A couple of weeks ago I couldn’t find an Atlanta Braves game on television or streaming. My 11 year old is a massive Braves fan and he wanted to watch their game and he couldn’t find it available anywhere despite the panoply of entertainment subscriptions in our house. (Any time your kid can’t find a game and enlists you to help, you know they’re really desperate). The Braves game was blocked out on our local regional sports affiliate for a hockey game, it was blocked out on MLB Extra Innings, which we subscribe to in an attempt to eliminate this issue, and despite spending the better part of a half hour to try to track it down and watch it, ultimately my son was relegated to watching his scoretracker app to see what happened in the game.
I’m old enough to remember an era when sports fans listened to games on the radio because they weren’t available on television or cable. Heck, I even remember the days of buying the newspaper to find out who won the games the night before. But the promise of my generation, at least from a sports fan perspective, was that essentially every game we could ever want to watch would be available on cable or satellite television. The cable bundle, for sports fans, while expensive and sometimes frustrating — did the NFL really ever need to restrict out of market games to DirecTV? — for the most part ensured that every game we wanted to watch was available to us with a minimum of effort.
But that’s changing in a streaming era.
And it’s not changing for the better.
Chances are most of you reading this right now have noticed it too — I bet many of you have been unable to watch a game you wanted to watch because of streaming related issues. Consider this: the New York Yankees are going to air games this year on YES, ESPN, Fox, Prime Video, Apple TV+ and Peacock. Many Yankee fans, through no fault of their own, are going to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to track down their favorite team’s games. And if people in their forties like me and young kids, who are typically the most adroit at finding games, are having trouble tracking down MLB games, how many people older than me are going to totally fail when it comes to tracking down their favorite teams and being able to watch their games?
Heck, just wait until Amazon starts streaming Thursday night NFL games this fall and suddenly everyone is trying to track down their Amazon Prime passwords. (I once told my wife to just sign up for a brand new Amazon prime account because I couldn’t remember or track down our old password.)
How is it that as technology continues to advance so rapidly yet we’re going backwards in terms of the ease with which we can watch our favorite teams play the sports we love?
From a business perspective, at least in the short term, this may make sense to Major League Baseball, but does slicing and dicing your product’s distribution in this many different ways actually increase your audience or increase your fan base in the long term? I think the answer is clearly no, it doesn’t. (Plus, if you’re a real fan of a team you’re probably also ending up with streaming announcers for many of these teams that have no real knowledge of your team. One of my 11 year old’s favorite things about watching Braves baseball is listening to the local crew calling the game on our regional affiliate. With streaming instead of creating a better connection, you’re creating a worse one.)
Increasingly, I’m convinced a streaming future for sports isn’t going to be better than the televised sports we’ve all grown used to over the last generation. In fact, I think it’s going to be much worse. Instead of technology making things better, it’s making things worse. (And this doesn’t even take into account the fact that streamed sports are sometimes a full minute behind games airing on cable. This makes texting with your friends or live wagering on sports virtually impossible. This latency issue, which almost no one discusses, is absolutely atrocious.)
In the halcyon days of early streaming projections, there was the hope that the average family would save money without having to pay for a cable or satellite subscription. What if, many asked, we could just pay for what we actually watched?! (This overlooked the fact that the people getting the best possible deal from the cable bundle were sports fans, since our sports channels were being paid for by people who never watched.) But as the number of these streaming services have proliferated, it feels as if most of us are paying at least as much, if not more, for all our streaming subscriptions. While also, at least if you’re a sports fan, also now having to keep a cable or satellite subscriptions as well.
I know in my household we’ve got Comcast cable, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max, Paramount and Peacock — I can never remember the difference between these two, who made the decision to name two streaming services this close to the same name? This is the exact same as my Hyatt and Hilton problem. I still don’t know the difference between Hyatt and Hilton hotels either, in fact I regularly go to the wrong version of the hotel because they both start with H — the only thing we haven’t bought is CNN+, which is probably why CNN+ is already going broke. Anyway, my point here is we were all sold the fiction that streaming was going to save us money and the reality is it’s costing us way more money than we were paying before streaming existed and it’s more difficult to track down the shows we want to watch, especially, again, if you’re a sports fan.
But it’s not just sports that I can’t figure out how to stream either, my wife and I both gave up trying to figure out how to stream “1883,” the spinoff of “Yellowstone,” a show we both love. Our DVR doesn’t record “1883” despite valiant attempts to set said DVR and we’ve spent, between the two of us, an hour or more trying to figure out how to watch “1883” to no avail. We can’t be alone in these struggles. There have to be tons of you reading this right now with your own streaming calamities. I feel like we need a support group, none of us want to publicly admit how confusing and infuriating all of this has become, but the reality is if we all have to track down our passwords while a four year old is screaming about wanting to watch the latest Disney+ show, streaming isn’t making our lives easier.
I was thinking all of these things before today’s Netflix related calamity — the stock is presently down $125 after subscriber numbers declined, setting off alarm bells that we may have already reached, especially in the United States and Canada, the maximum number of streaming subscribers who will sign up for these services. The resulting stock price collapse has returned Netflix’s stock to the same price it was in January of 2018, effectively wiping out the last 4.5 years of streaming value in the stock. These were the 4.5 years when it became conventional wisdom to argue that streaming was the complete and total future of media and that Netflix was going to destroy everyone else.
In the space of a year Netflix has fallen from an all time high of over $700 a share to roughly $225 a share. And now Netflix is so desperate for subscribers that they are working on an advertiser supported model of their streaming product. Supporting programming with advertiser dollars? What a novel idea, someone should have thought of that before! More seriously, however, unless the ad model is more lucrative than the subscription model, it seems possible that Netflix is going to lose revenue from existing subscribers with the new model because wouldn’t the most price conscious subscribers spend less for Netflix, leaving Netflix desperate to maximize ad revenue to try and make up the difference? After all, how many people aren’t subscribed to Netflix now who would subscribe if there was an ad model in place? It seems like a small number, which means I don’t see how an ad version of the product is going to juice the subscriber numbers.
And it’s not just Netflix struggling either, by the way, Disney, which leapt onto the streaming train with earnest in 2019 is now seeing its stock price at the same level it was before Disney even entered the streaming world in the first place. Indeed, Disney stock is down from a high of nearly $200 a share last year, sitting at $125 now, effectively unchanged in price over the past five years. And Disney may be in an even more precarious place than Netflix. Because at least Netflix based its entire business on streaming.
Remember when streaming was going to put Disney into the stratosphere? Instead of helping to save the collapsing cable model that Disney relied on so heavily, it now looks like Disney may be facing declining subscriptions on two simultaneous fronts — what if the Disney+ streaming business has or will soon peak and will now be joining the cable business in a decline? That would mean that instead of having one expensive business entering decline, Disney might have two. Only, unlike the cable and satellite bundle, which at least was wildly profitable over the past several decades, Disney may have hit peak streaming subscribers already without ever making a profit at all.
Which leaves me with this final question, and I hate to feel like an old man at 43 years old asking this question, but what if we’ve reached the point where technology isn’t actually making anything better, it’s just changing the way we spend our time? The transition from a horse to an airplane was pretty profound in the space of a hundred years, that changed transportation forever, but what technology has made things substantially better in the past fifty years when it comes to travel?
And when you think about it from a sports perspective, has the technology behind streaming really made anything better at all for sports fans? It seems to me that sports peaked in about 2010 when every single sport you could ever want was easily consumable when you sat down on your couch and picked the station where your favorite game was airing on a cable and satellite channel.
In the past ten years and change, we’ve mostly increased the cost we all pay to watch sports and made watching the games more complicated than they’ve ever been before. That combination doesn’t seem ideal to me and it certainly doesn’t seem like a good business model in the long term either. Because ultimately all sports, and business in general, is about reach, the more people who know your product exists and can consume your product, the more fans you have. In an era when kids have more entertainment options than ever before if you don’t make it easy for them to consume your product, you risk losing them to other, easier, entertainment options.
Because on the night a couple of weeks ago when we couldn’t find the Braves game do you know what my 11 year old ultimately decided to do?
He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Oh, well, I’ll just play Fortnite.”
How many young kids — and adults — are shrugging their shoulders over streaming failures and choosing video games, or YouTube, over fandom every night just like he did?
I’m betting it’s millions a week.
Which is why in the long run those streaming dollars may well be turning into pennies. Increasingly it feels like the streaming future may be a business disaster.