With any luck at all, an announcement today may finally free professional sports from the tyranny of cable TV. Or it’s wishful thinking.
The National Basketball Association has announced a $24 billion deal with ESPN and TNT to broadcast regular season and postseason games. That could — and let a person dream here for a second — allow fans to watch games online that are otherwise blacked out to protect the cable TV rights.
Live sports is the last man standing of the traditional television business model, but at some point it’s essentially inevitable that the leagues themselves will disrupt it.
Rather than selling broadcast rights to networks who then show games on cable television, leagues could simply stream video live to fans. The leagues could then collect advertising and subscription fees directly and cut out the middle man.
Right now products that resemble this exist, but they’re usually crippled with blackout rules and other restrictions designed to preserve the value of conventional television deals. The enormous sum of cash being offered the NBA underscores why leagues are more interested in preserving network relationships than in serving cord-cutting fans. But as demographic turnover continues, the business logic of disintermediation will only grow more compelling.
And when it does, the enormous sums of money at stake in live sports broadcasting are going to make the regulatory wars over network neutrality and related internet matters get even hotter. ISPs are not going to be excited about all that revenue passing from advertisers and fans directly into the hands of sports teams while they subsist on generic monthly subscriber fees.
Current efforts to force Netflix to kick back some of its subscriber fees to home broadband infrastructure owners prefigure fights over even larger sums of money from sports teams and leagues when online streaming becomes the preferred means of sports watching.
The irony of two cable TV outfits leading the way in dismantling — maybe — the current online streaming restrictions isn’t lost on us, but it’s impossible for us to feel sorry for anybody who loses out on a monopoly.
Major League Baseball, currently in the middle of what appears to be a fabulous postseason, has angered lots of non-cable or cable-lite subscribers by shutting down any online streaming of postseason games, making the sport all but invisible. Even during the season, Twins fans in Minnesota, for example, can’t watch Twins games on the popular MLB.TV app, even if they pay for it.
Last week, MLB twisted the knife more by freeing up some postseason streaming, but only for subscribers of certain cable TV and ISPs, Comcast not being one of them.
There may be a down side to the new TV deal. Player salaries are going to explode because NBA owners are going to be even richer and will have more cash to throw around, making it more difficult for the likes of Minnesota.
SB Nation says there’ll be a “gold rush” in the league.
It’ll likely still continue to shake down taxpayers for help building arenas.