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 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.

All Caps & Wizards games on Comcast Sportsnet will be in HD

Here’s some good news for Caps and Wizards fans. According to this post on the D.C. Sports Bog, CSN will “produce all Wizards and Caps games in HD”. Back when I wrote about how Fios was not carrying CSN+ in some areas, the poor quality of the CSN+ feed was something I saw people bring up—the picture on CSN+ was worse than a standard definition channel. But hopefully those days are behind us and Caps and Wizards fans will be able to enjoy all games by both teams in HD. I’m kind of digging this whole living in the future thing.

Now I just need to get an HD TV. (Now’s the time where, if you monitor social media for say Samsung, you could offer me the opportunity to demo one of your products for the upcoming hockey season—and I’ll blog about it in exchange. Let’s make it happen. What? You don’t have that kind of authority? Ask your boss, they’ll be cool with it. )

Strasburg Debut & MASN Ratings

It’s hard to predict how Stephen Strasburg will do in his major league debut tonight for the Washington Nationals, but I think it’s safe to say that the TV ratings for the broadcast on MASN will break records for the five year old regional sports network.

MASN saw record ratings for some Nats games in May, as contests vs. the New York Mets on May 10 & 11 each drew a 2.0, which are “the highest television ratings of the team’s six-year history in Washington,” according to MASN. MASN also reports that the team had set a record earlier in May, “with a 1.8 household rating for the matchup with Atlanta, when Scott Olsen threw a no-hitter through seven innings.”

As of that May MASN posting, “television ratings for the Nationals [were] up 43 percent over the same period last season” with them team “earning a 1.0 household rating, as more than 20,000 households in Washington tune in nightly.” Last Monday, a Strasburg start for AAA Syracuse, that was broadcast live on MASN, peaked at just shy of that average with a 0.9 rating, according to the Washington Examiner.

One tiny factor to consider tonight regarding the TV viewing audience is that more than 41,000 people will be at the game. That’s well above the team’s average attendance of 21,559 through 27 home games this season. But the hype is so big for Strasburg and this game, that will likely be just a drop in the bucket. MASN should see some through-the-roof ratings tonight.

UPDATE – Wednesday, June 9
John Ourand with Sports Business Journal is reporting that “Strasburg’s debut brought a 6.81 rating to MASN2 in DC.”

UPDATE 2 – Wednesday, June 9
Dan Steinberg has a piece up on the Sports Bog about last night’s TV ratings: “Strasburg debut smashes MASN ratings record.”

UPDATE 3 – Wednesday, June 9
MASN is reporting: “Preliminary overnight Nielsen ratings show that the Nationals game on MASN has set a new record high rating for the network, earning a 7.1 HH rating as more than 165,000 households in the Washington region tuned in to watch an historic pitching performance.”

Poll: Nielsen rating for Pittsburgh vs. Washington NHL on NBC game

What will the Nielsen rating be for today’s NHL on NBC game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals? Take the poll

For a look at ratings for other recent NHL on NBC games, check out this post on Sports Media Watch.

UPDATE: The ratings are in:

FiOS Update: Including Why Some Get Two MASNs But Not Two CSNs

I exchanged some more emails with a member of Verizon’s PR staff, as I continue to try to get a better understanding of the issues previously mentioned here, with FiOS customers in some parts of the D.C. area unable to get Comcast SportsNet Plus (CSN+).

What I learned in that email exchange might be helpful to some of you who are trying to understand why you can’t get Caps and Wizards games on CSN+ via FiOS in your area, when a FiOS customer in a neighboring county can. Or why you could get MASN2 on your FiOS channel 1 during baseball season, but can’t get CSN+ now.

If you are a FiOS customer in a part of the D.C. area that gets CSN+, it is shown on your channel 1. For you, that channel is called Fios1. This distinction between Fios1 and channel 1 is key to understanding this whole situation.

For the DC market, FiOS1 is available—according to the CSN Plus Listings on—in the following areas: Montgomery County and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland and then Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Falls Church, Fredericksburg, Loudoun County, Prince William, Spotsylvania County and Stafford County in Virginia.

Now for FiOS customers in someplace like Howard County, you have a channel 1. That channel was carrying MASN2 this summer. But, that channel is now blank for you, most or all of the time, according to one FiOS customer who lives there. Channel 1 for all of these particular FiOS customers is not FiOS1; it is just channel 1 and it does not carry CSN+.

The reason channel 1 carried MASN2 for these FioS customers this summer is, according to Verizon’s PR staff, because “MASN makes MASN2 available as a full-time feed. Comcast does not make CSN+ available as a full-time feed. At this time, [Verizon is] not able to handle a part-time feed like that, so outside of where [Verizon has] FiOS1, [they] cannot offer a part-time channel like CSN+.”

So, the only way FiOS customers in these areas could get CSN+ on FiOS channel 1 would be if either:

1.) Verizon turns Channel 1 into FiOS1 in these locations, like it is in all the locations listed above or 2.) Comcast SportsNet decides at some point to turn CSN+ into a full-time feed like MASN does with MASN2.

As for point number 1, Verizon says that FiOS1 is “a local channel that [Verizon] offers right now in three areas: DC metro, Long Island (New York), and Northern New Jersey. As [FiOS] moves forward, [they’ll] announce any plans to expand the channel.”

People can debate where the DC metro area begins and ends, but for right now, according to the way FiOS defines it with FiOS1, it does not include some areas that are as close as about 20 miles to where the Caps and Wizards play their home games.

If I could get Verizon to answer one question, it would be: What specifically is preventing them from putting FiOS1 on channel 1 right now in these other DC area locations where there is demand for the CSN+ games? That’s the one thing I still have not gotten a clear answer on.

As for option number 2, this would require CSN+ to fill the time outside of games with some type of content. MASN2 did this by airing ESPN News. I have not heard whether or not this is something CSN would consider or even has the capacity to do. I only know that they want to help Verizon find a solution to this problem.

Despite the uncertainties, one things is pretty clear—a lot of people are losing in the current set-up. Caps and Wizards fans are not able to watch approximately a dozen of each team’s games, FiOS risks losing some of these fans to competing cable TV companies, CSN is not having some of their content seen by people who want that content and, finally, the teams whose games aren’t being seen are missing out on some opportunities to reach current and potential fans.

We need a beer summit.

An update on the Verizon FiOS & CSN+ situation

Here’s an update on my post from Wednesday, about how Verizon FiOS only carries CSN+ in some parts of the D.C. area, causing frustrations for some Caps fans. I corresponded with representatives from both Comcast SportsNet and Verizon about the issue and want to share their responses.

But first, a quick thank you to the writers who linked to the post, sending a boatload of traffic to it. To J.P. at Japer’s Rink on SB Nation, Greg Wyshynski at Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports, Dave Hughes at DCRTV and Dave McKenna at Washington City Paper’s Cheap Seats Daily — thank you!

And thank you to everyone who Tweeted about the story or posted comments on the blog. It was great to see so many people who are passionate about the issue and watching Caps games.

Those last few paragraphs felt like the Oscars, but it was important to me that I say thank you, because I really do appreciate all the links, discussion and thoughts you’ve shared.

So, here’s what I’ve got as of right now…

Tim Fitzpatrick, VP Communications with Comcast Sports Group called me today after I had reached out to a PR professional who works with the company. I was curious to know if there was anything that could be done on Comcast SportsNet’s end to resolve the issue, especially after seeing reader Jill’s comment on my original post yesterday, where she talked about the resolution that Cox and Comcast SportsNet reached, as she states “at the very beginning of the 2008-2009 season,” when “Cox customers were without CSN+.”

While on the phone, I asked Fitzpatick to send me a statement by email, which he did: “Comcast SportsNet makes 100% of our Caps and Wizards games available to Verizon FiOS, as we do to all of our distribution partners. However because of a Verizon technical matter, FiOS customers in certain Maryland and Virginia markets are unable to see Comcast SportsNet’s Capitals and Wizards games on the “plus” channel when the other team appears on the primary Comcast SportsNet channel. For further information fans should contact Verizon directly at 888-553-1555.”

A short while later, I got a response from a member of the Verizon public relations team to an email I’d sent them earlier in the day.

Heather Wilner, Manager, Media Relations for Verizon said in her email to me, “We continue to work on making CSN+ content available to customers in the parts of the D.C. area that do not get our FiOS1 channel, which is currently the only place FiOS customers can watch these games. We are working with Comcast to make this happen, but, unfortunately, it’s unlikely it will happen this season. We continue to offer a lot of other hockey content available on other channels, including games airing on local channels, CSN on channels 76 and 576 (HD), Versus on channels 90 and 590 (HD) and the NHL Network on channels 87 and 587(HD). And we hope to be able to get you all of the Caps games in the future.”

What I want to know is, what does Verizon mean when they say they are “working with Comcast” to resolve the issue and what exactly is the issue? What is the “Verizon technical matter” mentioned in the Comcast statement?

Quite simply, why can someone in Montgomery County, for example, watch CSN+ on Verizon Fios channel 1, but then someone just up the road in a neighboring county or another part of the region can not?

Is the fiber Verizon put in the ground in one county different from the fiber they laid in another county? Is it a capacity or bandwidth issue? Is it a contractual issue? Is it money-related?

I hope Verizon does get their customers “all of the Caps games in the future,” but I want to know what’s preventing them from giving all their customers CSN+ right now. That’s the answer I want, so we can figure out if there’s anything that can be done to fix the problem.

Until I get a better answer, I plan to do something many cable companies are quite familiar with—more digging.

Note: I realize the Caps are not the only team affected by this issue with FiOS and CSN+. There are times when the Caps are on CSN and the Wizards or college games, for example, are on CSN+, and some fans of those teams are unable to watch their games through FiOS. I focused on how this relates to the Caps when I wrote that story Wednesday, because that’s what I was plugged into as a big Caps fan. But if this gets resolved with FiOS, fans of many teams could benefit.

Verizon Fios Frustrating Some Caps Fans in D.C. Area

This story hasn’t gotten much coverage from the mainstream media or the blogosphere yet, but hopefully it will soon.

For whatever reason, Verizon Fios is not carrying CSN+ in Howard County, Anne Arundel County and other markets. This is leaving some fans of the Washington Capitals without access to quite a few game broadcasts that some of their neighbors in other parts of the D.C. area can still view on their Fios service.

Last Friday night, when the Caps played the Minnesota Wild at home in Verizon Center, Verizon Fios viewers in those areas couldn’t get the game as it was carried on CSN+, rather than on the standard Comcast Sportnet. It wasn’t the first time this has happened this season and it will happen again this weekend when the team travels to Toronto, and then again a week later when the Caps play Montreal the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

And those won’t be the last games these Fios customers won’t get this season—they’ll also miss two games in December, three in January and another in February. It’s about a dozen games total—or almost 15% of the schedule–that some Fios customers won’t see. When you’re a fan, that’s a lot. When you’re an organization that’s playing some fantastic hockey that you’d like for as many fans and potential fans as possible to see, it’s not ideal either.

It’s not as if these areas are outside of Caps territory. My parents are Fios customers, Caps full season ticket holders and live in Howard County, just over 25 miles from downtown D.C. The Caps even market the team another 20 miles up the road from them in Baltimore. There are plenty of Caps fans throughout Howard, Anne Arundel and beyond, especially these days when the team is on marketing fire.

A search for Fios on the Caps message boards produces links to multiple threads from fans trying to understand why they can’t get these games on their TV.

On Verizon’s online forums, the “Suggest Channels to Add to Fios” thread has quite a few comments from Caps fans suggesting CSN+ be made available to them—though no one from Verizon seems to logging in and replying to them (they should consider doing that before frustration builds further for the fans posting there).

I sent some tweets to Verizon, asking about this issue. They got back to me today saying “CSN+ coverage of #Caps games is only avail in D.C. and some burbs. Hoping to have that expanded for nxt season.”

NEXT SEASON?! Unleash the fury, Caps fans! I’d really like to see better communication from Verizon on this, explaining exactly why they can provide CSN+ for viewers in some parts of the area but not others and why it will take until next season to resolve the issue.

Note: I’ve focused on Howard and Anne Arundel here because they are the areas where I’ve seen this problem firsthand or read about it being an issue. I’ve seen mentions of other areas affected by this, so if it affects you, please let me know—the comments are open.

New updates on the Fios/CSN+ issue:
11/19/09 – An update on the Verizon FiOS & CSN+ situation
11/24/09 – FiOS Update…Why Some Get Two MASNs But Not Two CSNs
12/5/09 – …Verizon FiOS has “solution for the ‘over flow’ games”
2/2/10 – Verizon FiOS Adding CSN+ By Tomorrow…