PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- Forget for a moment that most of the country's cable and satellite customers are subsidizing the average sports fan's viewing habits. Shouldn't those fans be able to pay for the channels they want without getting dozens that they don't?
That's been the crux of the cable television debate for nearly two decades as the price of sports channels has risen and sports' overall share of the cable bill has increased. According to media research firm SNL Kagan, sports channels made up $947.6 million -- or roughly 17% -- of the $5.5 billion multichannel television industry in 1995. Just last year, sports channels took in $15.3 billion -- or a whopping 38% -- of the overall $40.3 billion multichannel take. The earning power of the only other category that even came close, general variety channels such as TBS and AMC (AMCX), grew to $5.5 billion from $820 million over the same span, but dropped from nearly equivalent to sports to roughly a third of that genre's value.
Meanwhile, sports now accounts for nearly two out of every five dollars spent on pay television. Its monthly cost has risen as well. In 1995, the average monthly cable bill was $6.83, $1.17 of which went to sports channels. That's still a hefty 16%, but it lagged behind the $2.82 movie channels charged at the time. Now that $1.17 spent on sports wouldn't even cover 20% of the $5.54-a-month cost of ESPN alone.
Of the average $34 spent each month on multichannel television, nearly $13 pays for sports channels. That's 38% of the average cable bill, though sports are on only 14 of the average 94 channels offered by multichannel providers. On top of that, Nielsen (NLSN) estimates that only 20% of all multichannel viewing time is spent watching sports. Nobody is making out in that deal.Sports fans get a bunch of content they'll never watch. Everybody else watches providers including Time Warner, Comcast, DirecTV, Dish Network and others squabble over growing network retransmission fees and subscription fees charged by Viacom, AMC Networks, Turner and others. They don't need this. There are ways to watch most of your favorite sports without subscribing to a satellite or cable service. It isn't always cheap, but it can help overwhelmed multichannel customers cut the dead weight, if not cut the cord completely: