How much are you willing to pay to watch sports?

Tony Moton
Paying for sports programming

Ask most sports fans and they'll probably tell you that watching games on TV is the next best thing to being there. Jack Bauerle is one such fan.

A 48-year-old resident of Yorba Linda, California, Bauerle says that when he's not working in the medical sales and sports medicine fields, he can be found watching his favorite sports on the NFL Network and various ESPN networks as a satellite TV subscriber.

"I am a fan of football and softball," says Bauerle, who has a pair of softball-playing daughters. "I watch 8 to 10 hours a week because I enjoy athletics."

"Enjoy athletics" might be an understatement for people in Bauerle's shoes.

According to a study conducted by Ericsson, the Swedish communications technology and services company, watching live sports is among the leading priorities of the TV-viewing public.

The results of Ericsson's "ConsumerLab TV and Media Study," released in August 2013, reveals that watching live sporting events is important to 36 percent of all people. The study also found viewers seem to be willing to pay for the sports they enjoy watching, says Anders Erlandsson, a senior advisor at Ericsson ConsumerLab.

"Consumers that put a high value to a certain type of content like sports will look for a service and provider that offers that service," Erlandsson says.

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The study's findings were based on 15,000 online interviews conducted in 15 countries (1,000 per country) - the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, China, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom. Additionally, some 30 in-depth interviews were conducted in New York, Sao Paolo, Seoul, and Stockholm.

Watching good movies (66 percent of people), watching good TV series (62 percent), and relaxing in front of TV without any effort (61 percent) were the top three viewing priorities, according to the ConsumerLab report.

The relatively high importance of watching live sports on TV among viewers does not come as a surprise to Erlandsson.

"In many markets, sports rights are still very much only available through TV networks and channels," Erlandsson says. "One comment we hear multiple times during our in-home interviews was, 'I wish there was a Netflix for sports!' "

But until that day arrives, sports fans seem agreeable to paying for sports on TV as long as they can get the games they love. Bauerle, for example, says his current cable bill is $130 a month. But he would be willing to fork over an extra $100-$150 a month if he ever decided to invest in more sports programming.

Is Bauerle typical of a sports fan who might dig deeper into his or her pockets to catch their favorite games on TV? The answer, according to Ben Sturner, a New York-based sports marketing and media expert, is a resounding yes.

"People are willing to fork out money for sports," says Sturner, founder and CEO of Leverage Agency, a brand, sports, and entertainment company. "When it comes to niche sports like tennis, passionate viewers and fans are willing to spend.

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Janelle Frese, 46, a teacher from La Palma, California, is someone who binges on sports whenever she gets a chance.

"I watch 2 to 8 hours of sports on TV during the week and all day on Saturdays," says Frese, a self-described college football and women's sports follower.

A satellite TV subscriber, Frese says her $89 monthly TV package includes the Fox Network sports package. If it ever got to the point where she would spend extra money for sports packages, Frese estimates she would be willing to pay between $5 and $20 more per month for them.

According to Sturner, the amount of money Frese might invest in additional sports programming is probably close to what the average sports fan might be willing to pay for niche viewing offerings.

"[A niche sports channel] has to be marketed to the right people at the right time, but that's why big cable companies are making big money," Sturner says. "If it's under $10 (a month) for that niche, I think it's something people will explore to do."

But someone like Dan Bell, an avowed sports TV viewer, isn't willing to spend more money for extra sports programming. He cites financial concerns.

"I tend to go out to watch sporting events that I don't get at home," says Bell, a 42-year-old city government worker from Glendale, California. "I just don't want to spend the money because I'm not home that much."

Bell says he pays about $125 a month for his cable TV and Internet bundle package, which includes the Major League Baseball (MLB), ESPN, and Prime Ticket sports networks. For him, that's where the buck stops for TV sports.

One of the reasons Bell often is away from his TV at home is that he prefers watching games in person. An avowed baseball nut, Bell has traveled to attend games in 23 of the current 30 Major League Baseball parks.

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"It's just enjoyable because I played sports and can relate to them," says Bell, a former baseball and football player in high school.

Bell says that if he had the extra money, he might invest up to $100 a month on subscription sports packages for TV. Instead, Bell invests extra time, energy, and money on keeping up with sports via his cell phone.

He watches games and checks box scores with his MLB Extra Innings package for mobile devices.

"There's so much out there with sports on the Internet, phone, computer, and tablet," Bell says. "[The devices] make so many more sports accessible."

Are sports fans like Bell at the point of abandoning TV sports viewing in favor of watching games on other devices? Not necessarily, says Erlandsson.

"Technology and new advanced media services are merely enablers that make it possible for consumers to watch TV on their own terms," Erlandsson says. "Going forward, the service providers that give consumers these abilities, with an acceptable cost and business model, will be the winners in the fight for the consumers' hearts and wallets."

In sports, where winners and losers are decided with every game, watching the action live on TV isn't likely to lose its grip on viewers anytime soon.

 "People can't live without it," says Sturner.