The cost of sports coming to a standstill around the world because of the novel coronavirus is somewhere in the billions of dollars. The leagues have lost revenue, and the cable networks have lost hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising revenue from not having games to carry.
And sports fans have lost a sense of normalcy; for the first time in memory, there aren’t any major games airing for people to watch. But fans are still able to recreate a sense of normalcy by watching old games. And so streaming platforms, typically defined by general entertainment like movies and television, are having their big sports moment.
“Normalcy is escapist,” ESPN host Mina Kimes told NPR. “That sounds crazy and contradictory, but I think it’s true when it comes to sports. “
Traditional TV networks are trying to work with the leagues to air old games for customers to watch. Networks like Fox and ESPN have aired past Super Bowl games, using social networks like Instagram to turn the replays into mini-events during an unconventional period. But “each one of these circumstances requires individual conversations with the specific league,” according to Burke Magnus, executive vice president of programming acquisitions and scheduling at ESPN. Everyone is clamoring to fill empty time slots.
But streaming plaforms like NBA League Pass ($28.99 per month) and NFL Game Pass ($99 a season) are being offered for free right now, and have full libraries of old games on demand, because they’re owned by the leagues themselves. They’ve become a hangout for basketball and football fans to revisit memorable games. The NFL saw “500 times the average number of daily sign-ups for Game Pass,” within the first three hours of Game Pass being free, according to the Wall Street Journal. YouTube and Twitch are also being used by various leagues to stream old games, including MLB, MLS, and the NHL.
Twitter is full of people rewatching their favorite Super Bowl seasons or NBA championship games, and reliving that experience while at home. People are watching games with friends and other fans over Zoom. It’s impossible to create new memories watching current games right now, but fans are using digital platforms to keep the spirits of sports alive.
Streaming services like NBA League Pass and NFL Game Pass have the advantage of being platforms where people can choose what they want to watch, whenever they want. They also have documentary series and additional behind-the-scenes content. They weren’t designed for it, but they’re perfect for serving sports fans stuck at home, and stuck online.
Streaming isn’t going to replace traditional sports broadcasting anytime soon. AT&T and Disney paid around $24 billion to ensure they have contracts with the NBA in a nine-year deal, according to Variety. NBC, CBS, and Fox are reportedly paying $3.1 billion combined for Sunday night NFL games. ESPN is reportedly paying around $1.9 billion for Monday Night Football games. Live sports accounted for 89 percent of the 100-most watched broadcasts in 2018, according to Ad Age. ESPN is also trying to serve customers by moving up the release date of its highly anticipated Michael Jordan 10-part documentary series.
Still, this could be a turning point for platforms like League Pass and Game Pass, as well as digital avenues for other sports leagues. The leagues’ streaming platforms are running high right now. The real dilemma they’ll face once things return to normal is how many people taking advantage of the free offer right now will convert to paying subscribers. Streaming could become more than just a moment right now for the leagues, or wind up as temporary band-aid used to patch things up until everything goes back to normal.