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Warner Bros. Discovery Has ‘Flexibility’ to Stream More Live Sports, but Will Likely Keep Games on Linear for Now

David Satin

The new year figures to be one of evolution for most streaming services, and the platforms owned by Warner Bros. Discovery are no different. WBD currently oversees both HBO Max and discovery+, but is set to combine the two services into one this spring, likely under the name “Max.”

The streaming evolution taking place at WBD in 2023 may not include more live sports offerings on the combined service, however. WBD chief financial officer Gunnar Wiedenfels spoke at the Citi Communications, Media & Entertainment Conference on Jan. 5, and noted that the company still planned to keep its major sports offerings on its linear networks.

“Linear is still, by far, the most important platform for sports monetization by a wide margin, right?” Wiedenfels said. “So some of these discussions about the transition [from linear to streaming] seem a little premature because the linear reach at worst [surpassed] even the most successful streaming case studies.”

Related: Warner Bros. Discovery CFO: ‘Done with Chapter’ of Massive Cuts; Combined Streamer Will Improve HBO Max Tech

Wiedenfels is certainly correct that streaming sports have not yet been able to match the numbers pay-TV sources can reach. Prime Video, for example, has noted consistently lower numbers for the streaming-only version of “Thursday Night Football” which launched this year as opposed to that game’s ratings in 2021, when it was also available on linear channels.

WBD holds an impressive array of domestic sports rights, including the NBA, NHL, and MLB, whose games it airs on cable networks like TNT and TBS; truTV joins its sibling networks in broadcasting the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Internationally, the company does use discovery+ to stream sports in Europe, where it holds the rights to the Olympics, soccer, tennis, cycling, and more.

After Turner Sports won broadcasting rights to United States Men’s and Women’s Soccer Team matches, HBO Max will air its first-ever live events later this month in broadcasting a trio of national team soccer friendlies. Wiedenfels noted that contractual agreements with domestic sports leagues give WBD the “flexibility” to stream more games, but the company would integrate more live sports streaming slowly.

“It’s important to be able to experiment, to dip the toe in the water, “Wiedenfels said. “And we’ve seen some real success in the streaming space for sports in Europe or with our Eurosport asset, the Olympics deal. We found a way, not as a fully integrated bundle, but as a sell-through tier to generate some value. So it’s important to have that flexibility there as well.”

The European model for discovery+’s sports coverage may be informative as to what the future of sports streaming in the U.S. will look like, at least on “Max.” For instance, U.K. users can purchase the Entertainment package of discovery+ for £4.99, or the Entertainment and Sports package for £6.99, which gives them access to live sports streaming. That makes it all the more likely that when WBD does start to offer more live games via streaming, users will have to pay an extra subscription cost to access them.

It may take a while before any such plans develop in the United States. Wiedenfels noted that because of existing broadcast agreements between leagues and media providers, sports will remain “locked up on linear” for the foreseeable future. So while WBD will continue to experiment with live sports offerings, don’t expect to see a full season’s worth of NBA or NHL games on “Max” any time soon.


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