Game On: Sports Start to Take Over TV’s Biggest Cable Networks

·3-min read

FX has long been known for iconoclastic dramas like “The Shield” or “The Americans” that feature flawed protagonists and inventive plots. Next year, it may serve up more of those things — but not from scripted series.

In 2023, FX will start showing spring football games from the XFL, the startup league backed by Dwayne Johnson and Dany Garcia. Under a pact unveiled recently, FX and its corporate siblings at Disney will televise XFL games between 2023 and 2027.

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In its earlier days as a startup under the former News Corp. and 21st Century Fox, the cable network offered NASCAR races and Major League Baseball games. Even so, featuring regular-season football — particularly that of a new league — represents a fresh twist for the outlet founded in 1994.

“Will some people stop watching FX because Disney decided to put high-quality sports on their schedule? No,” says Patrick Crakes, a sports-media consultant who once worked for Fox Sports. Besides, he adds, the move will likely help the economics of the channel: Executives “will have fewer hours to program and more people to promote shows to.”

More top cable networks have started to embrace that strategy at a time when streamers are also pursuing sports rights. NBCUniversal’s USA has been offering more sports programming — including new golf telecasts — since its parent decided to shutter NBCSN, a cable network that dove deep into auto racing and Premier League soccer matches. It has been challenging in recent weeks to find a night when Warner Bros. Discovery’s TNT isn’t showing an NHL or NBA game. And TBS is airing more MLB games during the week, rather than mostly on weekends.

Cable networks thrived in the 1990s and 2000s by offering up new spates of original series that were often bolder, quirkier and edgier than their broadcast counterparts. In 2022, that is exactly the type of program that many people like to stream on demand at times of their own choosing. To keep big crowds tuning in, some of the biggest cable entities are banking on sports. “The core reason for all of this is that they need to slow down cable erosion,” says Daniel Cohen, exec VP of media rights consulting at Octagon. “How you do that is through live sports.”

The cable networks that are ramping up sports programming can use a boost. The average subscriber base for FX, USA, TBS and TNT is expected to decline in 2022, compared with 2021, according to market researcher Kagan. Kagan projects the average subscriber count at USA, TBS and TNT to each fall from around 80 million to between 76 million and 77 million. The average number of subscribers at FX, meanwhile, is expected to drop from 79.7 million to 74.8 million.

Just putting sports on the air won’t solve the problem. The networks need to weave the new live sports rights into their brand. FX is best known as a purveyor of high-quality programming that its parent, Disney, has been trying to parlay into a streaming sub-venue on Hulu that can compete with Netflix and HBO Max. Sports have not necessarily been the first thing that comes to mind when viewers talk about its programming, or that of USA.

Cable entities will have to spend more money to market sports in order for their investment in rights to pay off, Cohen says. Infusing sports into their lineups makes the big cable networks resemble broadcast TV: an outlet that offers a little something for everyone.

After the demise of so many niche cable networks in recent years, “these guys that are left are the sturdiest and strongest,” says Crakes. “It makes sense to prop them up and make their content more robust.”

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