Sports fans, accept your streaming future

The English Premier League is one of several sports to get relegated to streaming.
The English Premier League is one of several sports to get relegated to streaming.
Image: Reuters/Michael Regan
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During the National Football League’s AFC championship broadcast last night, viewers were treated to a series of commercials from ViacomCBS touting its newly rebranded streaming service, Paramount+. Central to the ad—and to the service’s pitch to consumers—was the boast that Paramount+ includes live sports among its various offerings.

The ad let an audience of millions of traditional TV viewers know they can also get the same live sports content they crave on the internet, too. Eventually, the internet will be the only place they’ll be able to watch a lot of that sports content.

For a long time, live sports exclusive to streaming felt like part of a far-off future. Even with the old-fashioned cable TV bundle weakening as companies began shifting resources to digital platforms in recent years, live sports still seemed secure as a TV institution. Audiences might have been shrinking, but sports were—and still are—one of the few kinds of entertainment that reliably draw the viewerships that advertisers covet. The world might have been moving toward a streaming future, but sports were still a staple of linear TV, and that was unlikely to change for the foreseeable future.

But the streaming boom has happened faster than most executives anticipated, and they’ve now decided online platforms need sports content to tap into new audiences and drive subscription growth. If streaming is crucial to these companies’ futures, they need to start investing in live sports now. And they are.

NBCUniversal announced it will shut down its dedicated sports TV channel, NBC Sports Network (NBCSN), by the end of the year, and move some of the content that aired there to its nascent streaming service, Peacock. The channel, which is available in nearly 80 million US homes, is known for its broadcasts of the National Hockey League (NHL), NASCAR, and the English Premier League (EPL), among other professional and college sports leagues.

While some games will stay on one of NBCUniversal’s other TV networks, others will soon be seen exclusively on Peacock. NBC had already shifted many EPL matches to Peacock, angering some soccer fans who now have to sign up for another new service in order to keep watching their favorite clubs.

Peacock also absorbed the World Wrestling Entertainment’s streaming platform today, adding yet another lucrative live “sports” offering to its service. “We have a lot of data that shows live events and sports drives a lot of user acquisition,” Rick Cordella, Peacock’s chief revenue officer, told Variety. Peacock, of course, was supposed to launch alongside last year’s summer olympics and serve as the games’ official streaming partner. But the event was postponed until 2021, and its status for this summer remains unclear.

NBCUniversal’s latest moves come as many of its entertainment rivals increasingly shift sports programming onto streaming platforms of their own. Last year, Amazon Prime hosted the first ever National Football League game to air exclusively on a streaming service. Disney continues to acquire more and more sports distribution rights for its streaming sports platform, ESPN+. And WarnerMedia’s HBO Max is expected to eventually offer live sports, perhaps as early as this year. Via its Turner Sports division, WarnerMedia currently owns the broadcast rights to Major League Baseball (MLB) and National Basketball Association (NBA) games, which it airs on its cable networks, TBS and TNT.

ViacomCBS, meanwhile, has put sports at the front and center of its ambitious rebranding of the CBS All Access streaming service into Paramount+, due to officially roll out in March. (CBS All Access currently offers a $6-per-month tier with ads, and a $10-per-month one without them.) Its website and promotional material list “live sports” first, above news and entertainment.

While NFL games will still air on the CBS television network in addition to the streaming service for the time being, it’s no longer difficult to imagine a near future in which some games are available exclusively on Paramount+. (That’s even less difficult to envision for more niche sports, like golf, which CBS also broadcasts.) The NFL may not be inclined to sell exclusive rights to streamers when the league’s media rights expire in 2022, but companies like ViacomCBS are likely to include their growing streaming operations in their pitches to the NFL.

This all means that as companies continue shifting resources from TV to streaming over the next few years, many sports fans will exist in a limbo of sorts between the two forms of media. They’ll need to pay for TV packages—but also sign up for any online platforms that have access to their sports of choice. But the direction in which the industry is headed is clear. If fans don’t start embracing streaming now, it will soon be thrust upon them.