For as long as there has been beer in America, there have been bars. And for as long as there has been television, there have been sports bars.
By 1947, few Americans had TVs at home, but 12-inch screens had already warped the traditional tavern experience around them. One June evening that year—a Wednesday—New York Times reporter Murray Schumach observed men piling into Hussey’s Bar and Grill on 47th and 9th an hour before the Dodgers game, hoping to grab seats near the tube. The crowd stayed late, too, watching boxing matches while throngs gathered outside the windows, hoping to catch a peek.
“Television,” Schumach wrote that night, “is the best thing that’s happened to the neighborhood bar since the free lunch.”
Streaming has been far messier.
Since a handful of TV channels have given way to a seemingly uncountable array of apps and services over the last 75 years, just finding the game in question can be a challenge. But that’s only the beginning of a bar operator’s headaches.
Will they need a commercial license to stream it? How will a new app integrate into their existing AV setup? Can the Wi-Fi handle the extra load? Will the stream skip and buffer? How much of a pain will it be to switch between apps? They have a bar to run, don’t you know?
“There’s an… emergent market need for aggregating all of this and solving it cleanly,” said Mike Schabel, president at media tech provider Kiswe. “If the industry doesn’t solve this, I think we end up with black holes in our bars.”
For now, a large majority of marquee events are still on traditional TV. And even some of the ones that have moved online are making themselves available via satellite for bars and restaurants.
Amazon, for instance, signed a deal with DirecTV earlier this year to put Thursday Night Football on Channel 9526 for commercial establishments. Five other 9000-level stations are reserved for up to 120 ESPN+ broadcasts per month (UFC, college sports, NHL, soccer, golf, tennis, etc…) through a deal with distributor Joe Hand Promotions.
But, Joe Hand COO John Kirk said, the go-to-space-and-back route only makes financial sense for properties with a large enough, often national audience.
Just ask soccer fans—or the pubs trying to attract them. As NBC has moved more English Premier League games to Peacock, it has started offering a Pub Pass, charging thousands of dollars for a commercial service limited to Amazon Fire TV devices. Meanwhile, Paramount+, home to UEFA Champions League games, doesn’t offer (or seemingly require) any commercial-specific solution as of now.
Next up is the Dec. 30 Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl. On barstools across Laramie, Wyo., and Athens, Ohio, Cowboys and Bobcats fans will sit in suspense, wondering if their local watering hole can effectively show the game, which is streaming free on YouTube.
Kirk has faith. “We honestly have been surprised at the number of commercial establishments that can stream,” Kirk said. And the number of bars figuring it out on the fly may soon grow.
In 2023, Apple will take control of all MLS broadcasts while Peacock picks up an eight-pack of Big Ten football games. Then there’s Sunday Ticket, the linchpin of many bars’ business models, which is set to move to a streaming service itself. DirecTV could retain the commercial establishment rights for some or all of those properties (that’s generally the expectation regarding Sunday Ticket at the moment) but it’s unlikely to hold onto one-stop-shop status forever.
Streamers have their own set of quandaries to sort out, too.
Do they need to prove to league partners that they can continue reaching fans in bars? Would making the games easily accessible out-of-home help market their services? Or would it cannibalize their critical subscriber bases?
In other ways, streaming services have made staying home even more alluring, offering specialized AltCasts or the ability for fans to create personalized multi-views.
At the end of the day (or the beginning of a night out), people still like watching sports together. Nearly 70% of people recently surveyed said that’s why they get out of the house to watch TV. “Generally speaking, the streamers are not really addressing that market,” Andrew Jaffee, who has published a daily SportsTV Guide for bars since 2003, said in an interview.
But in the long term, experts said, there’s too much at stake for leagues, networks and restaurants for these issues not to get sorted out. Someone is bound to come along, offering a simpler way to manage the mess.
Until then, sports bar operators will be left to worry about more than one kind of delivery—and maybe reminisce about the days when they were the only game in town.