HBO's Reported Play for Bill Simmons Shows Hunger for Sports Programming

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Everyone in the TV world wants more sports -- even HBO.

The Time Warner (TWX) premium cable network's reported play for outspoken sports personality and writer Bill Simmons, soon to be out of his ESPN contract, underscores how sports programming has taken over the ratings-starved TV world. And few could command the impact of Simmons, TheStreet's Chris Ciaccia wrote.

The decline of overall TV viewership, estimated to be down 9% last month according to MoffettNathanson, due to digital recording and young people getting their fix online, has put added emphasis on networks generating revenue from sports, TV's last bastion of consistent mega viewership.

Tuesday's decisive Game 6 of the NBA Finals drew 18.9 million viewers for Disney's (DIS) ABC, according to Nielsen estimates, nearly doubling any other program on broadcast TV.

Comcast-owned (CMCSA) NBC's Sunday Night Football topped all broadcast programs in the 2014-15 season in the valuable 18-49 demographic advertisers desire most. CBS's (CBSThursday Night Football was third in a move that paid off for CBS CEO Les Moonves, who spent $275 million for more NFL games in a move to counter slowing ad sales as fewer viewers tune into primetime TV. The move paid off, helping fourth quarter revenue rise 3%.

Live sports has turned Disney's ESPN into cable's most expensive channel and is viewed as the sought-after lynchpin to any skinny pay-TV bundle or over-the-top offering.

In a research report released Tuesday, MoffettNathanson urges investors to put their money into TV networks that own sports broadcast rights. "The evolution of media favors scale players with must-have sports content and broadcast reach," the report said. Among TV's top networks, that includes ESPN, ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, Turner's TNT and TBS, as well as the network's cable channels.

Discovery Communications (DISCA) has gone far afield to add sports programming to its portfolio. The company on Tuesday said it bought Asian sports network Setanta Sports Asia, which primarily broadcasts rugby. Last year, the company acquired a controlling stake in Eurosport International, the European sports network.


But like Simmons, even talking about sports pulls weight on television.

TV's fifth highest-rated program last season was NBC's Sunday Night Football pre-game show. By venturing over to Time Warner, Simmons would presumably take a spot on TNT's NBA coverage as he had done at ESPN.

Simmons also surely would add to HBO's strong content stable, especially with rivals Netflix (NFLX), Amazon (AMZN) and Hulu -- a joint venture between 21st Century Fox (FOXA), Comcast and Disney -- taking cues from its own playbook.

HBO did not respond to a request for comment on if they were in talks with Simmons.

Simmons, who lives in Los Angeles, has also been a prime content creator for ESPN.

His podcast had the ability to attract top celebrity guests outside of sports and command millions of downloads. His 30 for 30 series of sports documentaries on ESPN is an Emmy-winner, and he also developed ESPN's Grantland, a website that is a bit like HBO in its dedication to strong sports and entertainment journalism.

Although, a deal with Simmons would not offer a surefire bottom line win for HBO, it would boost engagement with the network, particularly among the younger viewers the often brash Simmons commands.

HBO could expand its footprint digitally. Like the network has done successfully with John Oliver's weekly satirical news show, Last Week Tonight, a Simmons' show would presumably lend itself to be broken into clips and posted on YouTube for sharing, ultimately serving as an advertisement for the network to sell subscriptions, particularly as the network looks to widen its reach of its online HBO Now service.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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