How cable companies could make more money from me as a sports fan

After a recent move from Maryland to Connecticut, my family and I cut our cable/Internet bill substantially. We’re now paying $100 less each month than we were before the move and, unless the cable industry decides to change the way they make content available and begins offering more choices when it comes to live sports, I don’t see us moving back to a significantly more expensive package anytime soon. We prefer the freedom that comes with saving that money every month.

In our old house, we were paying about $170 for a Verizon FiOS bundle that included a land line we rarely used (the deal was cheaper if we got it), a high-speed Internet connection and an HD cable package that included HBO and Showtime, plus sports networks like all the ESPNs, NBCSN and the NHL Network. We were also on a contract that came with a fee if we wanted to cancel.

In our new place, we have a cable/Internet bill of around $59 through Comcast that will soon go up to $70-something once the introductory offer ends, and there is also no contract. With this set-up, we have the fastest Internet connection available and an economy cable package that includes local channels, the cable news networks, Disney and HBO. Basically, it has anything we might need to stay informed about weather or emergencies, plus Doc McStuffins and Game of Thrones.

But we hardly even turn on the cable box to make use of these things—it’s something extra that came with the best deal we could get on the fastest Internet connection. We watch traditional cable maybe once a month. In our new set-up, the cable box is a little like the landline we had in our old place and rarely used.

Almost everything we do now is streamed through a Roku player into our TV. We’re spending $7.99 a month for a streaming Netflix subscription and $79 annually on an Amazon Prime membership, which also gets us things like free two-day shipping on amazon.com purchases.

Between those two services, we have more content than my family has time to consume. We really could get by with only one of these services if we want to cut expenses even further. We’re getting plenty of programming for our kids, and my wife and I have a que of shows we’ll never get through. Occasionally, we rent a new release that’s not yet available through our Netflix or Amazon Prime subscriptions, either via streaming video from Amazon or on DVD from Redbox. This rental approach is often less expensive than renting movies through FiOS on-demand was.

The only thing missing is some live sports programming—and sports are big for us. My wife is a huge college basketball fan and I love hockey and baseball. But it’s simply not worth paying another $1,200 a year for us to get a handful of the networks that offer live sports which, unless I’ve missed something, you can only get by purchasing the larger cable/satellite packages. Until something changes, the days of us having ESPN, NBCSN and other networks in our home are gone.

This winter, about a month into the shortened NHL season, I subscribed to NHL GameCenter for $50 for the season (a post-lockout discount) and watched games with that through the Roku and on the iPad. I was able to catch most Washington Capitals games, except for the ones against the Bruins and the Rangers (these two teams are blacked out in our area of Connecticut—the only way to view these in-market games legally is through a cable/satellite package) and the national games on NBC Sports Network (these are blacked out for everyone on GameCenter).

We also run ESPN3 through a laptop into our TV, mostly for college basketball. For March Madness, we streamed every game from the CBS website or watched it on their tournament app on the iPad (I loved watching games this way. You’d touch the game you wanted to watch on the tournament bracket in the app and it took you to the broadcast. The NHL GameCenter app had similarly great touch-and-view features).

If I could pay to add just a few additional cable channels (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, NBCSN and NHL Network), which I realize might come with a fairly steep price tag, we’d have all the sports content we’re currently missing. Or if the cable companies got together with the content providers and created a model where I can pay to stream a single game live, just as I do when I rent a streaming movie from Amazon, I’d have the sports I’m currently unable to view. Two or three times a month, I might pay to watch a sporting event through some type of pay-per-view system.

But, moving to a different system may not be good for the cable companies right now. As The Washington Post’s Timothy Lee points out, a 2006 study showed that through an a la carte cable system, “the average cable bill would fall by 15 to 20 percent, as consumers cut channels they didn’t watch very often.” And I’m sure a pay-per-view system could hurt the current cable industry as well, if content providers even agreed to it, as some consumers would move away from the expensive packages and just pay for the games they want that are unavailable within their slimmed down channel options.

Here’s the thing though. I’m no longer going to just fork over an additional $100 a month to get the pricey package that offers me the sports networks I want. I’d rather live without them and, if a game’s important enough to me, I’ll go out to watch it. I could spend $50 twice a month on food and drinks at a sports bar and have a great night out watching a game with my wife with the money we’re now saving through our lower cable bill. Some months, we’ll just pocket the $100 and spend it on something else.

If the cable companies want me to spend more money, they need to un-bundle sports and give me some options, rather than an all-or-nothing deal that currently comes with a $170/month price tag. Right now, the choice is “pay around $2,000 a year or don’t get these live sports on your TV.” There are so many ways I can get access to movies and TV shows. But with many live sporting events, you either need to be at the game in-person or pay a huge monthly cable/satellite bill in order to watch the ones you want. With all the choices we have as consumers, you’d think there would be more than two ways to pay to see a live sporting event in 2013. I’m not asking for free; I’m asking for different ways to spend my money to access a product.

While they may never again make as much from my family as they did before we slimmed down our bill, by launching alternative sports packages, cable companies would likely get some additional revenue from us. This idea may not presently be of great interest to some in the cable business, as they still have plenty of people willing to accept the cost of the current packages that offer live sports. But if enough customers cancel or reduce their package over time, models that give consumers more choices might start to look like a decent option for the industry. Until then, that extra $100 a month the cable business was getting from us goes elsewhere.

Sidenote: This may sound like a long shot, but eventually the whole cable industry as we know it could blow up and content providers like a sports network, league or a team could start selling all their content directly to customers with no blackouts. So, a fan like me could get all the Caps games through something like NHL GameCenter, even the games currently blacked out, perhaps at a higher price than packages that are subject to blackouts. Or we could subscribe to something that would allow us to stream every ACC basketball game. Currently, there’s likely too much money for leagues in the exclusive contracts they have with networks for something like this to happen. But anything is possible depending on which way consumer interest and technology takes things. Look at the way other industry models, like music, have changed.

CSN has Caps & Wizards in HD tonight simultaneously for first time ever

Tonight will be the first time during the 2010-11 regular season that the Washington Capitals and Wizards play at the same time. And as CSN Washington notes on their blog, the regional sports network will broadcast both teams’ games simultaneously in HD.

As many Caps and Wizards fans know well, this was not possible in the past. Whenever the two teams play at the same time, one of them is shown on CSN and the other on CSN+, which was not available in HD until recently (see “CSN to produce all Wizards and Caps games in HD” – DC Sports Bog).

To find out where you CSN+HD channel is located, Comcast SportsNet has a page on their site where you can look up the location of any of the CSN Washington channels on your cable network.

As noted in that September post on the Sports Bog, while all the games are being produced in HD by CSN Washington, “This is no guarantee that your own provider will pick up the CSN+ HD feed…”  So if you’re not seeing the CSN+HD feed as an option, you’ll need to check with your provider.