Three Ways Sports Broadcasting is Changing

I’m a lifelong sports fan. Growing up, I watched whatever was available on TV, which meant football, basketball, and baseball. I still remember Joe Garagiola’s distinctive voice on NBC baseball games.

While I don’t have as much time on my hands for television, I do watch sports that I’m passionate about: cycling, running, college football. Unfortunately, most broadcasts are stuck in a 1995 viewing model that makes it almost impossible to watch what you want for a fair price.

Overall, professional leagues & teams are still hooked on the crack of an inefficient TV-industrial complex model: you pay for 200 channels and watch maybe 10. ESPN collects about $9 from every cable subscriber whether or not they actually watch that channel. A bundle of other channels — Fox Sports, NFL Network, regional sports networks — also charge every cable customer. This is why your cable bill is probably over $100 per month.

This is what you pay every month whether you watch or not

Meanwhile, viewing habits are changing dramatically: young viewers in particular are abandoning cable TV in droves (cord cutters) and many have never even tried it (cord nevers). The streaming world is here. The only question is how long will it take the sports leagues and teams to get on board.

Change is now

Here’s how sports viewing will work in the future:

  1. Streaming skinny bundle:

I gave up my DirecTV subscription at $130 per month and switched to YouTube TV. It’s a great option at $39.99 per month, plus the purchase of a Chromecast dongle ($35) for each TV. They carry all the major sports channels, as well as network TV, and all the news channels. You get it set up in 5 minutes, and you can cancel any time. No waiting for the cable guy to show up “some time between 8 and 5” on a Tuesday. Roku has a similar offering, and with Apple TV you can watch all kinds of apps from HBO Go ($15 per month) to niche sports networks.

YouTubeTV menu

2. Team sports streaming offers:

Most sports, by nature, are tribal and regional. People want to watch their team — Alabama Football, the Yankees, the Houston Rockets— from wherever they are. The problem is that many of these teams are tied to regional sports networks (RSNs) that are beholden to local cable carriers. If your cable provider (Charter, Cox, Cablevision, etc.) doesn’t carry that RSN(Fox Sports Wisconsin, Spectrum SportsNet LA, etc.) or you don’t want to pay for the 200 channels that come with the RSN you’re out of luck. Here in LA for example, when I had DirecTV, I could watch neither my UCLA Bruins football games or the LA Dodgers. Games from those two teams are mostly shown on Pac 12 Network and SportsNet LA, neither of which could work out a deal with DirecTV. What teams should be doing is creating their own streaming option. Let’s say $49.99 for a season of baseball. Or $4.99 for each college football game. I’d get to watch that from any device either live or tape-delayed. For the younger generation that’s come of age with Netflix, Spotify, and YouTube, this is a must. Otherwise, they’ll find pirate options like I do with OK Live TV.

Fox Sports Wisconsin
My go to pirate feed for Pac 12 Network events

3. Niche sports streaming:

While a number of operations are streaming running, cycling, and other niche sports, it’s mostly a mess right now. I’m a pro cycling fan, and it’s fun to get up early and watch the big European races early in the morning. Almost none of those, outside of the Tour de France, are carried on US television channels. While there are some streaming options, they’re all over the map: NBC Sports Gold, Fubo TV, FloBikes. They’re all different and there’s no one stop shopping. So it gets expensive. Fubo sounds good (“Sign up for $9.99”) but in fact it will run you about $500 per year. That’s a lot of cash to spend on just the few races they have rights to. FloBikes is part of the smart and growing FloSports network of sports platforms. And when you subscribe to FloPro, you get access to softball, wrestling, baseball, and cycling. But there’s another $240 per year to access just some of the races I want to see. Same with NBC Gold. So what do I end up doing? Of course, I use or to find European pirate feeds of races. These feeds cut out all the time, they’re in many different languages (I mostly watched the Giro in Hebrew on the Israeli feed!). The one event that gets it right is the Amgen Tour of California. They built their own app, Tour Tracker, which is sensational. There are versions for mobile and desktop. The UI is a dashboard with not only live video, but all the relevant data one needs to refer to as the race is happening. For me, this is what the future of sports viewing looks like: ad-supported, free, digital native.

Tour Tracker
Watching a sketchy French feed of the Giro d’Italia

Every single sport, league, and event needs competent leadership in digital and streaming technology. Most leagues are still clinging to the 1990s network TV model. The English Premiere League did just sell some streaming rights to Amazon, which is a start. And ESPN has started their ESPN+ streaming platform at $5 per month, but it’s meaningless until they get NFL, NBA, and MLB games up there. Otherwise even the mighty Disney will get swallowed by Amazon, Netflix, Apple, and other digital native streaming powerhouses with deep pockets.