Why is watching live sports still a challenge for cord cutters? Can it change?

Sporting events are widely considered final bastion of must-see-live TV. Even back in 2015, the live audience for sports was 95%, compared to 66% for dramas. This figure is probably even lower today as dramas are more often time-shifted. It’s not only that viewers watch sports live, but they garner the largest live audiences by far. Nielsen reports that for 2017 sports were the shows with the biggest live audience as “86 of the top 100 telecasts viewed live or on the same day were sports related.” This kind of engagement is catnip to advertisers and, as a result, traditional media companies are fighting new streaming upstarts and social networks for broadcasting rights. The result is an increasingly large number of outlets that show live sports.

Sports fans, however, are caught in the middle and end up needing to pay for a variety of different channels to get the content they want. It an interesting time to be a devoted fan of soccer in the US. On one hand, there are more matches shown now than ever before. On the other hand, broadcasting rights are so incredibly fragmented, that it takes investigative journalism just to figure out where to watch what and how, if it’s even possible to do so, and how much it’ll cost. As this excellent NY Times article detailed, if you want to watch the European Leagues, be prepared to pay… up to $750!

Some of this fragmentation boils down to the nature of the game in different countries. In an example given in the post, a Tottenham fan, one of the top teams in the English Premier League, actually plays in four and potentially five different constellations during the year: the Premier League, the FA and the League Cups, two English tournaments, the Champions League for European clubs, and potentially the Europa League, depending on what stage the team gets knocked out of the Champions League. With the current battle for broadcasting rights, the right for each league and tournament end up with different providers.

Yet the real challenge is not just allowing access, but also meeting viewer needs and expectations. The NY Times article was eye-opening in several ways, and shone a light on the huge chasm (not an exaggeration) between how providers want to sell content and how fans want to view it. The main difference is that providers want to focus on channels whereas viewers want to focus on specific content. In sports, that content is a game, a team, a league, or a tournament.

For streaming services especially, that gap isn’t even close to being bridged, because of several reasons:

  1. Content providers such as ESPN have created apps to extend their TV channel to streaming services. In many cases, viewers can watch the current program being broadcast on the cable channel at that time, and also an archive of videos, mostly grouped by show. This strengthens the channel, but doesn’t focus have the focus sports fans want: a game, team, league, or tournament.
  2. Apple TV: the future is apps.
    Source: 9to5mac

    Streaming services from Apple TV to Roku, work with content providers to have their app on their platform. Back in 2015, Tim Cook said “We believe the future of television is apps.” He was right, and many viewers today see a grid of apps when they power on their TV, and some a row of recommended content by app, but mostly apps do little to tell viewers who is showing what.

  3. Viewers are familiar with the app/channel UI concept, and the more successful providers make an effort to brand their service to stand out and gain viewers. It’s a system that works, or at least one that viewers have gotten used to.
  4. Where to watch the Princess Bride, with services and prices.

    Within each app, viewers often receive personalized recommendations. Netflix, of course, does this well, but so does YouTube TV, which always offers my teams’ live games when they’re live and when the channel/app showing it is in the channels subscribed to. So with some machine learning, TV apps can get smart, but they keep this intelligence inside their brand/service.

  5. If a user wants to watch a specific sport event, they need to launch the app they think the game might be in, then search for it there. There’s no unified search for sporting events. Where this is done well, though, is movies. When searching for a title, the Knowledge Panel tells users what service the movie is on and how much it will cost to either buy it, rent it, or view on a subscription service.

Going back to the NY Times article, many of the the section headers sound a lot like user stories. Here are a few:

Ronaldo plays with Juventus, but where is the game shown?

  • As a Tottenham fan, I want to watch every game my team plays in the English Premier League this season.  
  • As a Tottenham fan, I want to follow my team in the Championship League.
  • As a Real Madrid and Barcelona fan, I want to watch their matches.
  • As a fan of German soccer, I want to watch all the Bundesliga games.
  • As a Ronaldo fan, where can I watch the games he’s in?

As you can probably see, these user needs are nowhere near being addressed. There is no focus on a game, or every game a team plays, or every game in the tournament. There is only the focus on apps. There is also the high cost of subscribing to so many different services, as well as services that don’t allow you to subscribe without a cable subscription (making it a non-starter for cord cutters.) Finally, though this may be only for extremely dedicated fans, getting every game isn’t possible even when subscribing to every possible service. The Bundesliga, for example, has 300+ games, and the four different Fox channels show “only” 180 games. This is also true for American sports: fans need to subscribe to four channels (NBA TV, ESPN, TNT and ABC) to watch national NBA basketball games, six channels to watch national MLB baseball games (ESPN, ESPN2, FOX, FS1, TBS, and MLB) and 2 more to watch local games.

The sad conclusion is that the current dynamic around live sport viewing is hostile to fans. Change will come in one of two ways. First, if fans pressure the teams, especially the big clubs, to be more inclusive when they sell viewing rights. I see this as a long shot. The other option is for platforms like Apple TV and Android TV to become so prevalent that they will have the power to pressure channels to consolidate content and to allow them a peek into their garden. That way fans can find the content they want, without caring what service provides it, and have one subscription package that simply includes it all.

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