Streaming video disrupting live sports broadcasting

May 6, 2021

Greg Sigel

VP – Partnerships

Amazon has been steadily increasing the number of live sports broadcasts it offers as part of its Prime Video subscription package over the last few years. And its strategy may represent yet another challenge for cable TV amid the growing popularity of their streaming video services with consumers.

Amazon subscribers in the US get access to live Thursday Night Football NFL games, for example, as well as sports documentaries, replays of old NBA and MLB games. In the UK, Amazon Prime broadcasts ten Premier League football matches a year. In India, the company recently acquired the rights to show International cricket fixtures in New Zealand during the 2025-2026 season.

Different regions of the world also get access to live broadcasts of tennis matches (ATP Tour Events, the US Open, WTA), UEFA Champions League football and Autumn Nations Cup rugby games, and matches featuring the Seattle Sounders football club. Additional streaming services such as Eurosport, MLB.TV, NBA League Pass, and PGA TOUR LIVE are also available through Amazon’s Prime Video Channels, though usually for an additional monthly fee.

Nor is Amazon the only OTT provider muscling in on live sports broadcasting. Disney+ Hotstar owns the right to stream live Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket matches in the country until 2020, as well as Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the International Cricket Council (ICC), matches until the end of the 2022-23 season.

Elsewhere, Facebook has obtained the right to stream various live sports events, including one MLB game per month during the regular season for people with Facebook accounts and La Liga Spanish football league in India. The social media giant was also an unsuccessful bidder for the 2018-2022 IPL broadcast rights won by Hotstar before the acquisition of its parent company Star India by Disney in 2019). More recently, Disney-owned Hulu announced it would add both NFL Network and NFL RedZone content and game highlights to its streaming platforms, set to arrive on Hulu + Live TV in August ahead of the 2021 NFL season (Disney also owns sports broadcast channel ESPN).

What next for cable TV?

Formerly exclusive rights to screen live sports were effectively the last remaining advantage held by traditional cable and satellite TV companies in their ongoing war with OTT content providers. Customers were already switching away from their subscription packages to watch films and TV shows on platforms like Amazon Prime, Netflix, Disney+, Hulu and others in different parts of the world. Reports suggest that US media companies expect about 25m additional households in the country will cancel their pay-TV subscriptions over the next five years, for example, taking around US$25bn of revenue with them.[i]

Figures from Statista suggest global pay-TV revenue from subscription-based cable and satellite TV services declined 5% from US$186bn to US$177bn between 2019 and 2020. Cord-cutting is most severe in mature countries like the US, which is still the world’s single largest pay-TV market despite gradually getting smaller over the last ten years. Yet total global subscriber numbers have remained stable at just over one billion as companies in emerging markets of Latin America, Africa and the Asia-Pacific region have embraced the format.[ii]

What happens next may depend on the price of sports broadcasting rights and which companies have big enough pockets to afford them. Modern technology gives viewers the ability to choose which language they would prefer to hear during the commentary, making the previous regional rights model more difficult to justify. It then looks like a distinct possibility that the league associations and teams which control those rights will prefer to offer exclusive rights to a single, global provider rather than negotiate separate deals in individual countries and regions.

Having to negotiate broadcasts rights in a piecemeal fashion in different countries and regions of the world is just as complicated for companies like Amazon. And they may prefer to follow the example of dedicated live sports streaming service DAZN in the US by buying up rights to a specific sport on a worldwide basis (in DAZN’s case, boxing) to simplify provision.

Targeted advertising in the mix

Replacing traditional cable and satellite TV companies as the live event broadcaster of choice amongst sports fans is just one part of Amazon’s strategy, however. Another is to demonstrate that it can help its commercial partners deliver more effective advertising to consumers while also linking buyers to its online retail store. Getting accurate statistics on how many people visited a product page or purchasing it after seeing an ad on an Amazon live stream is extremely useful for brands building targeted campaigns, for example, and something much harder to produce on terrestrial TV. Amazon has already trialled 10-30 second video ads during its NFL broadcasts and is looking at other ways of fine-tuning them to fit around its coverage of live sports events.

The ability to present advertising in a more targeted fashion that is more likely to generate sales, could also help offset the rising cost of purchasing sports broadcast rights and ultimately bring a better deal for consumers. But OTT providers also need to be flexible in the way they deliver and bill for content onto end-user devices, whether TVs, set-top boxes, PCs, or smartphones for example. Statista estimates that 65% of people who watched sports coverage did so on their smartphones in 2019, ahead of laptop/desktop computers (53%), TV sets (43%), and Smart TVs and streaming devices like Amazon Fire or Apple TV sticks (38%).

With smartphones increasingly central to the live sports experience, streaming companies have an opportunity to partner with mobile network operators (MNOs) to deliver their content to a wider audience. Bundling digital sports subscriptions with data allowances and mobile phone accounts offers a discounted triple play package that many potential customers will find hard to ignore. And the opportunity to pay to watch games – either by monthly subscription charges or one-off pay per game fees – through carrier billing, offers more flexibility to younger viewers and those in countries of the world less likely to own debit or credit cards.

[i] Media executives are finally accepting the decline of cable TV as they plot a new path forward, CNBC, 24th October 2020

[ii] Pay TV worldwide – statistics & facts, Statista, 23rd April 2021

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