The battle to become the next big sports streamer is underway, but unlike the entertainment streaming wars, there isn't a single dominant incumbent that's captured U.S. market share.
Why it matters: Sports could be more consequential than entertainment to the future of live television.
The big picture: Until more exclusive rights are freed up from linear TV contracts, streamers are focusing on a mixture of live events and niche sports content, as well as other types of sports commentary and on-demand programming.
- DAZN has amassed roughly 4 million subscribers worldwide — focusing mostly on combat sports like boxing and MMA, but working to acquire rights to other mainstream leagues in other markets. It's backed by billionaire Leonard Blavatnik.
- ESPN+, which launched in 2018, has 2.4 million subscribers. It has a larger presence than DAZN in the U.S., but no global footprint. ESPN+ has the rights to thousands of events, plus a wide variety of original content, but it's unclear to some analysts how big it can grow as a standalone offering. (Disney said last week it would bundle it with Disney+ and Hulu.)
Other pieces of the puzzle:
- Authenticated streaming: Most sports leagues still sell their biggest rights packages to live TV networks, because that's still where the biggest live audiences are. Because of that, many sporting events are still streamed digitally through authenticated cable and satellite subscriptions or through digital skinny bundles (vMVPDs) that license network content.
- Hulu with Live TV has over 2 million U.S. subscribers, while YouTube TV has over 1 million. These "skinny bundles" have become popular with sports fans who don't want to buy full cable packages, with many choosing to buy add-on subscriptions to their favorite niche sports apps or network sports apps.
- fuboTV, a smaller skinny bundle, was built as a cable replacement with a focus on sports, specifically. It has more sports networks, including regional networks, than some of its other skinny bundle rivals, and has launched its own network both on its own platform and as a free, ad-supported channel.
League-specific streaming: All of the biggest sports leagues in the U.S. offer their own direct-to-consumer streaming plans and products.
- There are some streaming apps that have partnerships with leagues to give consumers access to league-specific streaming content. Bleacher Report Live (B/R Live), for example, offers reduced pricing for NBA League Pass, the live basketball streaming service. (NBA League Pass is operated by Turner, which owns B/R Live.)
Networks: Most big sports broadcasters have created their own over-the-top sports streaming apps that can be purchased standalone or as add-ons to Pay-TV packages. These apps — like CBS Sports HQ, NBC Sports Gold, and B/R Live — offer a mix of mostly sports news and original programming, as well as niche sports rights.
Yes, but: Despite a plethora of paid options, many consumers still access sports games through pirated channels on Reddit and other websites where feeds are illegally embedded.
Be smart: Because sports is so heavily focused on live events, latency and picture quality is more important than it is for entertainment.
- "We created fuboTV for sports, and sports fans expect a premium user experience, so it has always been essential for us to focus on innovation, be first to launch features such as 4K streaming, and ensure a high quality of service and robust feature set," says David Gandler, co-founder and CEO of fuboTV.
The bottom line: While the race to build the next big entertainment streamer is getting tons of media attention, the sports streaming arms race is shaping up to be just as competitive, and potentially even more consequential to the future of live television. But for now, growing a sports streaming empire will be tricky, as most major rights are tied up in long-term TV contracts.