It is remarkably difficult to watch the New Orleans Hornets road games on TV if you live in New Orleans or the surrounding area. For those who don’t have to deal with the inadequacies of COX as a cable provider, local blackout rules, or the complex puzzle that is required in figuring out how to watch every game on TV, this might not make a whole lot of sense. For many others though, it will surely strike home.
The Hornets put forth so much effort and consideration into building and maintaining a fan base in the community through local events, camps and parties, which makes it all the more surprising that for so many years they have allowed cable providers to slow their growth in the local market.
Before we begin I want to express my deep admiration for Cox Sports Television’s staff in the New Orleans Arena. Everybody I have met has been fantastic, and the broadcast is overall an exceptional experience.
That said, there are some issues that exist on the business side of thing which will only prove a burden as the franchise tries to move forward. These issues incontrovertibly slow the growth of the local fan base, creating hurdles where none should exist for hundreds of thousands of potential season ticket holders, merchandise consumers, and fans.
Problem one: The Northshore Issue
If you live across Lake Pontchartrain, you can’t watch the Hornets on cable television. This simple disagreement over a fair price has nagged on for nearly a decade now, and cuts a huge percentage of 250,000 potential fans out of the financial equation for the Hornets.
Two years ago, executives from the Hornets told two city councils that the Northshore market is critical to ensure their long term viability in New Orleans, and having games televised there will help to sell tickets.
“TV, and the promotion of those (ticket) plans allow casual fans to realize that they can come to a game and it’s not a 41 game commitment,” said Hornets President Hugh Weber.
There is a lot to say about this issue, but most of it can be inferred from the following; 250,000 people who live within a short drive of the Arena are unable to watch games through their sole cable provider.
The kicker? St. Tammany Parish (The Northshore) is the wealthiest in Louisiana, with a per capita GDP 30% higher than that of Orleans Parish. Can anyone say disposable income?
Solution: Force COX Sports and Charter Communications to agree to enter binding arbitration that results with the Hornets being televised in St. Tammany Parish. Otherwise take away both of their monopolies municipal franchise rights, and let them duke it out for customers the hard way.
Problem Two: Who Dat Broadcast all the Games?
There are 15 games this year that COX sports and national TV don’t cover. In order to watch those all 82 games this year, a local fan would have a to purchase a combination of the NBA TV, NBA League Pass and COX cable/Dish.
For obvious reasons the local fan base should be given every opportunity to follow the team, and what better way to get them involved than to give them the opportunity to watch all the games?
Solution: If COX Sports has exclusive broadcast rights, then make sure that they provide coverage of every game unavailable on national TV.
Problem three: 249 channels for the price of one?
What if you live in New Orleans and you want to watch the Hornets games, but don’t want the other 55,000 shopping, religious, foreign language, music, and news channels? What if you, like so many others, have realized that almost every single network show worth watching is available legally through Hulu and the network websites, so really all you need is an internet subscription to see whatever you want with less commercials? Well, that and a 10 dollar HDMI cable for your laptop.
Oddly enough, it’s those who live outside of New Orleans who get to watch nearly every Hornets game for the price of NBA League Pass. It’s blacked out for locals not just in New Orleans, but for every NBA market.
Solutions: Stop blacking out NBA League Pass for locals, or at least for those who purchase ticket plans. This is contractual problem at the moment.
Problem four: DirecTV doesn’t carry COX Sports, and COX doesn’t have NFL Sunday Ticket
New Orleans is football watching town, and although there is clearly room for two sports, NFL Sunday Ticket reigns supreme. It’s just awesome, and combined with Red Zone is about the best thing going in football broadcasting. Since only DirecTV carries this, sports fans in New Orleans have to choose between watching every NFL game through DirecTV, or most of the Hornets games through COX.
Solution: Stop blacking out NBA League Pass for locals, or force COX Sports to get a deal done with DirecTV. Again, this is a contract issue currently.
Problem five: High definition isn’t always available
Watching a game that isn’t in high definition feels like watching a VHS tape from the 1980’s. It’s 2010, so COX needs to get with the program and offer high definition broadcasts for every game they broadcast. High definition is a substantial upgrade in sports viewing for some fans, especially among the younger crowd and those more likely to splurge on tickets or merchandise. Even on a big TV in standard definition, it’s sometimes hard to tell who the players are. Provide fans who desire high definition with a higher quality viewing experience and they are going to enjoy it more, virtually assuring that they stay tuned in the future.
I realize none of this is going to happen and that the financial implications and contract renegotiation for my solutions are far more complicated than I make them out to be, but the fact of the matter is that in a small market like New Orleans, the Hornets need access to all possible fans. Last year cable subscriptions went down across America, and with the availability of shows online and the economy being less than stellar, there is no rational reason to believe that the trend is going to change.
The reality is that you can find free illegal streams online for every NBA, NFL, and MLB game. This isn’t something that is going to decrease in availability, either. Actually, illegal streaming has become a huge problem for the NFL and MLB (especially with the World Series not being shown to millions of people in NYC). Their attempts to combat it have been failing thus far, and as people realize more and more that there are alternatives to packaged cable, they will turn away from the stone age cable companies. Apple and Google are both making big pushes to get into the market, and if their success in other fields are any indication, their splash might be more of a tsunami. Is COX Sports going to play ball with Google, knowing full well that many of the subscribers of their parent company will inevitably switch to Google TV one day, or will they simply set the price too high for Hornets broadcasts?
In medicine, preventative care is much cheaper than curative or palliative care, and that same principal came be applied to the problems the Hornets face in their local market. It’s in the Hornets best interest to combat these issues before they snowball into something bigger and harder to cure.
Small market clubs like the Hornets rely more on ticket sales to earn a profit than the big market teams do. With a new, young team, led by a rookie head coach and one of the best players in the game, the time is now to increase their local television viewership, overall fan base, and consequently their attendance. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that the broadcasting will be opened up to the Northshore cable audience. The odds of season ticket holders being given an exemption from the blackout of NBA League Pass are even slimmer.
While there is no doubt that COX Sports has offered the Hornets the best offer in terms of yearly monetary compensation, one must wonder whether or not the Hornets are shooting themselves in the foot a bit by accepting the deal without assurances that the games will be broadcast to a greater percentage of the local population. By allowing a bunch of television executives, more concerned with their own quarterly profits than the long term viability of the Hornets franchise, to dictate who receives game broadcasts, the Hornets risk their having their already small market shrink even more.