Sports TV Is About To Be Turned Upside Down

Alabama QB Bryce Young
(Image credit: RollAlabamaRoll)

Feeling like watching a little Australian rules football? Pro lacrosse? Little League softball? Belgian soccer? Pakistan v. West Indies Test cricket? All of those and much more were streaming on Sunday, cool news for those wanting to explore the frontiers of world sporting competition on all the new streaming services out there. 

But we’re right on the cusp of even bigger changes in even the most mainstream parts of American sports. It has big implications for how we watch, sure, but even bigger implications for the crumbling cable bundle, the financial underpinnings of the major sports leagues, the creation of ever-younger stars, the shape of both media and social media and much else. 

One of the first steps came with this spring’s $100 billion,12-year NFL rights deal. The incumbent broadcasters/cable powers signed up for what seemed like it was maintaining the status quo, just at twice the price. But the inclusion of streaming rights for everyone and Amazon winning rights to produce 15 Thursday-night games a year beginning in 2022 (it’s been running Fox’s game feed since 2017) is sure to send a batch of viewers online to watch legacy TV’s most popular programming. 

But even more big changes have been happening lately at the college level, on several potentially conflicting fronts.

First, the Supreme Court crushed 9-0 an NCAA appeal of a small case involving how much supplemental educational assistance (graduation scholarships, research equipment, etc) a school could give a student. Far more importantly, the case has huge implications for all the other ways the NCAA tries to control compensation for student-athletes, practically inviting antitrust lawsuits against the organization that runs major college sports. It likely will further distort competitive balance between the haves and have-nots of college. 

And since that opinion crested in early summer, several other transformative issues hit college sports practically simultaneously: 

> Name, image and likeness. Right after the Supreme Court decision, efforts collapsed to create a NCAA-wide policy on so-called NIL opportunities for athletes, basically allowing college stars to make as much money as they can from endorsements and social media. Again, the haves win. Not long after, Alabama head football coach Nick Saban “happened” to mention that his team’s backup quarterback, who’ll be leading the Crimson Tide in defending its national championship, already had signed $1 million in endorsements. That Orange County kid with a golden arm is only one of the first young stars to score big endorsement and brand deals. Plenty more are coming, complicating marketing, recruiting, and competitive balance across not just football but most college sports. 

> Conference realignment. The Southeastern Conference stunned the neighboring Big 12 league by raiding its two most successful and mediagenic schools, the universities of Oklahoma and Texas. The first big shift in conference makeup in more than a decade promises to reshape TV deals, too. Both conferences have ESPN contracts, but the SEC is clearly college sports’ top dog, and getting more alpha by the moment. ESPN is focusing accordingly. Will the Big 12 survive, possibly by raiding members from still other conferences? What happens to everyone’s TV deals? Will other conferences scoop up the Big 12’s leftovers? Latest rumors suggest the Pac-12, Big 10 and ACC (the other three of the “Power 5” conferences) are discussing a scheduling partnership, to counterbalance the SEC’s burgeoning market power. That won’t solve the Big 12’s problems, though, or what happens to non-Power 5 conferences and their TV deals. 

> College football playoffs. Consensus had been building to reshape the current four-team football national championship playoffs, a TV gold mine that first opened in 2014. The plan, pushed in part by SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, would open the playoffs to 12 teams, and generate even more mounds of TV cash. But the SEC raid on the Big 12 complicates consensus on a new playoff format too. Sankey may be the most powerful man in college sports, but that doesn’t mean everyone wants to play ball with him anymore. A 12-team playoff likely will mean the end of league championship games, many parts of the endless bowl season and much else. 

Meanwhile, we saw Olympics viewing, the world’s biggest sports-travaganza, make a decided shift to the digital. Primetime viewing on NBC sagged 40% compared to the Rio games, while online viewing neared 6 billion minutes, and Peacock had its best two weeks. The digital viewer shift will only continue as consumers get used to the benefits of on-demand streaming. Expect ad dollars to follow the streams when the Winter Games arrive next year, just as they are in other parts of the streaming world. 

AT&T finally lightened its debt by offloading DirecTV to a far more creative managing partner, a private-equity company. As the sat-caster keeps shedding subscribers, and the NFL’s all-you-can-eat Sunday Ticket package expires after 2022, its inevitable merger with Dish and continued decline will only provide streaming services with more customers seeking near-bottomless access to the sports they love. 

Regional sports cable networks are facing their own streaming realignment, forced by cord-cutting, shrinking space on basic tiers and uncertainty about what’s happening in college sports. This summer, Sinclair said it will launch a streaming service next spring built around the more than 40 pro teams on its two-dozen RSNs across the country. Expect other RSNs to make the move to streaming as they try to remain relevant, adjust to the changing college sports landscape, and try to keep up with all the other changes hitting right now. 

As of last month, sports gambling is live and legal in 22 states, plus Washington, D.C., with 10 more states legal but not yet operational. We’re already seeing Fan Duel, Draft Kings, ESPN, TNT, Sinclair (which now owns a 15-percent stake in Bally’s), and other players on both sides knitting gambling information into most corners of their online and on-air presence. 

If you can figure out how these colliding developments will play out in coming months, you’re a better strategist than even Nick Saban. What’s clear is sports viewing is getting turned upside down this summer, and its increasing shift to compelling streaming experiences will hasten the utter collapse of the cable bundle. The question is, as always when we’re talking about sports, who will be the winners, and who will be the losers? 

David Bloom

David Bloom of Words & Deeds Media is a Santa Monica, Calif.-based writer, podcaster, and consultant focused on the transformative collision of technology, media and entertainment. Bloom is a senior contributor to numerous publications, and producer/host of the Bloom in Tech podcast. He has taught digital media at USC School of Cinematic Arts, and guest lectures regularly at numerous other universities. Bloom formerly worked for Variety, Deadline, Red Herring, and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications; was VP of corporate communications at MGM; and was associate dean and chief communications officer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Bloom graduated with honors from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.