Netflix is looking to get off the bench and into the live sports game.
Over the past few months, the streamer has been quietly looking into acquiring the rights to a number of leagues and events, Deadline can confirm. In particular, deals were under discussion for several tennis tours as well as a purchaser of the World Surf League, as the Wall Street Journal first reported earlier today. Pursued to a variety of degrees, none of those agreements ever came to fruition, yet.
Even with all the big leagues and events from the Premier League to the NFL, world cricket and the Olympics tied up in long term deals, the streamer remains on the hunt.
“Sports is the baseline now, we all know it, and finding the right properties, the right leagues is a priority, but it is always a question of the right league, the right deal,” a Netflix insider told Deadline. Officially, Netflix had no comment when contacted by Deadline on whether or not they were bidding on sports events or leagues.
Not that the streamer has been sports-free to begin with. Besides documentaries on the beautiful game and more, Netflix has heavily invested in getting on the track with Formula 1: Drive to Survive. The high-profile and high-octane docuseries kicked off in March 2019 and was renewed in May for a fifth and sixth season.
Having said that, the notion of live sports—or live programming of any kind—on Netflix has long been publicly resisted by the company’s management team. But the realities of 2022, when the company experienced rare declines in its subscriber numbers and an accompanying sell-off of its stock, have forced a reconsideration. While the company has often pegged its “total available market” at one billion subscribers (far more than its current level of about 223 million), it has privately began considering the upside of sports as an enhancement.
On Netflix’s third-quarter earnings interview, Co-CEO Reed Hastings was asked about the near-term future of streaming, especially now that it features more and more players with advertising rather than subscription-only businesses. Hastings pointed to the likelihood of the NFL’s Sunday Ticket package migrating to streaming from its longtime home on DirecTV as the next bellwether. After that, the exec reasoned, “You’ll start to see a bunch of people focus on sports and bringing that over to on-demand.”
The sports sector has been dramatically accelerating its shift toward streaming over the past couple of years. Amazon has kicked off an 11-year exclusive on NFL Thursday Night Football, and both Apple TV+ and Peacock grabbed exclusive windows for Major League Baseball last season. Even regional sports networks, a vestige of the cable TV boom times, have taken steps toward bridging the digital gap. Diamond Sports, the Sinclair Broadcast Group-backed operator of nearly two dozen Bally sports networks, has recently begun rolling out a $20-a-month streaming service targeting rabid sports fans.
Amazon’s successful NFL streams have largely laid to rest longstanding concerns about the technical challenges of bringing linear broadcasts—now with even more on the line, given legalized sports betting—into the cloud. Latency, the technical term for a lag between action on the field and what streaming subscribers get on their screen, remains a concern. Apart from some minor Week 1 glitches, Prime Video has handled concurrent audiences of 8 million to 10 million viewers without any widespread outages.
Apple’s recent partnership with Major League Soccer indicates one further potential direction. The tech giant didn’t merely license rights. Rather, it teamed with MLS on creating a brand-new streaming outlet, which both entities will manage. That gives the streamer more of a stake in its success. Within Netflix, execs poring over the financials have expressed concerns about the idea of hopping on and off the merry-go-round of sports rights. Netflix in general has had to pause its longstanding increases in content spending at current levels of about $17 billion a year.