The future of sports streaming may mean never having to watch a full game again

The NBA is one of the most innovative sports leagues when it comes to finding fans wherever they are.
The NBA is one of the most innovative sports leagues when it comes to finding fans wherever they are.
Image: AP Photo/Tony Dejak
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A la carte pricing is coming to basketball. Instead of paying $7 to access a full game with an NBA League Pass, which offers matchups audiences don’t get on their local TV channels, fans will be able to jump into those games during the final quarter for just $2.

The option will be available when the new season kicks off on Oct. 16, the NBA and Turner Broadcasting announced on Sept. 27. Eventually, the league plans to let people buy any portion of any game.

The move is aimed at the casual basketball fan, who may just want to watch the end of an exciting match up between big teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and the Golden State Warriors. It also showcases the potential of streaming live sports. When leagues aren’t tethered to a TV schedule or service, they can slice and dice games almost any way they want.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll see other sports be quick-followers to the NBA,” Jim O’Neill, principal analyst at the streaming technology company Ooyala, told Quartz. “Millennials generally are less willing to invest time into sports events, and this is a really good way to court them with a different kind of offering that will be more appealing.”

As more US states have moved to legalize sports gambling, fans who bet on live games (or play fantasy sports) eventually could pay only for the moments in the game they want to watch. The NBA is working on a way to sell just 10 minutes of streaming access to games—in case that’s all the time you have between meetings, or before your kid’s basketball game.

Paying per view isn’t new to sports, but the NBA is the first major sports league to sell streams of games in play at a discount. It makes sense for basketball. A regular NBA season has 82 games per team, each broken up into four quarters of game play. Other leagues with packed schedules, like the NHL and MLB, could potentially benefit from this model as well.

“The NBA does an awesome job of creating—it’s a strange phrase—FOMO, the fear of missing out, the immediacy,” says Brice Clinton, a senior engineer at CSG, a software and services firm that works with media brands. “They’ve created that environment where fans don’t want to miss out.”

When the Warriors’ Stephen Curry was close to breaking the three-point record in June, for example, even a casual fan hoping to see him do it might have bought a slice of a game on a smartphone, had partial-game streaming been available then.

NBA fans are younger than most other sports fans in the US, averaging around 40 years old. They’re probably already comfortable paying a few extra bucks here or there for perks in online video games like Call of Duty or Fortnite. Buying a few minutes of live sports isn’t much different.

“Microtransactions, they’re not foreign anymore,” says Joe Flores, co-head of the sports and entertainment business at public-relations firm MWWPR. “If you have action on the game, or know someone is chasing a record, it’s a small price to pay.”

In the past year, Disney, Turner, CBS, and newcomers like DAZN have all launched sports streaming services in the US, experimenting with subscription, freemium, pay-per-view, and ad-supported models. Other models will likely emerge as well, as more live sports enter the streaming space.

“We’re going to see lots of permutations of how we try to package, price, and sell sports, because we just don’t yet know how people will consume those things,” said Clinton. “Three to five years from now, maybe two or three of those stick.”

And fans who have other sports, TV, and video games all competing for their attention may never have to watch a full game again.