Sports streaming blitz
It's been 20 years since the sports industry's streaming debut, and in that time, streaming has evolved from a nascent experiment to a crowded field.
Why it matters: Sports streaming was supposed to make it easier for fans to follow the leagues and teams they love. But with so many options, it's starting to feel even more difficult to navigate than cable.
The backdrop: MLB.TV kicked things off in 2002 as the first professional league to live-stream a regular-season game, setting the stage for the sports streaming boom to come.
- MLB's main differentiator was betting big on technology, creating a small division called BAMTech that powered what was then one of the most sophisticated streaming experiences in sports.
- In fact, it still is: In 2017, MLB sold a majority stake in BAMTech to Disney, and that technology now powers ESPN+.
- MLB is also now considering complementing its service with one that would allow fans to watch local games even without having cable.
Details: MLB, like other sports leagues, has had to walk a fine line between investing in streaming to reach younger audiences while also maintaining a presence on traditional television, where older audiences still watch games.
- The average age of an MLB viewer in 2017 was 57, per Sports Business Journal. The average age of an NFL viewer at that time was 50.
Between the lines: Sports have long been among the most costly networks in the cable bundle, and they've gotten even more expensive as live rights fees boom.
- Yes, but: Without being able to bundle streaming alternatives, die-hard fans must now combine a live sports TV package with specialized services, paying more than ever before.
State of play: Today, sports streaming is scattered.
- Leagues, like the NFL with its newly-launched NFL+, invest in their own services as a way to gather more money and data from fans. Niche sports like gymnastics and poker have their own services.
- Networks have recently spent big to keep up in the streaming wars: NBCU's Peacock bought the exclusive U.S. rights to the WWE's uber-popular streamer for over $1 billion in 2021. CBS, NBC and FOX are paying a record $1.1 billion annually for Big Ten college football rights.
- RSNs are the latest group to join the fray, with the New England Sports Network's service launching in June, Bally Sports+ coming in September and The Yes Network reportedly not far behind.
- Big tech companies like Apple, Amazon and YouTube are spending big bucks to bid on live sports rights as a way to draw more fans to their streaming services. The NFL's lucrative Sunday Ticket package is expected to go to a tech company this fall.
Reality check: Streaming still doesn't have anywhere near as large or reliable a distribution as linear TV.
- The CBS All Access app memorably crashed during last year's Super Bowl.
The big picture: The streaming explosion offers new opportunities for leagues, fans and commercial partners to grow with things like micro-betting that require real-time streaming speed.
- But at some point, the landscape must evolve so that it becomes less expensive and easier to navigate for consumers.
What to watch: Streaming's next big test comes this fall as Amazon begins its exclusive Thursday Night Football deal, which debuted with last night's 49ers-Texans game.
- Amazon this week said it brokered a deal with DirecTV to air those games in over 300,000 sports bars, restaurants, hotels and other venues outside of homes.
Go deeper: Big tech crashes big sports