Sports Streaming Makes Losers of Us All
Being a fan is now more annoying and expensive than ever.
Few things are more satisfying for a certain type of college-football fan than a Notre Dame loss, and all the better if it’s an upset. So last September, when the Fighting Irish were in danger of losing to the University of Toledo Rockets, 16.5-point underdogs, I knew I had to watch. First I flipped over to NBC, where Notre Dame’s home games are generally aired. No luck. Even before I could Google it, my Twitter feed reminded me of the problem: I had been Peacocked. The game was only on NBC’s streaming platform, which costs $4.99 a month. By that point, it was late in the fourth quarter and I was getting desperate. A Good Samaritan sent me a password, and I logged on just in time to miss all the fun and see Toledo boot away the game with poor defense and clock management.
The sports-streaming monster had come for me, and maybe it’s come for you too. With ever fewer exceptions, it is no longer possible to watch all of your favorite team’s games with only a cable-TV subscription or a digital look-alike, such as YouTube TV. The biggest leagues, such as the NFL and MLB, already offer expensive but useful packages to watch games that aren’t in your local market, but now all sorts of sports are getting far deeper in the streaming business. The past was about readily accessible games on TV and an add-on for the most committed fans who wanted to stay in touch with teams that were far away. The present is about paying more and more money to maintain what you had while being occasionally flummoxed about where to find it.
The whole promise of streaming, in sports and beyond, was that it was supposed to make our lives easier and less expensive. We could keep watching the things we enjoyed—and more—without the commitment of cable. In the entertainment world, the promise has by and large held up. But in sports, the streaming gold rush has largely done the opposite. The experience of being a fan is now more expensive, more annoying, and more transactional. Even when your team wins, you end up as the loser.
Whatever problems might exist with regular old streaming of movies and TV, the user experience is mostly good. The HBO Max app may be terrible, but The Sopranos is not, and it is right there for you at any hour of the day on any device. Yes, there are lots of different platforms, all of which offer different shows and movies, but most of us can reasonably be happy with one or two services that aren’t prohibitively costly. If your favorite show is Stranger Things, you can get it in one place. Netflix does not ship some episodes off to Hulu, nor does it have a cable channel that holds the season premiere.
Sports streaming, in contrast, is a patchwork in which games are spread across services. Particularly if you are a diehard who likes to watch a bunch of sports, this new world is trouble. Different leagues have made the streaming leap at different speeds, but they are all moving in the same direction—toward putting more and more games on direct-to-consumer platforms instead of traditional TV.
Take the NFL: Starting this fall, the league will put Thursday Night Football exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, the first time the NFL has pulled a game off TV to put it somewhere else. The Big Ten, the richest conference in college athletics, will soon air eight football games and dozens of men’s and women’s basketball games on Peacock exclusively each year. Other sports leagues are already there. This year, MLB started showing a Friday game on Apple TV+ (for free, with a login required), and another Sunday-morning game is paywalled on Peacock. That service is already a must-have for American fans of the English Premier League who do not want to hunt for bootleg streams. But if you’re a fan of Europe’s other big soccer leagues, they’re on ESPN+, the same place you’ll also find early-tournament PGA Tour rounds and a healthy chunk of the NHL. It sounds like a buffet of options, but it’s really one of requirements for someone whose fandom has crossed a certain threshold of devotion. That applies if you like just one team or sport, and it’s an even costlier smorgasbord if you, like me, watch a lot of different sports from time to time.
For fans of smaller, more niche sports or teams, streaming has some obvious benefits. The majority of college-football games played outside the big “Power Five” conferences are only on streaming platforms, to say nothing of sports such as volleyball or wrestling, which almost never see regular TV. All Major League Soccer games are slated to soon be on Apple TV+. At its best, streaming can brighten the limelight on smaller sports.
On the whole, though, this status quo amounts to the worst of all worlds. Streaming has gone on top of cable rather than supplanted it. If your team is the Tennessee Titans and you don’t live in the Nashville TV market, you’ll need to find your way to Prime Video for two games this fall. That will run you $8.99 a month at the very least. Even if you’re setting up an antenna to get CBS and Fox—and more power to you if so—you’ll still need cable to watch them on Monday Night Football against the Buffalo Bills in September.
And if you were hoping that more credit-card charges would result in a better viewing experience, you have been disappointed. The problem is not the apps themselves, which usually work fine. Apple TV+ knows how to produce a baseball game. ESPN+ is easy to navigate. Peacock is clunkier, I have found in my limited uses, but it does what it says it will do. The problem is that livestreaming is still not perfect, especially compared with the speed of traditional broadcasts. Depending on the circumstances, games can lag for a minute or more, opening the door for social media or a text from Dad to spoil a home run.
At the very least, these sorts of hiccups should get better over time. When television was new, it had similar growing pains in how sports were presented, John Carvalho, a professor emeritus of journalism at Auburn University who edited a research anthology on sports-media history, told me. “The quality of black and white,” he said, “and the experience with radio, was such that it satisfied the naysayer [who said] it really wasn’t a viewing experience that would draw people any more than radio would.” Of course it became really easy to watch sports in a timely fashion on TV, and nothing is stopping streaming from becoming just as easy.
But for now, the entire experience is downright confusing. “Everybody thought [streaming] is what the future would be,” Patrick Crakes, a former Fox Sports vice president who now covers the sports and media industries as a consultant, told me. “Cheap, everything choice. Of course, it’s not that, because you can’t get all the content in one place for an effective price. And so it’s put out all over the place, and it’s fractionalized, and it’s expensive.”
Part of the problem is our immense collective value as sports fans, mixed with some tricky economics. Sports bring guaranteed audiences at guaranteed times in a way nothing else can: In 2021, 95 of the country’s 100 most-watched telecasts were sporting events, according to Sports Business Journal. As a result, the fees that media companies pay to show live sports have gone way up. But the number of Americans who have cable has not. Media companies are caught between what pays the bills now and what they believe may pay them in the future. Live games are crucial firepower for them on both fronts. They need them to collect advertising dollars and carriage fees today. But they also need them as subscriber boosters for what they hope will be their streaming empires of tomorrow. (And hey, it doesn’t hurt that streaming can offer an easy path to a lot of customer data in a way most TV viewership does not.)
Expect to be stuck in this purgatory for a while, because sports leagues have heavy incentives to remain on traditional TV even as they dabble with streaming. The NFL’s new slate of media deals is worth $110 billion over 11 years. The Amazon piece is worth about a tenth of it. The NFL has you by the cord even as it also grabs you by the scruff of your preferred streaming device. “No sports league can pirouette to [streaming], because of the opportunity-cost problem” of how much more money can currently be made by putting games on TV, Crakes said. Unfortunately, in the short and medium term, streaming is going to be an extra cost for sports fans rather than a lower one.
Cord-cutting is still the present and the future, but the sum cost of even just a few big streaming sites, let alone all, is about the price of cable. With the messiness of streaming right now, it’s hard not to feel a little nostalgic about the expensive pay-TV-bundle model that once dominated. “That thing was so bad that more than 90 percent of all U.S. TV homes subscribed to it,” Crakes said. “In other words, people complained about it, but it clearly had utility.” Cable is just alive enough to ensure that the inexpensive elegance of sports streaming is often nothing more than a burdensome accessory.
If there is any reason for optimism, it is that Notre Dame’s Peacock-exclusive game this fall is against the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, one of the country’s most hapless college-football teams that almost certainly will not mount a Toledo-like threat. At least I won’t be tempted this time.