There’s one question that I have been hearing among media industry insiders, over and over and over again, since Warner Bros. Discovery announced that it would offer its Bleacher Report Sports Add-On package on Max, its streaming service, for an additional $10 a month: why are the cable companies putting up with this? The package allows subscribers to stream NBA and MLB games, among others, without a cable subscription. And unlike ESPN+ and Prime Video, which are moving certain games exclusively to streaming platforms, the Bleacher Report package will share the broadcast rights with TNT. So why in the world, executives are privately wondering, are the cable providers OK with WBD offering sports fans yet another reason to cut the cord?
For a generation, the linear sports industrial complex was in total and fully-monetized alignment: cable networks paid gargantuan fees for sports rights, which they monetized via advertising and hefty carriage fees from the cable and satellite providers, which extracted hefty fees from consumers who, frankly, had no other options. (Of course, the beauty of this model was that it was paid for by people who had zero interest in live sports. But that’s a story for another time…) It was inelegant but it was profitable and, importantly, simple.
Now, it seems, everyone is on their own: the content providers are trying to retrofit their rights packages for streaming, which helps them boost subscribership but inevitably frustrates the cable operators (who get less bang for their buck), the leagues (who don’t want to see viewership decline), and audiences (who have to remember how to watch their favorite teams). It’s impossible to imagine this transition without a few cracked eggs, as the recent Disney-Charter dispute illustrated. Rather than alignment, it’s dealmaking vulcan chess.