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Report: Netflix Exploring Sports League Ownership, Live Broadcasting Rights

Matt Tamanini

This past year has been one in which Netflix has had a change of heart on nearly all of its longest-held core principles; from introducing advertising to password-sharing and increasingly to the possibility of broadcasting sports, things are certainly in flux for the service.

Over the summer, the world’s largest streamer attempted to wrestle away the Formula 1 broadcasting rights from ESPN following the overwhelming success of Netflix’s F1 docuseries “Drive to Survive.” Ultimately, the racing circuit opted to stay on linear — albeit for less money — but Netflix’s willingness to enter the arena of live sports bidding showed that even the no-sports philosophy was no longer sacrosanct for the service.

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the attempted foray into F1 rights was just one of a number of ultimately unsuccessful sports-related deals that the streaming giant has been involved with recently. The WSJ’s Jessica Toonkel and Sarah Krouse report that Netflix has had discussions about purchasing the streaming rights in various European countries for the ATP tennis tour, the Women’s Tennis Association, and multiple cycling events.

While those deals never came together, the thought process is that by going after smaller, more niche sports, Netflix would be able to put the full heft of its industry-dominating platform behind the leagues and competitions in order to help them grow into much bigger — and more valuable — properties.

Similarly, WSJ reports that the streamer has also had discussions about purchasing entire leagues outright. One such organization was the World Surf League; in late 2021, the two sides had reportedly been discussing a deal, but couldn’t get close enough financially to make it happen.

The idea of streamers and studios being invested in sports leagues is not unique to Netflix. Earlier this year, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav mentioned the exact same idea. With the cost of live sports rights continuing to increase with every new contract signed, being a full or partial owner of an entire league would give broadcasters the opportunity to keep the broadcasting rights in-house at a much more reasonable rate.

Though Discovery is a major player in international sports broadcasting, and WBD inherited domestic sports rights when it took over the Turner Networks from WarnerMedia earlier this year, the price of new sports broadcast deals has thus far been cost-prohibitive for the recently merged conglomerate. Zaslav has indicated that he would like WBD to be more active in United States sports broadcasting, but only if it is financially feasible, and one way to make it so is to have equity in the league.

However, none of Netflix’s streaming competitors have yet gone this route. Instead, Amazon continues to invest heavily in live sports with this fall’s launch of the first streaming-exclusive NFL broadcast with Prime Video’s “Thursday Night Football.” Additionally, Amazon, Apple TV, and YouTube are all reportedly in the mix to land the NFL’s out-of-market streaming package NFL Sunday Ticket, and Apple signed a deal earlier this year to broadcast every Major League Soccer match for the next decade.

Even though Netflix added 2.4 million global subscribers last quarter, the company is still reeling from consecutive quarterly subscriber losses and its rapidly approaching saturation. So, it seems unlikely that the streamer will get into any bidding wars for NFL, NBA, or major college sports rights, as the price tags would likely be just too high. But, if the company can find smaller, less expensive leagues to invest in — either via live rights or ownership — it could prove to be a boon for the streamer.

Despite the narrative to the contrary, Netflix is still a dominant force in the streaming market, and its near-complete ubiquity would give it an opportunity to turn a fledgling niche league into a powerful cultural fixture.

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