Should Netflix Be Streaming Live Sporting Events? Maybe Not Now, But Soon

 Everybody knows cable subscribers pay through the nose to get ESPN on their service. Even if they have no interest in sports or clowning sportscasters, ESPN is a part of every cable package, and close behind, if not exactly on par are other sports networks like NBC’s and the new national Fox sports channel.

Without live sports and, a little less so, cable news, there would be no really good reason to subscribe to cable. And that’s a big reason nobody wants a separate a la carte system that would allow subscribers who really want ESPN to pay for it. Mostly likely, most cable subscribers wouldn’t do it.

So I paid attention when Ben Elowitz co-founder and CEO of the media company Wetpaint, theorized on AllThingsD that the next provocative mountain for Netflix to climb should be live events. That doesn’t’ translate exactly to sports, but it’s almost code because there is no more lucrative live television than sportscasts.

If Netflix gets into the sports business, at the very least, players will continue to be assured enormous paychecks. Netflix could and would pay a fortune for rights. Happily, for leagues, so will ESPN, Fox and all the rest. The more bidders, the weirder it gets.

Elowitz starts by reminding everybody that really, he has a flimsy theory—because Netflix founder Reed Hastings has said Netflix will never, ever stream a live event.

Essentially, though Elowitz says, never is a long, long time. And I believe that as the ticking grows louder, Netflix will change its mind.

That’s when you might see Congress get involved, which might be a big reason Hastings is non-committal about live sports.

Because if live sports means live football—college or the NFL—I’d suppose there would be an outcry. As The New York Times noted yesterday, 20% of country still doesn’t use the Internet, a percentage that hasn’t changed since 2009 even though the Obama administration has made computer literacy or access a goal of sorts.

(Hidden in that story—hidden, in my view anyway—was that the government spent $500 million to teach people in 500,000 households how to use the Internet, a program the paper called “highly successful.” Particularly for the teachers, if you ask me. That’s pretty expensive teaching.)  

The Times story quotes some people who say they feel uncomfortable on the Internet, or can’t afford it. Minorities don’t use it as often; neither do older people. That’s enough of the population that my guess is that the threat to take anything away from TV would be opposed vigorously. Netflix wouldn’t seem to need the hassle. They are, by one analyst’s account, more viewed than any cable network right now.

But over the top TV and smart TVs will make Internet viewing nearly indistinguishable from what is technically television viewing.  When that happens in a big way, and I’d bet that is less than a half dozen years away, Netflix will have a smoother road. That is, if Netflix isn’t overtaken by some other provider, which is also entirely possible/plausible.

Either way, somebody in the online space will someday try to land an exclusive sports contract for a major sport, and it will become a neat test of where the nation’s viewing public has shifted, and a test of those incredibly jelly-like things that occupy seats at the Capitol.

In the meantime, Netflix can niche away, picking off other live sports events that nobody much really cares about, in the very big picture. HBO’s earliest successes were with boxing, wrestling. Netflix could attach itself to live theater, opera and rock concerts, the kind of things that in a mass medium are reasonably small events. The brilliant part about that is that unlike a cable channel, Netflix could offer something as stuffy as the Wagner ‘Ring’ without alienating subscribers who just want to watch “The Lord of the Rings” for the umpteenth time.    

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