It’s no secret that sports TV rights are slowly melting into the streaming universe as well-funded companies like Apple, Amazon, and Alphabet’s Google bid for everything from NFL’s Thursday Night Football to much larger prizes like the NFL Sunday Ticket package. But this week’s college football deal around the Big Ten illustrates why any migration of sports rights to strictly streaming platforms will likely be more gradual than some might think, with CBS, NBC, and Fox splitting up $7 billion-plus in rights fees in a seven-year deal that will mostly live on traditional TV as eight games per season find their way to Comcast NBCUniversal’s Peacock. Fox, however, has remained adamant that its live sports coverage remain primarily on broadcast TV, meaning no Big Ten games are likely to land on its free Tubi AVOD and FAST-live service. No word on whether Paramount+ would pick up any of CBS’ Big Ten content, which is possible considering it just today renewed its deal with UEFA Soccer through 2030 in a $1.5 billion extension.
Interestingly, the mostly traditional Big Ten deal came the same week that Amazon announced Nielsen will measure its Thursday Night Football games as if they were still on traditional TV. The more these worlds merge, the harder it will be to tell them apart. Meanwhile, Sinclair Broadcast Group this week announced it will expand its Bally Sports Plus streaming service to 14 new markets on Sept. 26, going well beyond its five initial markets and enabling eligible fans to watch Bally Sports RSNs without a pay TV subscription. The transfer or simulcasting of live sports to streaming shifts the narrative around linear TV, with Daniel Loeb of the Third Point hedge fund even pushing for Disney to spin off ESPN. But it’s unclear why The Mouse would do that, considering that ESPN+ added 500,000 new subs in Q2 to reach nearly 23 million customers and on Aug. 23 will start benefiting from a 43% price increase to $9.99/mo. And ESPN’s linear network still brings in billions in license fees every year despite cord cutting.
Next? Linear TV still holds big sway over the major sports leagues, none of which want to see those multi-billion dollar sports deals start to falter as new and untested streaming business models muddy the market. The ad-supported traditional TV model has worked for years, although it’s clear that ad-supported streaming – which will add Disney and Netflix to the mix in 2023 – is coming into its own. Still, there’s a danger that we’re hitting a tipping point in which enough sports is available on streaming that consumers who have yet to cut the cord because of live sports will do so without fear. “A traditional pay TV subscription is no longer needed for the casual fan,” argued nScreenMedia this week. That doesn’t bode well for cord cutting after a brutal quarter of continued video sub losses. Take us out to the ball game, but let’s hope there’s still a prize buried in that box of Cracker Jacks.