With viewership of traditional TV channels in decline, sports have become the most powerful force in the TV industry. Only a live sporting event can guarantee a big audience these days. Not the Oscars. Not the Emmys. Sports and sports alone. With that in mind, here are my 20 predictions for how sports will change on television in 2023, and how sports will change television itself.
1. Amazon Gets the NFL Sunday Ticket
John Ourand, the esteemed sports media journalist at the Sports Business Journal, has Amazon getting the Sunday Ticket and I agree. It’s one of the few companies these days that can afford and still benefit from an expensive loss leader like the Sunday Ticket. Amazon can use it to sell products – lots of products – but how many added subs would the Ticket mean for YouTube TV or Apple TV+? Probably not enough to warrant the price to acquire the rights.
2. DIRECTV Retains Ticket’s Bar & Restaurant Business
Amazon and DIRECTV signed a multi-year deal shortly before the 2022 NFL season to allow DIRECTV to offer Amazon’s Thursday Night Football games to its business customers. It was a no-brainer. Most bars and restaurants are not equipped to stream live sports to a large crowd. The TNF agreement will serve as a template for a similar arrangement between the two companies that will permit DIRECTV to provide the Sunday Ticket to bars and restaurants.
3. But DIRECTV Will Not Get Re-Seller Rights to the Ticket For Rural Markets
There has been speculation that DIRECTV would be permitted to continue to sell the Sunday Ticket in rural areas where streaming is unreliable due to limited Internet access. However, I don’t believe that deal will come together. Instead, I think Amazon will allow DIRECTV to sell the Ticket as an add-on feature in 2023, but subscribers will still need to watch the games on Amazon Prime, not through the satellite signal. Amazon will want all Ticket subscribers browsing its virtual warehouse while watching the games.
4. Without Sunday Ticket, DIRECTV Shifts Marketing Emphasis to DIRECTV Stream
DIRECTV has been surprisingly aggressive this year in pursuing and retaining new satellite TV subs although it continues to lose a large number of customers to cord-cutting. But without the Sunday Ticket as a lure, look for the company to focus more on DIRECTV Stream, and perhaps, finally get together with Dish for a long-anticipated merger.
5. DIRECTV Stream Adds NFL Network
DIRECTV Stream has not carried the NFL Network since April 2019, but the Amazon deal and the company’s move to focus even more on the streaming service will pave the way for a settlement in 2023.
6. Amazon & Peacock Add Live 4K Sports
Sports fans will have a greater variety of 4K choices in 2023 with Peacock adding select NBC Sports-produced live sports in 4K and Amazon moving to a 4K Thursday Night Football production.
7. Fox and NBC Do Some Regular Season NFL Games In 4K
With the exception of this year’s Thanksgiving game, and a Christmas game a few years ago, Fox has refrained from doing any regular season NFL games in 4K. However, that will change with some select 4K broadcasts during the 2023 regular season. NBC (and Peacock) will also do some Sunday Night Football games in 4K. I’m afraid, however, that CBS will continue to sit on the 4K sidelines. And ESPN? Frankly, not sure. Could happen for Monday Night Football, but not ready to predict it.
8. But ESPN+ Will Add 4K Sporting Events
ESPN does do college football and basketball games in 4K so I think you’ll see the network’s ESPN+ app finally add a 4K component in 2023 so more people can see them.
9. Apple Hits the Brakes On Live Sports
With the NFL Sunday Ticket in its rearview mirror, Apple’s live sports ambitions will begin to cool. The company has a 10-year deal with Major League Soccer as well as a seven-year deal with Major League Baseball. But I suspect Apple will watch the performance of each even more carefully and perhaps exercise an early opt-out on one or both.
10. MLS Viewership On Apple TV+ Is Low, Low, Low
Despite the fevered interest in the 2022 World Cup, viewership for MLS games on Apple TV+ will be shockingly low for two reasons: 1. The monthly subscription price for non-Apple TV+ subscribers will be $14.99, too high for what is still a non-major sport in the United States. 2. It’s not the World Cup, which is overflowing with tension and drama. Regular season MLS games are not tense or dramatic — unless you like 1-0 games with nothing on the line.
11. Netflix Becomes a (Minor) Player In Live Sports
Streaming services have long discovered that live sports, particularly exclusive events, can generate subscribers unlike any other programming category. However, Netflix has been the big holdout here with top executives repeatedly suggesting it’s fool gold. Well, Netflix will go prospecting in 2023 and come away with the rights to some minor live sports. Will that lead to Netflix going bigger with sports in 2024 and beyond? Ask the algorithm.
12. Bally Sports Plus Gets More MLB Team Deals, But Not Many
As of now, Bally Sports Plus, the $19.99 a month direct-to-consumer streaming service, has the rights to just five MLB teams in Bally markets: Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Miami Marlins, Milwaukee Brewers and the Tampa Bay Rays. I think you’ll see a few more deals by opening day 2023, but not all of the remaining teams. The new service continues to struggle with a dysfunctional management structure, which has impeded negotiations and I don’t see that fixing itself in the critical weeks ahead. (There are nine MLB teams left in Bally markets that have not signed deals with Bally Sports Plus.) Sinclair’s inability to put Bally Sports Plus on the right course is putting its entire RSN business in jeopardy. (Bally Sports is operated by Diamond Sports, a unit of Sinclair.)
13. But YouTube TV & Hulu Live Still Won’t Carry Bally Sports
Whether it’s Hulu Live, YouTube TV, Sling TV or FuboTV, the live streamers’ profit margins are so thin that it’s hard for them to justify paying regional sports channels such as Bally Sports, which do charge more than most channels. DIRECTV Stream, which does carry Bally Sports, is able to do so by charging a minimum of $90 a month for packages that include them and it will raise the minimum price to $100 a month in January. YouTube TV, FuboTV and Hulu Live start with base prices under $70 and they want to keep their basic prices as low as possible to attract cord-cutters. (Sling TV, which charges just $40 a month for its base plan, is even less likely to carry Bally.) But if they add Bally Sports, or some other RSNs, they will have to raise prices to the point where non-sports fans would balk. Not happening, folks.
14. Consolidation In Live Streaming Will Make It Even Tougher For RSNs
There are five major live streaming services — YouTube TV, Hulu Live, DIRECTV Stream, Sling TV and FuboTV — and that’s at least two too many in this economy and this market. Live streaming never became that viable alternative to cable and satellite thanks to escalating prices and the time has come for the category to consolidate. For starters, Sling and DIRECTV Stream could come together in a Dish/DIRECTV merger and I don’t see FuboTV staying independent beyond 2023. This is bad news for regional sports networks because fewer providers makes it more difficult to reach captive audiences.
15. More Teams Will Launch Standalone Streaming Apps
NESN, the TV home of the Boston Bruins and Boston Red Sox, last year began offering a stream directly to consumers for $30 a month; no cable or satellite sub required. And the Los Angeles Clippers this year announced that it will stream 74 regular season games during the 2022-23 NBA season on the NBA’s official league app for $199.99. The trend is real and you’ll see a few more teams launch standalone apps in 2023. Marquee Sports Network is a very good bet.
16. But MLB Blackouts Will Continue (And Continue)
There has been some crazy speculation on social media that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred will magically make all local blackouts disappear in 2023. Folks, not as long as regional sports networks are still paying the league and pay TV providers are still paying regional sports networks. The blackouts protect the RSNs because it forces fans to subscribe to a service that carries the local team. While RSNs may be on fewer providers than before, they are still available in large enough numbers to make eliminating local blackouts, well, crazy. What you might see in 2023 is some refinement to the blackout territories. For example, do we really need a blackout of the Giants and A’s in Guam?
17. The Pac-12 Contract Goes to ESPN
The Pac-12 has been wooing both Amazon and ESPN to take its next big media rights deal. But I see ESPN walking away with the prize. With USC and UCLA exiting for the Big 10 starting in 2024, the conference needs the bigger audience that ESPN can deliver to stay relevant. Plus, if Amazon gets the Sunday Ticket to go with its Thursday Night Football deal, it will have its hands full.
18. Peacock Adds NBC RSNs
This will not be a major surprise. NBC execs have already said they are in negotiations for the rights to show their regional sports networks on their streaming service, Peacock. But I believe it will happen and it will give fans another way to subscribe to the RSNs. However, don’t expect any big discounts or blackout changes.
19. MASN Cedes Its Washington Nationals Rights to Ted Leonsis Who Then Buys the Nationals
For more than a decade, the Baltimore Orioles, owned by the Peter Angelos family, and the Washington Nationals, owned by the Ted Lerner family, have been at war over MASN, the regional sports network that airs the games of both teams. The Nats (and nearly everyone else in official baseball circles) say MASN, also owned by the Angelos family, have shortchanged them over the fees to carry their games. Despite numerous court rulings, mediations and closed door meetings, the two sides have not been able to find a solution. But I predict that 2023 will finally put this row to rest when the Angelos family agrees to allow Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Wizards and Capitals, to take the Nats TV rights as part of his purchase of the Nationals. Leonis will then put the Nats on his NBC Sports Washington RSN. (Leonsis bought the channel, but it will still be operated by NBC for 18 months.) The financial calculations and maneuvering required to make this happen could make a 12-episode streaming series at some point, but I think it will happen.
20. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred Finally Approves Robot Umpires
He’s been wanting it for years, and 2023 will be the year that Rob Manfred will finally say the words, ‘Robots will be our home plate umpires next season.’ Or words to that effect. They won’t really be robots, but Artificial Intelligence that supposedly can determine if a ball is really a ball and a strike is really a strike. I personally don’t believe they are needed — or as flawless as some think — but it’s clearly inevitable. Once Rob decides to change the game inexorably, no one can stop him.
Overtime: The Manningcast trend subsides; the copycats are not nearly as good as the original. Betting lines and related information will become even more prominent in many sportscasts. Bet on it. But don’t bet on the networks figuring out to make money from it besides advertising. Live streaming will still suffer from real time delays; the technology still isn’t there yet to fix it. Just ask the NBA app folks. MLB will shy away from trying to take over RSN biz. Not as easy as it looks. NFL Plus gets a second year despite rookie mistakes (technical issues, marketing fumbles.)
What do you think of these predictions? Comment below.
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— Phillip Swann