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The Game’s on Cable

With all of the momentum the over-the-top services have gained over the past year in siphoning viewers away from the traditional cable bundle, arguably the biggest advantage a pay TV subscription still holds over Netflix and Hulu is access to major live sports programming.

The mass appeal of live, televised sports is clearly evident in the ratings it generated through the first six months of the year. This month alone, ABC’s coverage of the Golden State Warriors-Cleveland Cavaliers NBA Finals series is on pace to be the most watched finals in more than a decade.

NBC’s telecast last week of Game 2 of the highly competitive and entertaining Chicago Blackhawks-Tampa Bay Lightning Stanley Cup Final was the second-most-watched NHL championship-round game ever, averaging 6.6 million viewers.

The NBA and NHL finals ratings join the litany of record-breaking ratings performances in this year’s major sports events, from the NCAA Final Four to the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship to the blockbuster Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao pay-per-view fight.

So far, major OTT services Netflix, Hulu and Amazon have not looked to step into the live sports ring, tying sports fans mostly to the traditional cable bundle to watch national and local sports events.

It’s not like the games aren’t available on multiple platforms. Authenticated cable subscribers can watch most nationally distributed live games through various TV Everywhere outlets from ESPN, Fox Sports 1, NBCSN, BeIN Sports and other services.

Other standalone digital offerings, such as Dish’s Sling TV, include some sports networks, but do not offer the full array of live, HD-quality sports content offered through a pay TV bundle.

In addition, all four major sports leagues have some form of mobile-device distribution for their respective out-of-market packages either tied to their existing linear subscription packages or sold directly to consumers, as Major League Baseball does with MLB.TV.

The advent of 4K technology for live sports telecasts could help spur OTT services to consider getting into the game, according to Chris Wagner, executive vice president for online video company Neulion, who spoke during last week’s Multichannel News/B&C OnDemand Summit. However, the broad distribution of that advanced high-definition technology is arguably several years away.

In the meantime, a traditional pay TV subscription remains the best ticket to access the biggest live sports content across multiple platforms.

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.