Like a well-disguised blitz on third and long, traditional television was sacked for a loss of yards Tuesday night when Fox, Warner Bros. Discovery and Disney announced they’re forming a joint venture to offer a “skinny bundle” of all sports content among them beginning this fall.
Sports has been the last bastion of solid ratings for linear television, so this hit feels particularly acute — coming only weeks after Netflix stole away WWE rights from basic cable. Even if those ratings aren’t moving off linear TV, it’s the implication of it that hurts.
“This deal is yet another signal of traditional TV’s impending demise as live sports becomes streaming’s latest shiny object,” said Forrester’s vp, research director Mike Proulx. “But without sports properties from networks including NBC and CBS, the new sports streaming service is incomplete out of the gate.”
It’s like trying to live in a house that only has three walls, in other words. But perhaps the three media powerhouses behind the still-unnamed and still-unpriced surprise streamer are just trying to build enough of a bulwark against the deep pockets and major ambitions of newcomer rival rights bidders like Apple and Amazon.
“It would be silly not to acknowledge that this is a response to what these legacy media companies are going up against in terms of the next level of rights negotiations, and everything that comes along with it,” said Adam Schwartz, svp, director of national broadcast, sports media at Horizon Media, who noted that his phone rang off the hook Tuesday night from calls coming from people inside the companies involved in the deal, indicating just how secret these negotiations were.
“Amazon’s got a blank checkbook,” he added. “Apple [bought Major League Soccer rights] as a learning …about sports and how that actually works — they didn’t do those deals to make money. That was a learning period for them to see if it’s going to behoove them to jump in big in sports.”
As with a good sack in football, timing is everything. That this was announced days before Super Bowl LVIII is a warning shot, and it comes just as the next National Basketball Association’s rights are being negotiated (the current deal expires after the 2024-25 season). The expectation is that the NBA will secure a huge increase over the current $24 billion deal it has in place with WBD and Disney — possibly double.
But so much still needs to be figured out, from consumer pricing to how ad sales will flow across existing TV outlets carrying sports to the new streamers — or, eventually, vice versa.
“It’s an exciting announcement; I am curious to see the details of the new platform,” said Will Heins, partner at The Brandtech Group’s Jellyfish unit. “From a media buying point of view, it will be interesting to see the targeting parameters, how much is available direct vs programmatic. As a digital agency, we’re excited about the prospect of even more live sports being made available from a streaming perspective.”
Despite the sack, traditional TV still has a fourth down to play, lest anyone forget the companies in this streaming service are all legacy media owners. (For those who remember, it was Fox that upended traditional TV by securing its first NFL rights package in 1993, to the shock and surprise of most observers at the time.) This is in part a play to keep their linear fortunes alive while also hedging their bets.
As Lachlan Murdoch, Fox’s head, explained in a call with analysts and reporters, the ad sales flow will remain steady. “Advertising revenues will flow through this, so that the advertising that we have on our linear networks will flow into this service and will just give us increased reach to market … We think it’s a net positive.”
And Bob Iger, in a Disney call, explained his company’s approach, which is to move forward with existing distribution plans for ESPN, once the centerpiece of the studio’s holdings, but now less valuable than it used to be.
“This brings together content from all of these companies combined assets, including all the major professional sports leagues, and college sports,” said Iger. “And in the fall of 2025, we’ll be offering ESPN as a standalone streaming option with innovative digital features creating a one stop sports destination unlike anything available in the marketplace today
Buyers see opportunity for new ways to invest their clients’ dollars down the line. “On the surface it would appear to be a huge win for both Fox and WBD, who have struggled with their streaming strategy tied to their content rights,” said a major holding company sports buyer who declined to speak on the record. “Short term, all parties seem to be geared towards a simplified buying process where streamers are added to overall audience and advertisers will get a single cumulative audience delivery. As marketers, our push will be to get more targeted within our ownership positions, with the hope of working towards more of a DAI [dynamic ad insertion] model.”
In the short term, though, consumers might end up the losers — given that the move only confuses the content marketplace further. “This only adds to the confusion of where to watch any given live sports event, and ushers in a new era of re-bundling,” said Forrester’s Proulx. “Consumers that expect to save money from cutting the cord will likely be disappointed when they see how all of their streaming subscriptions add up.”
Despite that reality, according to Chris Walsh, Apollo Partners’ head of media and activation, there’s still hope.
“As a consumer of anything, whether it’s sports or a product or a service, the things that impact our lives the most are the services that we never knew we needed,” said Walsh. “Someone does something that creates a convenience for life. It’s still to be determined whether this will do that for the average sports fan. But the potential is there.”