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Live Sports Events Are Moving to Streaming

Champions League
Paramount Plus’s dive into sports programming will include exclusive U.S. rights to UEFA Champions League soccer. (Image credit: Getty Images)

As the traditional TV sports industry continues to recover from the COVID-19 shutdown of live events almost a year ago, it faces another body blow in the near future from the increasing migration of sports content to digital platforms. 

At its March 4 launch event, ViacomCBS’s Paramount Plus promised to offer a significant amount of live sports-event streaming in its new iteration, joining rivals such as NBCUniversal’s Peacock, Disney’s ESPN Plus and WarnerMedia’s HBO Max that are offering or are planning to offer live sports events previously available only to subscribers of the cable bundle. 

Despite disappointing ratings for several big-ticket sports events over the past few months — audiences for both the College Football Playoff Championship on ESPN Jan. 11 and CBS’s Feb. 7 Super Bowl LV telecast were significantly down compared to last year — sports remains one of the few television properties that commands a sizable live viewing audience. The genre’s loyal fan base is a desirable target for new, upstart streaming services looking to build their subscriber numbers.

“While sports ratings have dropped during a very difficult year, out of the top 100 shows last year, around 75 were sports events,” TV sports consultant Lee Berke said. “Every new television platform since radio has offered up sports, and that has replicated itself again and again. The streaming services are no different.”

That reality was made very clear during ViacomCBS’s Feb. 24 streaming presentation for Paramount Plus. The SVOD streaming service — which took over for CBS All Access on March 4 — plans to offer more than 1,000 live sporting events a year, according to ViacomCBS president and CEO Bob Bakish. 

This fall, Paramount Plus will stream all of CBS’s regular-season NFL telecasts and will become the new home of Inside the NFL, which currently airs on Showtime. Paramount Plus will also have UEFA Champions League and Europa League games, as well as live National Women’s Soccer League contests. Last month, CBS All Access live-streamed CBS’s broadcast coverage of Super Bowl LV. 

“Paramount Plus will be the leader in live sports,” CBS Entertainment Group president and CEO George Cheeks said during the presentation, adding that sports is the service’s No. 1 acquisition driver. 

NBCUniversal’s Peacock is already a major player in live sports streaming, having secured English Premier League games. NBCU’s decision to discontinue NBCSN will give Peacock more live sports content, although high-profile NBC Sports properties, such as the National Hockey League, will move to USA Network. The service will also offer live event programming from the Paralympics, including medal round action in wheelchair basketball, and is expected to be a major outlet for the Tokyo Summer Olympics. 

The $9.99-per-month Peacock ($4.99 with limited commercials) has also secured content from the streaming WWE Network, including rights to the pro wrestling outfit’s monthly pay-per-view events, including Wrestlemania

Other sports-centric services like ESPN Plus continue to secure high-profile events — the service currently distributes UFC pay-per-view events and has a long-term boxing agreement with Top Rank — putting continued pressure on traditional television networks to secure high-profile sports events in the future.  

Most observers believe events like the Super Bowl, NBA Finals, World Series and NCAA men’s basketball tournament will remain on broadcast and cable services in the near term. But valuable content, such as regular-season college and pro games, could make the move. 

“You’re going to reach a point in the next couple of years where viewers will begin to say there’s not a lot of difference between ESPN and ESPN Plus,” Lee said. “It’s an easy programming strategy — sports are exclusive, nobody else has it and it draws passionate fans that tend to shift to new technologies.”