Netflix has avoided live sports for good reason. Broadcast rights are wildly expensive, only last for a few years and are limited by territory. If Netflix wants overpriced content, it has plenty of better options in Hollywood.
But, while the streaming company abjures advertising, it has never ruled out sports coverage. Its projected $17bn annual content budget gives it some terrific problem-solving power. And there are ways to make streaming live sport a viable business: Netflix could buy a league or just create one from scratch.
To the sports world today, basking in a two-decade long flood of cash, this might sound daft. But, over the next decade or so, as streaming undercuts the distribution model for traditional sports broadcasting, leagues will probably find teaming up with the likes of Netflix more appealing.
It may take time and financial pain to drive this point home. But if club owners and leagues worry about the decline of their great benefactor — pay-TV — and want to reach the biggest possible paying audiences, they should start exploring how to co-own rights with a global streaming service.
Aggressive media barons have tried the “buy-a-league” trick before. When Australia’s establishment thwarted Kerry Packer’s bid to secure cricket television rights in the late 1970s, he just bought some top players and set up World Series Cricket. They gave Packer the traditional cricket rights in the end.
Star Sports, the Indian network developed by Rupert Murdoch and bought by Disney, was another pioneer. It bet on the ancient game of kabaddi, first putting its marketing power behind a newly formed pro league in 2014 then buying a controlling stake. This once humble rural sport now beats the football World Cup in national broadcast ratings, and, occasionally, even tops audiences for India’s Test cricket matches.
Streaming has already brought a wave of experimentation to sports broadcasting in Europe and the US. New business models are being tested by leagues and new entrants. But, as TV sports newcomers have found for two decades, most attempts have been decisively unprofitable.
The pay-TV model has warped the economics of sports rights, driving price inflation. Mr Murdoch set the model with Sky in Europe, buying prized rights — like the English Premier League — then using them as a hook to sell viewers a bundle of other things at a much higher margin.
The golden era for leagues and rights-holders, in other words, was bankrolled by pay-TV using sport as a loss leader. As rights costs soared, so did prices for consumers. That is a factor behind the retreat of cable TV in America, which is losing viewers because of cord cutting, and then punishing those who stay by charging them even more. François Godard of Enders Analysis points out that the audience of 18 to 49-year-olds for sports channel ESPN fell 35 per cent over the past decade, while per-subscriber fees increased 130 per cent.
Now, pure-sports services such as DAZN demonstrate how hard it is to build a paying audience big enough to cover the cost of prestige rights.
Leagues have also explored direct-to-consumer options. But those that dared — WWE wrestling, Formula One racing and NFL American football — have struggled to manage parallel rights sales, deploy robust technology and build up enough content. Live sports have a short shelf life and do not fill streaming libraries in the way a movie or drama series does.
The advantage that global streaming services bring is scale — an audience vastly bigger than anything that pay-TV can offer or that a do-it-yourself streaming service can reach. Disney Plus expects close to a quarter of a billion subscribers in 2024. Netflix already has more than 200m, and Amazon Prime Video is approaching that figure.
It would be easy enough to offer a sports add-on to subscribers. At present, the hitch is that low-priced streaming services would need to charge sky-high subscriptions for sport to even approach the profitability of the cable TV bundle, at least with the current rights system.
Club owners — and the private equity investors piling into sport — can bank on pay-TV surviving, new entrants overpaying, or someone creating a media bundle that works in their favour.
But for global sports with global appeal, there might be a smarter long game: take money upfront from a big streaming service and co-own media rights. Then bet on reaching the widest possible paying audience at a price closer to the amount most fans are willing to pay.