In recent years, the broadcasting of soccer leagues has shifted from linear television to streaming services. This trend – best exhibited by the trendsetting Bundesliga followed by LaLiga – has continued to accelerate with more Americans streaming everything from Netflix movies to live sports events.
We’ve seen consumers adjust, albeit with some reservations to the transition of the aforementioned leagues, as well as more games of the Premier League, Serie A and UEFA Champions League that have shifted to streaming.
Given the current soccer streaming wars and the likelihood that more streaming services, not less, will begin broadcasting soccer, how will soccer fans react if we see Amazon Prime or HBO Max jump into the mix in the near future? Remember, neither of these services currently broadcasts live soccer matches at the moment. However, opportunities abound. The rights to the Premier League, MLS, USMNT and USWNT expire within the next twelve months.
American Soccer fans have grown comfortable with streaming services
The increased streaming of soccer on ESPN+, Paramount+ and Peacock accustomed viewers to using these services. Still, it must be noted these services are all connected to mainstream linear networks. Their intense promotion on linear programming helps the transition to streaming.
Additionally, soccer fans are fairly comfortable using services like fuboTV or sports-only streaming platforms like DAZN or Eleven to watch matches. Those who like less mainstream properties tend to be more savvy in this regard.
Even as streaming has grown as a way to broadcast live soccer, we’ve not seen the likes of Netflix, HBO Max, Amazon Prime nor Discovery+ show matches in the United States. But it’s likely just a matter of time, given the shifting landscape in the media world before some prominent soccer property finds itself on Amazon Prime or HBO Max, in particular.
So, what happens when live soccer inevitably ends up on streaming services unassociated with live sports or a prominent linear broadcaster?
The Hulu Experience
Disney’s decision to integrate ESPN+ into Hulu for streaming bundle subscribers has ended up being an effective gateway to test the concept of live soccer on what is otherwise an on-demand entertainment platform.
While Hulu is now associated with Disney, it has long-been a place to find on-demand programming associated with TV networks. But, in the past, it was not a place to view live events. Hulu, in many ways, pioneered streaming on-demand sitcoms and movies. This hedged the television networks against the growing power of Netflix and Amazon Prime.
The ESPN+ integration into Hulu, per this writer’s anecdotal evidence, changed the viewing habits of many in my circle.
Premier League success in the UK on Prime
Amazon Prime received rave reviews for its coverage of the Premier League in the United Kingdom since its inception. Over the years, Prime has used some of the best-known soccer commentators and presenters. Moreover, the service offered matches free of additional charge on its streaming service. Amazon only broadcasts Premier League matches on special midweek occasions, but that proved to be more accessible to viewers than its Sky Sports counterpart.
The general consensus among UK-based Premier League fans is that they would not object to seeing a greater share of matches broadcast on Amazon Prime during the next rights cycle. Additionally, Amazon has been given favorable grades from the written press in terms of both their presentation and accessibility when broadcasting the league.
In the U.S., Amazon received praise for its streaming of live sports on Prime.
Could Amazon Prime, HBO Max or entertainment streaming services move into live soccer?
In a word, yes. In fact, it’s probably inevitable at this point. As noted above, Amazon Prime aired Premier League matches in England. Discovery+ expressed interest in acquiring Ligue Un rights domestically in France.
Major League Soccer appears a very attractive property for streaming. The decline of linear Regional Sports Networks (RSN’s) over the last five years compounds the interest of streaming services for the league. MLS’s growing relevance domestically makes out-of-market matches unavailable on a linear channel very attractive for streaming services.
The recent addition of MLS clubs in Austin, Nashville and Charlotte, three hot “emerging” Sun Belt markets that have attracted young professionals that are also streaming-savvy, improves MLS’ viability for a potential deal with Amazon Prime or HBO Max.
NBC Sports is in its final year of broadcasting the Premier League under its current six year deal. With NBC closing its dedicated sports channel, NBCSN, later this year and its increasing reliance on clunky streaming service Peacock, the time may be ripe for a new rights holder to move in.
Some estimate the upcoming U.S. Premier League rights deal to surpass $2 billion over six years. Therefore, only a few broadcasters will be willing to lay out that sort of cash for this property. Obviously, ESPN and CBS Sports are in the mix. Yet, it’s also very possible Amazon Prime or HBO Max could make a move.
The Premier League recognizes the power of streaming in the UK market. The league may not see much difference between buried channels on various service providers and a straight streaming deal.
Ultimately, an exclusive streaming deal is likely a non-starter. For example, NBC could continue to guarantee a match or more a week on network television, or CBS may likely promise a match a week or more on broadcast TV.
However, there are certain tricky hurdles. NBC decided to fold NBCSN to move matches to USA Network and NBC over-the-air. Putting games on over-the-air broadcasts is tricky with the FCC requiring educational and public affairs content on weekend mornings. Also, there is always the risk of people not switching over from NBCSN to the cable channels. In that regard, giant streaming services like Amazon Prime become a very real option for the league.
Streaming is now the primary manner in which to watch top level soccer in the United States. As the transition from broadcast and cable television to streaming continues, expect to see more streaming players.
Furthermore, these will not be the standard sports-first programming. These rights bids will come from services known for on-demand programming.
Author: Kartik Krishnaiyer