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Live sports is migrating to streaming, taking with it a superpower of the cable TV bundle

Analysis by Oliver Darcy, CNN

(CNN) — The cable bundle is losing its biggest edge over the streaming competition: live sports.

Warner Bros. Discovery announced this week that it will make its live sports offerings — which include MLB, NHL, NBA, NCAA Men’s March Madness, and U.S. Soccer events — available in the Max app, at first for free and then for an additional $9.99 a month. Amazon has the rights to “Thursday Night Football,” plus the new Black Friday game. And Apple has the rights to Major League Soccer and some Friday night MLB games.

For years, live sports and news have been the cornerstone of the immutable cable bundle. Yes, subscribers can binge seemingly limitless libraries of movies and television shows on the streamers, but for live appointment viewing events, a cable package has been a requirement. That advantage, however, is rapidly evaporating.

Live news, of course, has never been the big draw. But it has been an attraction — one that is also no longer exclusive to linear television. Max is set to launch a live news channel next week, with the birth of CNN Max, the first cable news network to offer a 24/7 live streaming news service. And the big broadcast news networks — NBC News, ABC News, and CBS News — all operate streaming options for those who wish to download their apps.

With live news and sports now making their way to streaming, piece by piece, the Jenga puzzle of the cable bundle has started to destabilize. The last major block holding the wobbly tower upright is arguably ESPN, which is working on its own direct-to-consumer platform that will stream its flagship channel. Once ESPN is available directly to consumers, the decades-long grip of the traditional cable bundle will surely fade considerably.

“Adding sports to streaming will exacerbate cord cutting,” Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, said on Wednesday.

Pachter said that the major content providers are “screwing themselves” by making such programming available to consumers through their streaming platforms, arguing that they are transitioning to a less profitable business model that will bring pain to the entire industry.

“Media is going to make less money,” Pachter said, predicting that the moves would lead to deeper budget cuts and more labor disputes.

Ross Benes, an analyst at Insider Intelligence, said the “doom loops that have haunted cable TV for years are coming full circle.”

“The Charter-Disney standoff, Diamond Sports bankruptcy, Warner Bros. Discovery offering its sports on its streaming service, and ESPN planning to go straight to consumers in a big way all point to the same trend — the collapse of traditional distribution for sports and streaming’s inevitable rise,” Benes said.

Benes cautioned that the demise of traditional linear television won’t transpire overnight, noting older viewers are “too habituated” with it to cut the cord. But he noted that the bundle will get more expensive, “effectively punishing loyal subscribers who stuck with them.” Such trends, he added, “cannot sustain indefinitely.”

“What will result is a confusing mess where there will soon be a streaming option for nearly every major sporting event,” Benes predicted. “It will become easier, and at least initially cheaper, to watch your favorite sport or team á la carte. But for sports superfans who want to watch all the leagues, sports viewing will become even more expensive than before.”

Rich Greenfield, analyst at LightShed Partners, offered an alternative view. Greenfield said he believed that the fracturing of content across the media landscape felt “almost designed to make you want to stay in the bundle.” He argued it is a better consumer experience to have access to a deep library of live news and sports than to attempt to “piece things together” with a plethora of streaming services.

Greenfield suggested that the Disney-Charter model, in which cable customers also gain access to an advertising-supported streamer with their traditional television subscription, could actually be the future.

“It feels,” Greenfield said, “like we are at the start where streaming just gets included.”

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

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