Sep 17, 2023 - Economy

Do you know where your TV sports are?

Illustration of multiple foam fingers pointing in different directions.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

It's never been more confusing, or more expensive, to watch your favorite sports teams as leagues struggle to figure out the best way to reach the most people in a fractured TV ecosystem.

Why it matters: Leagues and media platforms are walking a fine line — trying to follow viewers who are migrating to streaming services without making those fans so frustrated that they skip the games altogether.

Driving the news: The NFL will have dueling "Monday Night Football" games the next two Mondays, one on ESPN and one on ABC, as the league tests out how different kickoff times drive viewership.

  • Saints-Panthers kicks off at 7:15pm ET on ESPN, while Browns-Steelers gets underway on ABC at 8:15 p.m.
  • The following week, ESPN and ABC will swap time slots.
  • Then on Dec. 11, ESPN and ABC will each air separate Monday night games at the same time (8:15 p.m. ET).

Zoom in: In addition to Disney's experiments, the NFL's Sunday games are spread across Fox, CBS and NBC. But wait, there's more.

  • "Thursday Night Football" is on Amazon Prime Video, which will also carry the first-ever Black Friday game.
  • Then NFL Network has a group of exclusive games.
  • Disney's ESPN+ streaming service will also get its own exclusive game — on Oct. 1, when the Falcons-Jaguars matchup kicks off at 9:30 a.m. Eastern. And that game will also features a "Toy Story"-themed animated companion telecast on ESPN+ and Disney+.

The big picture: It's not just the NFL. The broader sports landscape is spread out across more platforms and TV networks than ever before, raising the bar for entry for more casual viewers.

  • Major League Baseball has national TV deals with Apple and Peacock, forcing hardcore baseball fans to pay for two additional streaming services in addition to their TV bill.
  • The next NBA rights deal — its current TV deals with Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery expire in 2025 — is widely expected to include additional partners and at least one streaming-only platform.

In college sports, the lust for TV dollars is not only destroying conferences, but also breaking longtime relationships between conferences and TV networks.

Be smart: The legacy TV business is in the midst of an existential crisis that is affecting sports distribution.

  • Regional sports networks on cable are dying out, forcing teams to move their games to little-watched broadcast networks to increase reach.
  • The Phoenix Suns are moving their games to local stations KTVK and KPHE, and are sending their fans free digital antennas this season.
  • The Utah Jazz and NHL's Vegas Golden Knights are also moving their local games to broadcast stations.

Yes, but: It's not all bad. In some cases, the explosion of sports platforms has made games more accessible — as long as fans are willing to pay for it.

  • Major League Soccer's deal with Apple gave the league a much bigger media presence than it's had in its 20 years, even as it costs fans $14.99 a month to watch.
  • Sunday Ticket's move to YouTube this season made the (still expensive) TV package accessible to non-DirecTV customers or those that lived in apartment buildings.
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