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Amazon (and the Rest of the Cable Killers) Really Needs Live Sports

A look at the tech giant’s chances of upending the world of pay TV

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The expiration date for cable TV keeps getting pushed back. Wasn’t Netflix supposed to persuade longtime cable subscribers to cut the cord? Wasn’t HBO launching an independent streaming service supposed to launch an avalanche of individual web-streamed television networks that customers could buy à la carte? Weren’t Google and Apple supposed to bring us cutting-edge live-TV services that would render the lowly cable box obsolete? Yet here we are in 2016 and I still had to scramble to find an illegal livestream of Dave Chappelle’s Saturday Night Live performance because I don’t pay for television.

The tidal wave of disruption that is supposed to bring pay TV to its knees has been more of an inconsistent drip. But this week The Wall Street Journal teed up a new challenger that — yet again — could Change the Way We Watch TV. Amazon is reportedly talking to the major sports leagues about buying up livestreaming rights for their games and putting together a “premium sports package” that could be bundled with Amazon Prime. Keep in mind this is the same company that botched its attempt to thwart the iPhone and once legitimately ran a website with the premise “Yahoo Answers … but it’s an RPG.” There’s no guarantee that Amazon will follow through on its live-sports ambitions or that its plans will succeed.

But a hazy-at-best view of television’s future has never stopped media-watchers from speculating about the impending doom of cable before. If Amazon were able to secure a comprehensive streaming deal for even one major sport, it would be a huge boon for the cord-cutting regime. In a world rife with on-demand viewing, live sports remain pay TV’s biggest draw. Online live-TV streaming services like Sling TV and PlayStation Vue don’t carry the broadcast networks nationwide, which means customers miss out on many of the biggest sporting events, including Sunday Night Football and the World Series. The online upstarts trying to topple cable still have too many gaps in their lineup for many sports diehards to jump onboard.

By working with sports leagues, Amazon could bypass the problem of cobbling together the right channel lineup. TV viewers don’t fall in love with television networks, but rather with programming, including sports. That’s why NFL Sunday Ticket and NBA League Pass have found success, and why Amazon is after them too. A future in which customers can buy direct access to the sport they want to watch rather than the channels that carry it sounds like a dream come true.

But let’s be honest — it’s going to stay a dream for quite a while, at least for the biggest American sports. Broadcast rights have become a huge profit center for sports leagues, and the way to wring the most money out of those rights is to play one content distributor against another. It’s in the interest of a league like the NFL to entertain meetings with Amazon — especially in the face of declining ratings — if only to persuade longtime partners like NBC and ESPN to pay more during the next round of negotiations. The traditional cable bundle forces all pay-TV subscribers to pay a high fee for ESPN, whether they watch it or not, and ESPN can then use those fees to pay exorbitant licensing deals for sports broadcasts. It’s a virtuous television cycle that works for all parties involved, except the viewer at home. An attempt by a major league to decamp for a distributor that exists outside of this system, like Amazon, risks destabilizing a business model that has largely withstood the technology shifts currently recasting the economics of scripted TV.

Rather than landing Sunday Night Football or the NBA Finals, Amazon is likely to get the table scraps that sports leagues can’t monetize in other ways (the company is reportedly not only eyeing the NFL, MLB, and NBA, but also less popular sports like lacrosse and surfing). Twitter is the tech company furthest ahead in nabbing major sports league content, and its biggest get so far was the access to livestream a few of the Thursday Night Football games that are simulcast on television and network streaming apps. It’s more of a complement to pay TV than a disruption.

Amazon has way more money than Twitter and is less concerned with making a profit. It could offer sports leagues a sweeter deal to woo them away from the walled garden of pay TV. So could tech giants like Facebook and Apple, which have expressed interest in live TV before. But the sports leagues know they have a good thing going with their television ecosystem, even if it’s crumbling in slow motion. They may hedge their bets with a streaming deal, but no high-profile league is going to be betting the full house on a tech company partnership anytime soon.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Monday Night Football isn’t available on streaming; Sunday Night Football, not MNF, is the NFL prime-time game that isn’t available on streaming.