The streaming wars are coming to sports
Will the Netflix effect change the way we watch games?
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Interesting news for Canadian sports fans: soon, you won't be able to watch English Premier League games on TV anymore. The Canadian rights for soccer's most popular domestic league have been bought by DAZN, the unfortunately named U.K.-based streaming service that's pronounced "Da Zone." Obviously this is a big deal for soccer aficionados, but it's also part of a larger trend that could soon touch everyone who cares about sports. So let's dive into all this, starting small and pulling back to look at the big picture.
What's the deal with DAZN's Premier League deal?
Starting next season, DAZN won't just be the only place Canadians can watch EPL matches online. It'll be the only place they can watch EPL matches, period. They won't be shown on TSN or Sportsnet anymore, or anywhere else on TV. Same, by the way, with the UEFA Champions League, which DAZN already owns the rights to. Outside of the World Cup, those are the two biggest competitions in the sport. If you're a big soccer fan who lives in Canada and you don't have a DAZN subscription, the company has pretty much forced your hand to fork over its $20/month fee ($150 if you buy a whole year).
What about other sports?
DAZN also has the exclusive Canadian rights to the non-Grand Slam women's tennis tournaments (we discovered that a couple of weeks ago when no one could watch Bianca Andreescu on TV), plus digital rights for every NFL game and some Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer games, and a bunch of other stuff. It also signed boxer Canelo Alvarez to a worldwide deal that pays him $365 million US for 11 fights.
Is this a DAZN commercial?
No, and sorry if it sounded like one for a minute there. Truth is, not everyone is a fan. Streaming has come a long way, but a lot of people still prefer to watch their sports on cable. Sure, today's smart TVs make it easy to play content from a streaming app on your biggest screen, so it's not like you have to watch games on your tiny laptop or phone. But you still notice small differences in picture quality compared to cable, and the signal isn't as reliable, especially if you're using wifi. On the other hand, you don't have to buy a cable subscription. So pros and cons.
But most sports are still on traditional TV, right?
Yeah. The NHL, NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball all have deals with old-school, over-the-air broadcasters and cable networks. The question is, for how long? DAZN has billed itself as "the Netflix of sports," and think about how much Netflix changed the TV industry. Everything is on demand now, and competing networks and studios have jumped into streaming services, along with other tech giants. Amazon has one, Apple just introduced one, and Disney is coming out with one soon. In an effort to win subscribers, everyone is producing original content and cranking out new movies/shows at an insane pace. They call it the streaming wars, and it's why you now have zero chance of keeping up with all these great new shows you keep hearing about.
So could there be streaming wars in sports?
They've already started. DAZN continues to grab whatever rights it can, and ESPN is getting more aggressive with its ESPN+ streaming service in the States. It recently cut deals with boxing promotions and the UFC to entice hardcore fans of those to subscribe. That's decent original content, but everyone's watching to see what happens next time the broadcast rights expire in the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball. Those are the most coveted deals in North American sports.
Does DAZN (which, like Netflix, is backed by venture capital) go all in to land one? Does Disney-owned ESPN dig deep for a tentpole for its service? And what happens if Google, Twitter or Facebook wade in with their almost unlimited resources? The old broadcast and cable networks could be in over their heads — just like TSN and Sportsnet were in Canada when DAZN outbid them for those soccer rights.
Besides DAZN, what's the sports streaming situation in Canada?
TSN and Sportsnet now both offer what's known as an "over the top" (or "OTT") service, meaning you can just pay for a digital subscription to those channels — no cable sub required like in the old days. The CBC has a free one, and it shows Hockey Night in Canada games. Speaking of hockey, Rogers will stay in control for awhile because its 12-year deal for the national rights to all NHL games doesn't expire until 2025-26 — though there are separate deals for the regional rights for the seven Canadian teams, and they're split between Sportsnet and TSN.
Should we be worried about any of this?
There's a potential unintended consequence to think about. We've seen it with TV shows: new streaming services keep popping up, but most people only have the money (and time) to pick a few. So everyone gravitates toward the shows they have access to, gives up on the rest, and the culture gets more and more fractured. Unlike in the days when we all got the same five channels, we're not watching the same stuff anymore. Sports is the exception. The big games are available to just about everyone, and we watch them together (that's why advertisers love them). But if a bunch of new subscription sports streaming services pop up, and the rights to different leagues get scattered among them, will we go our separate ways?