Thursday night kicks off wide, confusing world of streaming sports

When the Buffalo Bills meet the Los Angeles Rams on Thursday, television viewers across America will have two options to watch the inaugural game of the NFL season: They can watch it for free on NBC, just as viewers have for decades, or they can download, install and activate an account with Comcast's streaming service Peacock, which will simulcast the game in real-time.

After this week, though, football fans will likely have to switch channels — and, for the first time, streaming apps — if they want to follow the progression of their favorite team throughout the season.

Starting next week, most NFL games played on Thursday will be available to a national audience through Amazon's Prime Video and Twitch streaming services, with exceptions made for viewers who live within the home market of either teams that are playing. Games played Sunday afternoon will air and stream on CBS, Fox and Paramount Plus; Sunday evening games will air on NBC and stream on Peacock. The week ends with Monday Night Football, with games available to watch on ESPN and stream through the ESPN Plus app.

Welcome to the wide, confusing world of televised sports: A landscape where leagues are inking top-dollar deals that will force viewers to bounce between traditional and digital media platforms for at least the next few years.

"The business model for sports rights is easy to comprehend: maximum exposure for the highest possible price," Eric Sorensen, a senior contributing analyst with Parks Associates, wrote earlier this year. "The National Football League has various broadcast partners with varying exclusivity requirements across all platforms, making it a daily routine for football fans to check the television schedule online or ask Alexa, 'What channel is the game on?'"

The NFL is not alone in making these types of deals or adding to customer confusion: In March, Major League Baseball (MLB) announced a deal with Apple to offer a handful of Friday evening baseball games to those with access to Apple TV+. One month later, the MLB unveiled another deal with Comcast's NBCUniversal that saw select Sunday morning games aired on NBC and streamed on Peacock over the course of several months. The MLB also makes more than a dozen games available through YouTube.

Comments sent to representatives of the NFL and MLB were not returned by press time. But in a recent Los Angeles Times interview, the top financial executive at the MLB dismissed concerns that its streaming deals were not good for fans because most already stream content and many are moving away from traditional cable and satellite services.

"Linear is still the most-important for us," Noah Garden, the chief financial officer at MLB, said in the interview. "I think what you’re seeing on the streaming side is just a recognition that there are a lot of people that fall outside the bundle...if you take some of these national games, the idea is to reach a much broader audience. That’s the goal. If we didn’t think that was going to be the effect, we certainly wouldn’t do it."

The fan experience

But experts who spoke with Fierce Video over the last several weeks say professional sports leagues are signing top-dollar deals with streaming services at the expense of fans.

"The MLB said something recently about how fragmentation is necessary to reach new audiences," media analyst Dan Rayburn, who is seen as an expert in the streaming media space, said in an interview this week. "I think that is absolute garbage."

Rayburn recounted a recent trip to a New York-area sports bar, where he and others wanted to watch the New York Mets game. That evening's game happened to be on Apple TV+, and no one employed by the bar seemed to know how to get the game onto the TV set there. Eventually, Rayburn offered to stream the game from his phone to the TV set using Airplay.

"The leagues are just taking the dollars without thinking of the user experience," Rayburn complained. "They're not listening to their core fans."

A lot of attention has focused on NFL and MLB telecast rights, in part because the two professional sports command the most-attention from television viewers, according to data compiled by Parks Associates. But fans of other sports have it bad, too:  Rights to professional soccer matches are split across Peacock, Paramount Plus, Apple TV+, ESPN Plus, Fubo TV and others, depending on which domestic or international league a viewer wants to watch. Starting last year, hockey fans had to bounce around ABC, ESPN, ESPN Plus and TNT after the games left NBC Sports.

"Right now, you can't be an avid sports fan and be a cord-cutter," Andrew Freedman, a partner with the research firm Hedgeye Risk Management who specializes in media and entertainment, told Fierce Video in July. He thinks the sports telecast landscape is evolving into one where fans will have to switch between streaming services the way they used to flip through channels.

"If you want to watch Monday Night Football, you'll have to have your ESPN Plus subscription," Freedman said. "Want to watch Thursday night games? You'll have to have Amazon. Somewhere down the road, you'll have to buy Paramount Plus and Peacock to get games on CBS and NBC...[but] it's very rare that you will see somebody that is an avid sports enthusiast, in terms of the overall population, who wants to watch everything."

Jason Cohen, a former financial analyst who now runs his own streaming marketplace, thinks the casual fan could still be turned off if they have to subscribe to a bunch of services simply to follow their favorite team.

"Sports on these different streaming services is a mess," Cohen proclaimed. "When we look back 10 years from now and wonder why there are so few people watching sports in this country relative to what there once was, it'll be because the leagues and the industry made it so hard for casual fans to keep up."