Media-Mind: Why Sport Fans Are Slaves to Pay TV

Media-Mind: Why Sport Fans Are Slaves to Pay TV

The rising price of cable TV is leading millions of customers to cut the cord in favor less expensive video streaming services, but fans of the four major sporting leagues looking to move away from pay TV are out of luck.

Media-Mind is our column charting how technology’s opportunities and challenges transform traditional media and entertainment, for better or for worse.

Everyone enjoys watching their favorite movies and TV shows the second they’re available, but there is nothing particularly time-sensitive about network and cable companies’ original programming. Sad you missed the latest episode of “Modern Family”? ABC or Hulu will have that up on their websites one week after its original air date. Bummed you can’t watch that new movie premiering on Starz? If it doesn’t end up on Netflix it can likely be rented from the local Redbox or iTunes Store.

But missed the big game last night? Oh man, you should’ve seen it, there are highlights everywhere: it’s on the cover of all the newspapers and the lead on every single website! Everything about sports is time-sensitive, and the game that happens today has a pivotal effect on tomorrow, the playoff picture and where the team is headed. But if you’re cutting the cord with cable, how will you keep up? The short answer: you can’t.

Cord-Cutting Sport Fans Face High Prices and Blackouts

For cable cord-cutters, there is no alternative to watching the games live. Sure, fans could log on to ESPN or other sites to see highlights, but the National Football League is the only league that puts full broadcasts of games online after they air live on TV, and it charges $15 a month for the service.

The NFL, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League do offer alternatives for watching games live, but there are a few catches: mega sports fans interested in all of them will pay a pretty penny. The NFL Sunday Ticket is $300 a year, MLB.TV is $125, NHL GameCenter is $160, and the NBA League pass costs $180. Each of these prices goes down as the season progresses, but customers will pay these prices if they want in from the beginning.

These prices don’t seem too bad for those ditching their cable subscriptions, but there is one more catch that makes these services useless to million of potential customers: the leagues blackout local games.

For example, if a customer subscribes to NFL Sunday Ticket in New York, the New York Giants and New York Jets games are unavailable to them because of local market restrictions. The leagues put this in the fine print of their user agreements to protect their relationships with the cable networks.

Broadcast contracts for sports are a multi-billion dollar business, and if a customer can watch games from the local market with any of these services, there’d be no reason for them to turn on their TV and no reason for cable networks to pay billions for the rights to air the games. With these restrictions, the cable industry preserves one of its most strongest competitive advantages against the streaming services cord-cutters are migrating towards.

A Forced Marriage

There are plenty of sport fans that are outliers able to get around this trap, but most stick with pay TV. For example, a fan living in Florida who follows the Yankees, Knicks, Giants and Rangers will not run into blackout implications on the leagues’ services when it’s time to watch a game. However, locals are stuck, giving cable companies a safety net.

Even if millions of customers begin to defect from cable as prices skyrocket over the next several years, those who want to watch sports will likely bite the bullet and continue to pay so they can watch their favorite teams. Unless they want to wander down to their local bar every time they want to watch a game, sport fans living in the same market as their favorite team are slaves to pay TV, and there’s no sign of that changing anytime soon.

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