You may have already thought we had too many streaming services to deal with, but sports fans should prepare for the situation to get worse.
On Tuesday, Apple announced a deal with Major League Baseball that will bring two games to Apple TV+ every Friday night starting this season (assuming the league can end its lockout with the season intact). Those games will be exclusive to Apple TV+, which means they won’t be carried by regional sports channels or other traditional TV networks.
On its own, Apple’s Friday Night Baseball deal will be just an occasional nuisance—another thing baseball enthusiasts will need alongside a pay-TV bundle. But it’s also part of a larger trend in which sports leagues carve their rights into tiny pieces, scattering coverage across an array of streaming apps and cable channels. Following your favorite team will become more expensive and more annoying as a result.
Within the realm of streaming TV, I’m usually the last one to complain about “fragmentation.”
It doesn’t bother me that every streaming service has its own stable of exclusive programming. Watching the best shows on TV used to require an entire cable bundle—plus HBO—and I’m much happier being able to bounce between subscriptions on a month-to-month basis.
But if you start watching a show on Netflix, you wouldn’t expect one episode per season to randomly wind up on Peacock or Paramount+ instead. That’s the kind of fragmentation that streaming services are now embracing with live sports as they try to deal with their churn problems.
Apple, for instance, will carry baseball on Friday nights, but Sports Business Journal‘s John Ourand reports that Peacock is negotiating a separate package of streamed games, presumably for another part of the week. That means you’ll need two streaming services on top of a regular pay TV package for full access to MLB games (though Apple does say that its games won’t require an Apple TV+ subscription “for a limited time”). While the league has sold exclusive streaming rights before—to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter—at least those offerings were free.
Baseball isn’t the only sport whose rights are being divvied up this way. Amazon Prime will have exclusive rights to Thursday Night Football for this upcoming NFL season, rendering the games inaccessible with an over-the-air antenna or via traditional pay TV. ESPN+ will also carry one exclusive game starting this season, and Peacock will gain an exclusive game starting in 2023. For hockey, 75 nationally-televised games per year are now exclusive to ESPN+ and Hulu.
A new level of frustration
The leagues seem to think this strategy will expand their audience. Speaking to Ourand, MLB Chief Revenue Officer Noah Garden said the deal with Apple is a way to reach “our next generation of fans and people that find themselves outside of the bundle.”
Still, I wonder how captivating it will be to find random games here and there, without any sense of continuity or a way to follow your favorite team over time. Even if you like what you see on Apple TV+, you’ll ultimately need a traditional pay TV bundle to keep watching your local team. (At least as of now, there’s still no way to stream in-market baseball games without one.)
The unbundling of sports from big pay TV bundles isn’t all bad news. Streaming services such as Peacock, Paramount+, and ESPN+ have offered expanded coverage of soccer, golf, rugby, and other sports in ways that weren’t possible on cable. Sinclair, meanwhile, plans to soft launch a regional sports streaming service this year—with or without baseball—resulting in significant savings for cord cutters who don’t want a full pay TV bundle. NBCUniversal even reversed its entire Olympics strategy by putting full Winter Games coverage on Peacock after attempting a more piecemeal approach last year.
By contrast, scattering random games across different streaming services will only create new frustrations for viewers. While Apple didn’t create the problem, it’s become yet another contributor.