barkley years,” O’Neil said. “The market comes back. We just have to do our job.”