LAS VEGAS — The parent companies of ESPN, Fox Sports and TNT announced Tuesday that they will launch a joint streaming service in the fall that will bundle their considerable sports offerings and allow consumers to get a wide range of content via a single operation.
In other words … cable?
What’s old is new again, apparently.
“A major win for sports fans, and an important step forward for the media business,” Disney CEO Bob Iger said in a statement. Disney owns ESPN’s vast array of channels.
Iger is correct; this is a win. But that's because almost anything would be better than the current hodgepodge of channels, streaming systems and services that make toggling back and forth between programming glitchy and prone to delays. Watching sports these days is as much about remembering all your passwords as it is about watching the action — not to mention, forking over more and more money.
And it doesn’t appear to be slowing.
On Monday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was asked if he foresaw the Super Bowl being broadcast on a pay streaming service rather than a traditional, over-the-air channel.
“Certainly not in my time,” he said.
Well, that’s nice, but it’s likely true only because it's more profitable for the Super Bowl to serve as a marketing and advertising powerhouse that attracts 100 million-plus viewers annually.
“One of the secrets of our success is we are really committed to broadcast television,” Goodell said. “Ninety percent of our games are on broadcast television. I think it's the reason why you will see over 200 million people watch this game here in the United States — because it's on broadcast television and the broadest possible platform.”
Anything less, and who knows.
After all, the NFL just allowed NBC to move a wild-card playoff game between Miami and Kansas City to Peacock, forcing fans to pay to watch. And there is already the weekly Thursday Night game on Amazon. ESPN itself is a pay-for-cable channel, but those games are often simulcast on ABC.
Goodell remains bullish on all of that.
“Twenty-three million people watched that NFL wild-card game,” he noted.
Not mentioned: how many didn’t or couldn’t because it wasn’t on traditional television.
Sports fans deserve better than all of these streaming and pay services. We already offer tax breaks and public funding for most of the stadiums that house these billionaires' teams. We pay exorbitant prices for tickets, parking and concessions if we go to watch in person.
Each sports team is essentially a local trust, part of the fabric of the community. Buffalo wouldn’t be the same without the Bills. Los Angeles wouldn’t be the same without the Lakers. And so on.
Yet the most basic tie to the games is to simply watch on television, and it has been a golden age for that. President Nixon was instrumental in prohibiting the NFL from blacking out the broadcasts of local teams, even if a stadium was sold out, and it led to an explosion in the game's popularity.
Ever since, owners and broadcasters have figured out ways to draw more and more money out of the product. That’s why streaming, like it or not, is the future. It’s just going to keep getting more prevalent.
The ESPN/Fox/TNT streaming bundle isn’t really a great day for sports fans as much as it is a better version of a lousy alternative. There is a lot of programming — live and produced — on those channels, but NBC, CBS, Amazon and others aren’t involved.
If nothing else, this bundle should help viewers change between games more easily. One of the best parts of being a fan is sitting back and watching two or three games — even in two or three different sports — at the same time.
Maybe you’re watching a hockey game but checking in on the college basketball contest, too. Streaming is so cumbersome, slow and prone to delays that it has become nearly impossible. Being able to flip immediately between channels is (or was) great. If ESPN/Fox/TNT can fix some of that, well, it’s something.
“This means the full suite of ESPN channels will be available to consumers alongside the sports programming of other industry leaders as part of a differentiated sports-centric service,” Iger said.
It’s better than further splintering. Centralization is a good thing.
You know, like cable.