Streaming to screaming? Games moving from TV to OTT will change fans’ habits

At first, streaming services were fighting for reruns and producing original scripted shows. Now the over-the-top programmers are coming for live sports, and they’re making viewers choose.

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A billboard announcing the launch of Paramount’s streaming service is pictured on Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, Calif.

Valerie Macon/Getty Images

Back in the day, I used to have magazine subscriptions. Lots of them. Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly, Sporting News, Time, Pro Football Weekly and more. I loved getting them, reading them … and watching them pile up a foot high in my room.

Today, those magazines have been replaced by online subscriptions to newspapers, websites and streaming services.

But those streaming services have me worried.

I subscribe to ESPN+ as a loyalist of the worldwide leader, and I’ve subscribed to MLB.TV because I’m a baseball junkie. I also have Netflix, but that’s mostly for the wife and kids because there aren’t any, you know, live sports.

And I may have signed into another streaming service – or two – on a friend’s or relative’s account. But let’s keep that between us.

The point is this: Streaming services are proliferating like gremlins in water. Whereas at first they were fighting for reruns and producing original shows, now they’re coming for live sports, and your viewing habits might have to change.

The first sign of this new reality came in December, when the NFL showed a 49ers-Cardinals game on Amazon Prime Video (though it appeared on over-the-air TV in the local markets). It seemed like a trial run to determine whether streaming games was feasible and whether people would watch.

Both questions were answered in the affirmative, and as part of the NFL’s new media-rights deals announced this month, Amazon has the exclusive rights to “Thursday Night Football” starting in 2023. Games still will air in the local markets, but otherwise, you’ll need to be an Amazon Prime subscriber to watch “TNF.”

What’s more, NBC’s streaming service, Peacock, will have one exclusive game per season for the first six years of the deal.

“Over the last five years, we have started the migration to streaming. This is another large step in this direction,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft, chairman of the NFL’s media committee, told reporters. “Our fans want this option and understand streaming is the future. We have created a unique hybrid of viewing options and streaming. This should provide a smooth transition to the future of content distribution.”

(In full disclosure, there wasn’t a lot of competition for the “TNF” package because no TV network wanted it. NBC and CBS shared it before and passed, and Fox was happy to unload it. They couldn’t make money off it because they were sharing it with Amazon and NFL Network. Now Amazon largely has it alone.)

Then ESPN and the NHL announced last month they were reuniting in a new rights deal that begins next season. It’s wonderful for those draped in the nostalgia of hockey on ESPN, but it’s a bad omen for those who are tethered to their cable box.

The network will air 25 regular-season games plus the playoffs on ESPN or ABC, but 75 regular-season games will be shown exclusively on ESPN+ and Hulu, both of which are under Disney’s purview.

That means if Blackhawks games are as meaningful to ESPN as they have been to NBC over the years, fans might miss a few if they’re not a subscriber. And that’s just the NHL’s “A” package. We’re still awaiting word on a second broadcast partner.

See where this is headed?

“Sports, like every other visual entertainment content type, is going to be an over-the-top service,” Kevin Mayer, who ran Disney’s streaming services and now is the chairman of sports streamer DAZN, told CNBC. “That’s just where everything is headed. Traditional pay TV is declining.”

So why is this happening? First, leagues are targeting young viewers, who generally want to stream everything, and cord-cutters. Also, by incorporating streaming services, the leagues are adding bidders, which helps drive up prices.

But what’s interesting about the NFL’s deal, in particular, is that despite all its talk about streaming, the league remains committed to legacy media through 2033 (though it has an opt-out after seven years). Sunday games remain on CBS, Fox and NBC, and Monday nights still belong to ESPN/ABC. But the NFL certainly is hedging its bet by including streaming options.

Here’s the irony in all this: Cable bundles satiated programmers and distributors for decades, but as streaming services break up those bundles, streaming bundles, such as the Disney+/ESPN+/Hulu combo, might be the wave of the future.

It would appease customers who don’t watch sports programming yet have been forced to subsidize regional sports networks all these years. Remember, if the Cubs earn a 5.0 rating in their DMA (designated market area) on Marquee Sports Network, as good as that is, it means 95% of TVs weren’t tuned to the game.

But for sports fans, having to choose from an a la carte menu of streamers might end up costing them more than their cable package. International soccer fans have it particularly rough. The Champions League and Italian Serie A are on CBS’ Paramount+, the Premier League is on Peacock and the German Bundesliga is on ESPN+.

Granted, we’re just at the beginning of this shift, but it seems to be happening fast. And if you’re perfectly happy turning on your cable box and channel surfing, it’s probably too fast.

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