Remember the days not too long ago when you could turn on your regional sports network and know that the game you are trying to watch will be on without any blackouts or subscription sign-ins? It appears that these days are behind us, as we continue to see more leagues take advantage of the rising value of media rights deals. This new trend is making it so fans have to buy multiple different streaming services plus the local RSN in order to have full access to their team.
As a fan of European soccer, this is already a struggle that I have been dealing with for some time now. With each league and sometimes even each competition having a different deal with one of the many paid streaming services. Now, this trend is making its way into many mainstream sports in America. From a financial standpoint for the leagues, all of these subscription services are great and have helped make up for some of the impacts that were felt during the height of the pandemic. Just last summer, the NHL entered into negotiations with ESPN and Turner Sports to take control of the league’s television coverage. Deals that reportedly are worth a combined $600 million annually. While these partnerships are great for the league which is now tapping into two different networks, it does have a negative component as well. As part of the NHL’s media rights deal, ESPN is opting to televise some of their games exclusively through Hulu. This is great for the overall reach of the game as it allows those who have completely cut the cord to watch games, but for fans who just want to watch their team on regular TV, it may become an issue. It is typical for teams to have nationally televised games and in the past, this was never a problem, but with games exclusively on streaming services, it is leaving some fans unhappy.
This feeling of frustration that fans have towards missing streamed games is not exclusive to the NHL. As leagues’ media rights deals expire, there is more change and unhappiness. The most recent of these, and likely most limiting, is with Major League Baseball. The MLB has both the luxury and curse of having more games than any other league, with 2,430 total games per season. Recently, the league announced two new TV deals that are leaving many fans feeling frustrated and left out. The league is introducing weekly Sunday morning games exclusively on Peacock and Friday Night Baseball on Apple TV+ in an attempt to bring some fresh promotions and revenue to the league coming out of the lockout. From the league side, these new deals allow two major companies to get involved in baseball without needing to become major players. However, as I’m sure you are noticing a pattern here, it appears to be coming at a cost for the fans. Last Friday, the Dodgers hosted the Reds on Jackie Robinson Day, which is a big deal across the league and more specifically for the Dodgers. The game was aired exclusively on Apple TV+, which left many fans unable to watch the team celebrate the 75th anniversary of him breaking the color barrier. These two new MLB deals don’t just affect fans who want to watch teams on their local channels. It also leaves out fans who pay for MLB TV, despite the league promoting that you can watch every regular-season game with this package. From a big picture perspective, it is not a major issue to restrict access behind paywalls for a few games a season for each team, but this is more than that. The optics here for the MLB appear to be hitting harder than other leagues, and likely this comes with the many narratives regarding the league's decline despite financially seeing growth. While I understand that these deals are great financially for the league, it is hurting their customers who do not want to pay for numerous services to watch their team. Coming out of a massive lockout, you would think the league would do their very best to retain as many fans as possible, but it just doesn’t feel that way at times.
One league that has ventured into streaming territory with little backlash is the NFL. Most NFL games are available on either FOX, CBS, NBC, or ESPN but the league has also introduced games on Amazon Prime. This upcoming season, Prime will be the exclusive home to Thursday Night Football. Just like with baseball, fans would only miss a game or two of their favorite team if they do not have the streaming service, but the mood surrounding the two is very different. The NFL has offered games on Prime in the past, so this is not totally new, but the major difference is the rollout. The NFL change has been a long-time coming and they have gradually pushed for it. The NFL is only behind one paywall right now with Prime and it is estimated that more than 75 million US households already have a Prime subscription. Additionally, Prime is making their NFL product something that those without existing subscriptions would want to purchase by signing Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit to call games, plus Prime is more than just a TV streaming service. On the other side, Apple TV+ is attempting to use their MLB deal to bring on fresh faces to kickstart themselves into live sports rather than big names to attract fans.
There is a connection between Apple TV+’s venture into live sports and the NFL, which could provide an alternate solution for many leagues. Currently, it appears that Apple TV+ is close to signing a deal to land the NFL’s Sunday Ticket Package that could be worth around $2.5 billion annually. DirecTV holds these rights through 2022, which allows their customers with a subscription to purchase this package and be able to watch every Sunday NFL game. This larger deal to sell the entire season’s worth of Sunday games leads to less upset fans and could continue to make fans happier if they can get it without needing a DirecTV subscription. For a league like the MLB which has MLB.TV, this would be a better package to sell to a single streaming provider than breaking up their content. It would also mean finding a partner that wants to take on almost 2,500 games which is unlikely. We have seen smaller leagues like the National Women’s Soccer League have success with selling their TV rights entirely to a single streaming platform. The NWSL Challenge Cup games were exclusively available on Paramount+, with a handful also being broadcast on CBS in the US. While there are still unhappy fans who prefer to just have games on their cable TV, the NWSL is limiting the number of services fans need to just one.
Not every league has the luxury of having major TV or streaming rights deals. The World Surf League is one of many smaller sports leagues where fans can access events for free without needing cable or a streaming service. The World Surf League has one of the fan friendliest streaming options with their events live-streamed on YouTube. This may not be the best thing from a financial standpoint, as they are not seeing the big bucks roll in, but for a sport that is niche and on the rise this may be the best way to make fans happy and attract new ones too. The WSL does have ties to Apple TV+, but unlike the MLB and (potential) NFL deals it is not for their competitions but rather exclusive behind-the-scenes content so fans won’t miss the action.
The bottom line is that these deals are great for the leagues, but they need to limit how many they sign to avoid leaving fans out for too many games on multiple paid platforms. It is difficult for leagues to find the right balance between making as much money off TV rights deals as they can and ensuring that their fans are happy, but it would be beneficial to work for a solution. While there is no singular right or wrong way to go about this, leagues need to remember who their audience is and the best way to keep their audience happy, while also still bringing in as much money as possible. It is a fine line, but one that must be walked to elevate one league over another.