The ultimate sports streaming service will have to fight itself

Patrick Mahomes holding a football during Super Bowl LVIII.

The biggest change in sports broadcasting since cable TV bursts onto the small screen this fall. ESPN, Fox, and Warner Bros. Discovery are poised to launch a new streaming experience that encompasses live content from just about every major sports league. The joint venture came as such a surprise that not even the sports leagues themselves were aware of the plan. Because big team-ups like this often end in fights down the line.

But the joint venture makes sense. Viewers have wanted an easier way to stream their favorite sports for years, and bringing the National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA), National Hockey League (NHL), college football, PGA Tour, Grand Slam Tennis, US Soccer, and even NASCAR under a single streaming roof could help solve this.

Right now, the sports streaming industry is such a mess of broadcasting rights that fans are stuck piecing together different subscriptions just to get all the games they want to watch. With football, for example, viewers have to subscribe to Amazon Prime Video to watch Thursday Night Football, but they need Peacock to catch Sunday Night Football and Paramount Plus or YouTube TV to watch the Super Bowl.

The new sports streaming super app would fill this gap, as the only alternative is pricey live TV streaming services filled with a bunch of channels sports fans might not need or want. Cord-cutters who want access to all major live sports games from one place turn to live streaming services, such as Hulu with Live TV, YouTube TV, Fubo, and Sling TV. These services might seem ideal, since they offer access to channels like ESPN, FS1, and the CBS Sports Network, but — just like cable — sports fans have to deal with local blackouts that prevent games from airing in certain markets. Live streaming services are also several times more expensive than your standard $15.49 per month Netflix plan, as YouTube TV is priced at $72.99 per month, while Hulu’s standalone Live TV service costs $75.99 per month. 

And unlike these livestreaming services, this new super app will mainly stick to sports-related content. It will only house select linear channels, including ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, SECN, ACCN, ESPNews, ABC, FOX, FS1, FS2, BTN, TNT, TBS, and truTV, and will also be available for subscribers to bundle with Disney Plus, Hulu, and Warner Bros. Discovery’s Max. 

Sure, this all seems like a great idea, right? Viewers can finally get a major sports fix from a single service. But there are some issues with it. As you might expect, competing livestreaming services like Fubo aren’t exactly happy about the new joint venture. Fubo published a statement shortly after the news broke, raising concerns about the “underyling motives and implication” of the joint venture. “Every consumer in America should be concerned about the intent behind this joint venture and its impact on fair market competition,” the statement reads, adding that the service’s massive portfolio “could dictate market terms in a manner that may not serve the broader interests of consumers.”

Then, there’s linear TV. For some, sports is what keeps people locked into their cable or satellite subscriptions, and things might change now that there’s a more streamlined option coming to market. “Cable is going to be in trouble,” Rajkumar Venkatesan, a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia tells The Verge. “The pie is shrinking, and I think it’ll keep shrinking. This is one more step in that direction.”

Which all means this isn’t just any streaming service — it’s a juggernaut with the power to crush competitors. But it puts this sports streaming behemoth in a strange position. While Fox, which is owned by Fox Corporation, is focused on airing sports on its linear networks, Disney is still all in on a separate streaming-only version of ESPN in 2025. Disney CEO Bob Iger said the ESPN app will have “features that this combination with Fox and with Time Warner Discovery will not have,” including things like integrated betting, fantasy, and merchandise.

Then there’s the new live sports tier Warner Bros. Discovery added to Max. This $9.99 per month Bleacher Report Sports add-on includes live games from the NFL, NBA, US Soccer, National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and more. As pointed out by Venkatesan, Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery would likely rather prioritize the services they fully own, rather than the ones of which they’re only going to own a third. “Let’s say the new service does well and it grows,” Venkatesan tells The Verge. “Now suddenly, they’re fighting against like ESPN, and ESPN is not going to like that. This is a very delicate situation for them to manage.”

The strategy behind the launch is similar to Hulu, which first emerged as a joint venture between News Corporation, NBCUniversal, Providence Equity, and eventually, Disney. However, that means it could also end up running into the same issues Hulu did during its earlier years, which stemmed from having too many owners with competing ideas.

In the end, the new sports streaming service might just exist. We still don’t know what type of user interface it will have, or how well the backend will hold up when airing live NFL playoffs. But the fact that Disney is already reserving some of its best features for its upcoming ESPN app isn’t all that encouraging. ESPN, Fox, and Warner Bros. Discovery are betting that the sheer selection of sports available in the service will be enough to draw in subscribers. Whether or not content alone is enough to get the biggest sports fans, it runs the risk of falling by the wayside as ESPN and Warner Bros. Discovery look to prop up their own services instead.

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