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Live Sports on Streaming Is the Newest and Most Expensive Entertainment Battleground

Amazon and Apple are willing to spend big on sports rights that keep getting pricier, while Netflix offers no live sports at all.

CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 30: Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Darius Phillips (23) carries the ball during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Cincinnati Bengals on September 30, 2021, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, OH. (Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Darius Phillips carries the ball against the Jacksonville Jaguars on September 30, 2021.

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The next streaming-wars battleground is the pitch, the court, and the diamond. While Netflix dominates the field in overall subscribers, it is 99 yards behind opposing teams Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime Video in the competition for live-sports rights.

Trillion-dollar tech giants are furlongs ahead in the race to capture cord-cutting sports fans, but Disney and other conglomerates are not going down without a fight as they leverage multi-platform portfolios to maintain pole position.

Sports remain the surest bet to attract live viewers to linear TV, but Silicon Valley is driving costs to record heights. The highest of the high is the NFL, representing both America’s favorite sport and the most-watched property on television. As part of an annual $1 billion deal, Amazon Prime Video will begin broadcasting Thursday NFL games this fall. That’s just one piece of this year’s NFL TV deals that total a whopping $113 billion through 2033 — an 80 percent premium over the current and expiring deals.

Still up for grabs is one of the highest-profile pro pigskin packages: For the first time in its nearly three-decade history, DirecTV is not in the running for NFL Sunday Ticket, which allows viewers to watch out-of-market football games. National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell told CNBC last week he believes the package will move to a streaming service; Disney, Apple, and Amazon have all reportedly bid.

DirecTV paid $1.5 billion a year for the rights in a deal that ends after the 2022-23 season, and the next partner should expect to pay more — even though the arrangement lost DirecTV $500 million a year as of 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported. Attracting eyeballs at a loss makes more sense for Amazon and Apple, where entertainment plays are a very small part of their business models — a sexy write-off, if there ever was such a thing.

PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 28: Vinicius Junior of Real Madrid in action under pressure from Trent Alexander-Arnold of Liverpool during the UEFA Champions League final match between Liverpool FC and Real Madrid at Stade de France on May 28, 2022 in Paris, France. (Photo by Etsuo Hara/Getty Images)

Real Madrid beat Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League Final in May.

Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

While NFL broadcasts are by far the most expensive among U.S. sports, Sunday Ticket isn’t the only major sports deal set to close this year. Media companies last week were invited to bid on U.S. rights for the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). For comparison, NBCUniversal’s 2021 deal for English Premier League rights, which includes live games on USA Network, Peacock, NBC, and Telemundo, was worth $2.5 billion over six years.

There’s a lot more where all that came from: Below is a look at the biggest live sports players, with who’s stealing share and who is getting picked off in the latest streaming-wars skirmish.

Netflix

After a long, public, never-live-sports stance, Netflix lost out to ESPN on the auction for Formula 1 racing rights. (Remember Reed Hastings’ long, public, never-commercials stance? We’re noticing a pattern here.)

Otherwise, Netflix’s drive to overcome its subscriber slide doesn’t seem to include other sports-rights plays. Netflix is not among the reported suitors for NFL Sunday Ticket.

Amazon

The Thursday Night Football deal is the latest way Amazon wants to make its $139-a-year/$14.99-a-month Prime subscription inextricable from its customers’ lives. The deal, which starts this fall, means you’ll need a Prime subscription to watch out-of-market Thursday night games, which are otherwise broadcast only on local TV.

BOSTON, MA - JULY 08: Nestor Cortes #65 of the New York Yankees pitches in the first inning of a game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on July 8, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Amazon Prime Video streamed the July 8 Yankees vs. Red Sox game.

Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Amazon’s investment in sports isn’t limited to the states — or to American football. Within the past month Amazon landed a deal to broadcast Europe’s top soccer tournament, UEFA Champions League, beginning with the 2024-25 season in the U.K. It also has Champions League rights in Germany and Italy, and in the U.K. has Premier League and U.S. Open rights.

Amazon acquired a stake in the New York Yankees’ YES Network in 2019 and will broadcast 21 Yankees games this season, including three high-profile matchups with the rival Boston Red Sox. These games won’t even air on YES, which is sure to infuriate Bronx Bombers fans in the country’s number-one media market.

Amazon spent $13 billion on entertainment content last year, a vastly smaller amount than legacy competitors like Disney. That means when Prime Video goes after pricey sports rights, it represents a greater share of the division’s overall budget.

Apple

Like Amazon, the iPhone maker’s content strategy is meant to encourage loyalty within the Apple ecosystem. This summer, Apple began offering Friday-night MLB games on Apple TV+ as part of a pact that’s worth a reported $595 million over seven years.

There’s also Apple’s 10-year, $2.5 billion Major League Soccer deal, which begins in 2023. Apple will craft a new MLS service within the Apple TV app, making every single one of the league’s games — no blackouts — available along with other content (for an additional monthly fee).

Comcast

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts says he wants the NBCUniversal portfolio to “remain one of the premier” destinations for sports content. He can make a pretty good case that it will: NBC and Peacock have the Olympics through 2032 as well as TV’s top show, “Sunday Night Football” (and three Super Bowls — the top telecast of the year, every year), through 2033 at NBC. Select NFL games also stream on Peacock.

Peacock also gets Sunday morning MLB games. And the streamer effectively bought WWE Network, the home to the world’s top pro-wrestling league, for $1 billion last year.

TOPSHOT - (L-R) South Korea's Choi Min-jeong, Netherlands' Suzanne Schulting, Italy's Arianna Fontana and USA's Kristen Santos compete in the final A of the women's 1000m short track speed skating event during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at the Capital Indoor Stadium in Beijing on February 11, 2022. (Photo by Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP) (Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images)

The women’s 1000m short track speed skating event during the the 2022 Winter Olympics. at the Capital Indoor Stadium in Beijing on February 11, 2022.

AFP via Getty Images

Disney

The Disney sporting empire stretches from ABC to ESPN to ESPN+, giving the legacy player a fighting chance against disruption. Its new NFL contract means ABC is back in the Super Bowl rotation; regular-season games that air on ABC and ESPN, like its “Monday Night Football” package, can also stream on ESPN+.

Disney also has flexibility to stream or broadcast NHL and MLB games and MMA fights as part of recent contracts and ESPN+ now serves as the exclusive destination for out-of-market hockey games. No wonder ESPN+ is getting so expensive: The cost of a subscription will go up in August, from $5.99 to $6.99 a month, or $69.99 a year.

Disney took a loss earlier this year with its failed bid to hold on to Indian Premier League cricket streaming rights; they were a driver for Disney+ subscriptions in India, one of its largest markets. Paramount Global’s joint venture Viacom18 was the victor, paying $2.62 billion for a five-year deal.

ESPN’s contract with the NBA ends with the 2024-25 season. It was signed back in 2014, eons ago in the media landscape, making basketball broadcasts the next streaming target.

Sports rights represent just a fraction of Disney’s overall content spend. The company plans to spend $32 billion on content across all platforms in 2022.

Fox

Fox’s “America’s Game of the Week” has been a ratings juggernaut for 13 years — and counting, under the terms of its contract extension with the NFL. The re-upped deal is a win for Fox’s free streaming service Tubi, which launched 10 channels of sports following the deal, employing a nontraditional formula of “near-to-live” and highlights.

The streaming-light Fox also owns exclusive rights to the MLB World Series and All-Star Games, in addition to Saturday doubleheaders and other games in a deal that expires at the end of the 2028 season. The broadcast network also airs “WWE Friday Night SmackDown” as part of a five-year deal that expires in 2024.

Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns come face to face on "SmackDown."

Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns come face to face on “SmackDown.”

WWE

Paramount Global

In addition to Paramount’s continuation of its Sunday-afternoon NFL package on CBS and Paramount+, the company’s broadcast network also holds rights to college football, March Madness, the PGA Championship and Tour, and the Masters.

Paramount+ was an early streaming investor in soccer: It currently has U.S. rights for UEFA Champions League and Europa League, among others. It also offers NFL and NCAA games, thanks to its parent company’s rights portfolio.

Warner Bros. Discovery

The NBA’s current contracts with ESPN and Turner Sports expire at the end of the 2024-25 season. Like soccer, basketball’s younger audience makes it a strong fit for streaming and the NBA has been a major draw for TNT. But B/R Live has been a weirdly utilized sports-streaming hub, and HBO Max has almost no sports presence — yet.

Before its merger with Discovery, WarnerMedia poached NBCU’s rights to air NHL games on cable, a deal that skates through the 2027-28 season. The agreement also includes the rights to stream games on HBO Max beginning at a to-be-announced date. Another possibility for HBO Max comes from Turner’s pact with WWE competitor AEW.

Last month, Warner Bros. Discovery tapped former Univision executive Luis Silberwasser to lead its sports effort. He’s got his work cut out for him: CEO David Zaslav said he plans to be disciplined about content spending, but the cost of sports programming is not.

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