The future of how we watch sports is in limbo—until 2021

Actual photo of the war over how we watch live sports.
Actual photo of the war over how we watch live sports.
Image: AP Photo/Julio Cortez
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

People aren’t ready to abandon watching sports on TV, yet.

Internet streaming-video services for live sports are biding time, buying up the rights to sports like cricket, boxing, and soccer, until 2021, when the flood gates open to the big four US sports leagues—the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB. Those are the sports that platforms like ESPN+, Bleacher Report Live, and DAZN, as well as tech companies like Amazon and Facebook, will need to attract casual sports fans to sign up for their services. Without the ability to offer professional sports like football, basketball, baseball, and hockey in the US, there’s little reason for anyone who’s not a diehard, or a fan of a niche sport, to pay monthly for a mixed bag of matchups. For now, it’s easier to stick with regular TV subscriptions, or watch your team play at a local bar.

Traditional media companies, like CBS, Fox, ESPN, NBC, and Turner, have the rights to the big four US leagues locked up in multi-year deals worth hundreds millions of dollars apiece. Beginning in 2021, the rights go up for bidding again. It will set off a frenzy between the legacy sports networks eager to maintain their dominance in live sports and the tech companies trying to break into the space.

These are the big TV packages going back on the block soon, according to BTIG Research analyst Rich Greenfield (login required):

So far, the major sports leagues have been reluctant to sign away exclusive live rights to tech companies, many of which are still getting their video services off the ground, as Greenfield pointed out in his blog post. Google was reportedly interested in the exclusive rights to the NFL Sunday Ticket package, which offers access to regular-season games not available on local TV channels, when it was last available in 2013, and lost out to satellite provider DirecTV. Amazon Prime currently streams some Thursday night football games, but they also air on Fox and The NFL Network cable channel in the US.

The leagues’ attitudes toward tech companies could change as more people move away from TV and towards streaming. MLB recently threw Facebook the exclusive rights to 25 afternoon games during the 2018 regular season, in a signal of that shift.

Many streaming platforms now have sizable audiences: Amazon Prime, which comes with Prime Video service, has 100 million members globally, which is only about 20% less than the entire US TV audience. Google’s YouTube has more than 1.8 billion logged-in users per month, and a budding subscription service called YouTube TV for live TV. Facebook, which has 2.2 billion monthly active users, also has a hub for video called Facebook Watch.

These companies are cozying up to the leagues as well, by airing things like game highlights—which bring in extra ad revenue for themselves and the leagues—and documentaries on athletes and teams. They’re also offering features that regular TV can’t. Amazon recently started streaming its Thursday night NFL games via its gamer-centric platform Twitch, where popular Twitch personalities have been tapped to comment on the games live. Amazon is also experimenting with the ability to shop for official NFL gear from within the live games through Prime Video on Fire TV devices.

But platforms like YouTube TV and Hulu have also had major outages during critical sports moments like the World Cup and the Super Bowl that could make rights owners wary of making a streaming service the primary platform for fans to watch on. Incumbents like ESPN and Turner, which both launched new streaming options this year, won’t let go of the lucrative sports fans they’ve helped the leagues cultivate on TV without a fight, either. Turner has NBA League Pass in its Bleacher Report Live streaming service and ESPN+ has a handful of MLB and NHL matchups already.

The one clear winner: the sports leagues and owners just waiting to be wooed. Sports media rights in North America are projected to swell into a $23 billion business (paywall) by 2021, a 19% rise from 2017.