Why Netflix has joined Apple, Amazon, Disney and other streamers in the battle for live sport – The New York Times

“Without a shadow of a doubt, sport is the next battleground among streamers, especially in the U.S.”
Netflix has continued its foray into live sports broadcasting with an announcement that it will show two NFL matches on Christmas Day, a move that has shifted the dial and highlights how streamers are now targeting live sport as a way to retain subscribers.
That NFL deal followed the news that Netflix had paid $5billion (£4bn) to stream Raw, WWE’s flagship weekly wrestling show, for 10 years, starting next January.
And it’s not just Netflix getting busy in this area.
In what’s becoming an increasingly crowded field, Apple is close to an agreement with FIFA to show next summer’s inaugural expanded Club World Cup in the U.S., the UK’s Sky Sports is rolling out a new streaming service that will show up to 100 live events concurrently, Amazon Prime is eyeing up the NBA and will broadcast 17 Champions League matches in 2024-25, while Walt Disney Company-owned ESPN is joining forces with Fox Corp and Warner Bros in a new service called Venu Sports that launches later this year.
So, why is live sport suddenly so attractive, what’s changed and what is next as streamers look to grab a slice of the action?
Until now, Netflix has focused more on sports-related documentaries — most notably the popular Drive To Survive series — than actual live action, but it has started to delve into the latter recently with one-off events such as the Netflix Cup, involving Formula 1 racers and pro golfers and tennis’ Netflix Slam.
It then signed that lucrative deal in January to show WWE’s Raw for a decade, and will stream a boxing match between iconic former world heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and YouTuber Jake Paul on July 20.
Yet their first deal to show NFL games, one of the prized assets in the U.S. broadcasting realm, felt especially significant in being a break with the past.
“Last year, we decided to take a big bet on live — tapping into massive fandoms across comedy, reality TV, sports and more,” says Bela Bajaria, Netflix’s chief content officer. “There are no live annual events, sports or otherwise, that compare with the audiences NFL football attracts.”
David Murray, a sports-rights consultant, explained the move by Netflix has happened because subscriber numbers had flatlined and live sport is a way to target new audiences.
He says: “Netflix started out doing no sport, then they started doing sports documentaries like Drive To Survive, but there’s an underlying trend where subscriber numbers are not going up. Where live sport can be really valuable is providing regular content that people want to watch. Sport delivers audiences, it delivers uncertainty, so it makes a huge amount of sense — but it means shifting their business models quite dramatically and the sums involved are potentially quite huge.
“Netflix are only really dipping their toe into the water at this stage. You could argue the Christmas Day thing is just a marketing tool to get people subscribing to Netflix over Christmas, because it will potentially bring in a different type of audience. Whether it opens the floodgates is really interesting. If it gets serious, it could snowball, but we’re not at that stage yet.”
Jack Genovese, a sports-rights expert and research manager at Ampere Analysis, agrees the NFL deal felt groundbreaking for Netflix as, unlike with WWE, it is not scripted and more unpredictable. It also showed how the company’s strategy had shifted, with more importance now placed on engagement.
“For years, the emphasis on Netflix was on subscribers, but time spent watching content is now way more important,” he said. “For that, sports can be massive. That’s why it’s been the industry’s best-hidden secret that they were going to invest in actual sports rights.”
He said for Netflix, as with other streaming giants, original sports documentaries had been their primary focus in driving subscriptions but as this field became increasingly saturated, showing live matches offered a way of standing out from the pack and providing something extra.
He added: “For some of those well-established streaming platforms, maybe a single game or a limited package could best suit their interests rather than a big portion of the rights. I wouldn’t rule out Netflix trying to get in on the action when it comes to the Premier League in the future.”
He also highlighted the risk of potentially alienating viewers who may be frustrated at having to keep signing up to different platforms to fully watch their favourite team or sport.
Paolo Pescatore, a media and technology analyst at PP Foresight, agrees there is a delicate balance of keeping sports viewers onside as streamers eye up live events. With the NFL now also on Netflix, that means fans will need seven different services to watch all its matches.
“The Netflix NFL deal is interesting,” Pescatore says. “They’ve done a great job with the Quarterback (documentary) series but obviously the NFL needs to be wary of not disrupting the status quo too much, given the guaranteed revenue from their traditional deals. It’s a stepping stone to what’s coming. It ultimately leads to a fragmentation of the rights but that might not always be a good thing for the consumer, as we’ve seen in the past.”
He adds: “Without a shadow of a doubt, sport is the next battleground among streamers, especially in the US. Sport is one of the few genres that actually drives people to want to watch something live and tune in at a specific time and day of the week. The challenge for streamers is their business models are not geared to live sport — if they are really serious about sport, this is a long-term commitment.”
Away from the Netflix NFL deal, there’s plenty of other jostling going on in this congested market.
As of 2024, Ampere Analysis estimates the total amount spent by streaming platforms on sports rights to be $9.8billion (£7.72m).
Apple is close to a reported $1billion deal with FIFA for the rights to show its new Club World Cup, which will feature 32 teams as a part of a revamped tournament. That is scheduled to be played from June 15 to July 13 next year in the U.S.
If, as expected, that happens, it would be Apple’s latest move into live sport. That process started in 2022, when it secured a deal to show Major League Baseball (MLB) over seven years before reaching an agreement in the same year to show Major League Soccer as part of a 10-year, $2.5billion deal. The latter marked the first time a major U.S. league had gone all-in with a tech company.
For Murray, Apple is the company to watch, given its enormous wealth and shift into providing services. “Apple is the one that could really go large at some point,” he says. “There is talk about the Club World Cup, and Apple wanting to get that. Apple want global rights, that’s what works best for them.
“The obvious one would be the Premier League. It would cost a lot of money. They didn’t bid last time, that’s because the Premier League are still packaging it up. To me, a joint venture between Apple and the Premier League makes huge sense — whether it’s the next (round of bidding), or the time afterwards.”
Genovese said Apple paying for the rights to FIFA’s Club World Cup would represent a big bet by the company.
“As as an event, yes it sounds great, but I wonder if people whose teams are not involved are going to subscribe to Apple TV to watch it,” he says. “How many are going to actually say, ‘Yeah, I’ll subscribe for that month to watch that event?’. It will require a big marketing effort, for sure.”
Elsewhere, Disney+ will roll out live sport from ESPN on its streaming service for U.S. subscribers next year, while February saw ESPN, Fox Corp and Warner Bros announce Venu Sports, a new sports streaming platform that will launch in the autumn. Between them, those three companies own around 55 per cent of U.S. sports rights, including the FIFA World Cup, Formula 1, NFL, NBA and MLB.
Live sports have already been moving to streaming services.
For example, Peacock, owned by U.S. broadcaster NBC, has a deal with the Premier League; YouTube acquired the rights to the NFL Sunday Ticket package in 2022, paying $14billion for a seven-year contract; while Amazon has a 10-year agreement with the NFL to stream 15 Thursday Night Football games.
Earlier this year, Amazon agreed to invest $115million (£90m) in the Diamond Sports Group, the regional sports operator for 37 teams across MLB, ice hockey’s NHL and the NBA, as part of a rescue package. It also has the framework of a deal in place to show a significant number of NBA matches (along with ESPN), as a nine-year deal involving ESPN and TNT nears an end. Those contracts end after the 2024-25 season.
Next season, Amazon will show 17 live UEFA Champions League matches — with the first pick on Tuesday night — while TNT Sports will show the 533 other matches, for the three seasons until 2027. However it will no longer air Premier League matches from 2025-26, having shown 20 matches a season in two slots in December during the current cycle.
DAZN, the streaming service launched by billionaire Sir Len Blavatnik, perhaps offer a cautionary tale. The company lost more than $1billion in 2022 after failing to secure English football rights.
Meanwhile Sky, which is owned by Comcast, announced a new Sky Sports+ streaming service to launch in August to try to firm up its subscriber base. This will see Sky show up to 100 events across a range of sports on the new service, while it will stream every game from the EFL on the opening weekend of the coming season. Sky hopes to feature all 72 EFL teams at least 20 times per season.
The Premier League, so far, has remained loyal to Sky, largely because it pays very good money for the domestic UK rights. In the latest auction, in December last year, Sky and TNT Sports agreed a record £6.7billion ($8.5bn) deal to air the Premier League until the end of the 2028-29 season. Sky Sports will also show up to 44 Women’s Super League matches in the 2024-25 season.
Yet as Netflix, the biggest beast in the streaming world, finally enters the world of live sport, its rivals will be watching on with great interest and carefully plotting their next move.
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(Top photo: Perry Knotts/Getty Images)

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Tom Burrows is a football news writer for The Athletic UK. He was previously a staff editor for almost three years. Prior to that, he worked on news and investigations for national newspapers. Follow Tom on Twitter @TBurrows16


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