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
, 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
, 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,
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:
$60 monthly or $300 five-month subscription
If you're a fan of an out-of-market team, this is an easy decision.
NFL games accounted for 31 out 32 of the most-watched TV broadcasts last fall and more than doubled the prime-time viewership of Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC. Collectively,
21st Century Fox
agreed to pay the NFL $28 billion for broadcast rights through 2022.
ESPN has a separate $1.9 billion annual deal for Monday Night Football, while
has a $1 billion per season agreement for the NFL Sunday Ticket package that is set to become even more lucrative once the current contract expires in 2015.
That last bit works out in an out-of-towner's favor, especially considering you don't need a DirecTV subscription to access the Sunday Ticket package. The scoring-plays-only Red Zone channel, the 30-minute condensed-game Short Cuts channel and every out-of-market game is available through your mobile devices or your laptop. That last option is especially great, considering there are a few ways to
or to use
Chromecast to do the work for you.
Considering that DirecTV subscribers would have to pay the same amount for all you're getting plus their monthly subscription fee on top of it, it's a great deal. It's one that became even better if you happened to be one of the lucky souls who bought a $100 copy of
Madden NFL 25: Anniversary Edition
this summer with its free access to the Sunday Ticket Max package.
$130 for a full season, $10 now
There isn't a whole lot of regular season left, but if you're trying to find a way to check in on the wild-card and pennant races without shelling out more to some multichannel provider, this is an easy solution.
Much like Sunday Ticket, MLB.TV Premium tends to work best if you're a fan of an out-of-market team, as the home team's games are blacked out whether they're playing at home or away. Still, this allows even home team fans to watch out-of-town games on their
PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Roku,
TV or other connected devices that they'd ordinarily miss. Postseason games cost extra, but this comes in handy if you've cut the cord and can't catch a TBS broadcast.
Even better, your subscription also buys you you pitch-by-pitch updates, video highlights from games in progress and live radio broadcasts to go with free At Bat Lite content such as scores, news from MLB.com, schedules, rosters and team standings. This year's updates include a free MLB.TV game of the day, closed-captioning and a classic games video library.
$24.99 though the playoffs
Same rules apply as in the other leagues: Home team games are blacked out. That's not so great for MLS supporters, who typically have to watch their home teams on a cable sports network or hope for an NBC Sports matchup, but it's -- again -- great for folks whose favorite team is out of town or who likes to keep an eye on rival sides when the playoffs approach.
Meanwhile, subscribers also get 20-minute condensed game replays, DVR function, slow motion, real-time stats, formation and foul updates and more. They can also watch games through their regular television if it's a smarter
model or if they own a Roku box. Lastly, one of the best features of this package is that fans get non-MLS games thrown in. If there's a CONCACAF Champions League matchup or a friendly against a foreign squad, you'll have access to it.
$150 or eight payments of $19
For NHL fans anywhere east of the Mississippi, watching West Coast games is a rare treat with huge rewards. The problem is that you either have to pay for a package including NBC Sports to see them or tack on a costly full-season out-of-market package.
If you're serious about hockey and don't care much about the team your city bought an arena for, GameCenter's full season of televised games, slow-motion, DVR controls and mobile capability for all of it should make it well worth the price.
$8 a month
Remember all those blackout restrictions we mentioned in just about every entry above? Well, a simple TV antenna is usually the best way around them, especially for nationally televised network broadcasts.
The only problem is that your antenna doesn't play nicely with the DVR and certainly doesn't deliver a signal to your various mobile devices. Including the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Roku and just about any laptop. But are all those features worth $8 a month?
Well, keep in mind that your cable or satellite provider will charge you that much for ESPN and ESPN 2. If you're in Boston, New York, Atlanta, Miami, Houston and Salt Lake City -- currently the only markets where Aereo is available -- that subscription fee is the price you'll pay for your untethered freedom. It certainly gave folks a means around
Time Warner Cable's
blackout of CBS, and it could come in handy as the fight over retransmission fees heats up.
If it just seems like a way of getting you to pay for free content, then all we can tell you is that cable and satellite television subscribers have been paying for that same free content for years. You're just ordering a la carte.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.