Why does the National Football League use a national television distribution model? Why does Major League Baseball mostly use a local and regional television distribution model through their individual franchises? Why does the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League have somewhat of a mixed bag of national and local television distribution? Why, finally, is Major League Soccer now pursuing a national-based television distribution model?
There are three reasons why.
Amount of Games & Attention Span
Football is played every Sunday during the season, generally once per week with one Monday night and a second Thursday night game each week. There are also some Saturday games during the holidays and the playoffs. Football models more closely a popular television show like American Idol or America’s Got Talent or your favorite linear television show. Baseball is played seven days a week with a team generally taking one day off here and there during the 162 game season. Baseball models more closely your local news service. It is played so often that it would not make sense to have it broadcasted every night as people’s attention spans would subside. Baseball like other American professional sports leagues also utilizes social media and national television distribution for select games, ideally the seemingly more popular games between rivals, etc.
Soccer is like football in that they basically play once a week so it makes sense to model after a national television distribution similar to football. Basketball and hockey have a mixed bag of distribution because all teams play two to three times per week so they want to reach national, local, and regional audiences. It is interesting to see more leagues and teams utilizing social media and streamers to distribute content because that is where there customers are located. Professional sports leagues and teams are hedging their bets by placing content in multiple places unlike what entertainment content streamers have been doing and where they are going, unfortunately.
Fan Bases & Demographics
Demographics, age, ethnicity, gender, and geographic location all provide data as to preferences in sports programming. This data helps leagues and teams plan for better or the best distribution model with their fan bases. For example, in soccer, the fans are generally younger and in major cities so they have a tendency to want to view content on streamers or social media platforms. Baseball fans tend to be older and living in less populated areas where local and regional television distribution better reaches the consumer.
Nature, Timing, & Engagement
Some of the differences in distribution models comes down the nature of the sport (its essence), the length of the match, and engagement. Baseball is a pastoral game played in ballparks that can be enjoyed leisurely through conversation and experiences. It is also the original analytical sport based around collecting and analyzing statistics. Baseball, because of its pace and length (e.g., there is no clock in baseball), even if just psychologically as football games last generally just as long as baseball games (3 hours +/-), attracts a certain personality—you either love or hate the game of baseball. Although baseball is consumed leisurely it does not mean its fans are leisurely fanatic about their sport and team.
However, football fans get bursts of excitement that keep them engaged on each play. Football is like a boxing title fight, some dancing with big hits. Baseball is like a dance that is performed over a period of time. Basketball and hockey are very similar in their breaks and flow. Soccer is in some sense the perfectly-timed sport because it is played in two halves without timeouts. The clock keeps running.
Interestingly and possibly unsurprisingly, the pace and flow of professional sports also determines commercial breaks, dollars, and distribution. Advertisers love breaks because they can fill that time with their own paid content. As an example, YouTube wonderfully performed the advertising dance during the 2017 and 2018 World Series and it looked like linear television was being watched on YouTube by ad placement.
Going forward, it will be very interesting to watch what happens as distribution grows internationally by way of internet companies like AT&T purchasing entertainment companies like Time Warner, Disney purchasing Fox entertainment assets, and Comcast purchasing Sky in Europe. There also seems to be a rush to go the platform route through streamers and social media. In the end, all has changed, but nothing has changed—content is only as good as the people it reaches and each American professional sport has its own model based on the aforementioned.