SBJ/May 14-20, 2012/In Depth

Digital players on the radar

To date, none of the big digital players have been close to cutting a deal for live sports rights, but leagues continue to watch them closely. These are the five players most frequently discussed as potential bidders.

Part of the reason that most executives are looking at Google is because the company already has started dabbling in sports. Virtually every league and most TV networks have some sort of sports channel on Google’s YouTube. With a market cap of close to $200 billion, leagues are hopeful that the company will become more interested in competing for mainstream digital rights. Said NFL Media COO Brian Rolapp: “YouTube and Google still have huge reach when it comes to the Internet.”

Leagues and networks already have business relationships with Apple for various apps, from which several leagues make their out-of-market game packages available. Apple also has deep pockets, with a market cap of more than $520 billion, but its pay-per-view business model is not conducive to the mass audiences that watch live sports. Said the NFL’s Rolapp: “Apple has built an outstanding cross-platform commerce platform.”

Around 40 million people subscribe to Xbox Live, making it, effectively, the biggest multichannel video provider in the country. “That’s a pretty big installed base right there,” said NBA Executive Vice President Bill Koenig. Xbox Live users have access to sports like ESPN3, plus deals with various leagues for highlight rights. Said the NFL’s Rolapp: “The Xbox essentially could be a video delivery to your home with a lot more processing power than your set-top box, so you could do more interactive things. … Microsoft needs to decide what kind of content they are going to deliver, if they’re going to be a complement to pay-TV or are they going to compete with it.”

Around 26 million people stream Netflix content to their home, a number that intrigues rights holders. “Netflix is a big player with a globally available distribution platform,” said Bedrocket Media Ventures CEO Brian Bedol. “So far, though, they haven’t shown any inclination to being interested in sports.”

It’s impossible to ignore the sheer number of people who use Facebook: 901 million people per month, including 526 million people every day. Earlier this spring, ESPN made college games available on Facebook via ESPN3. Leagues are keeping a watchful eye to see if Facebook will try to acquire more rights. Said the NBA’s Koenig: “We put content on Facebook to help push people toward our other content platforms. Facebook is today our No. 2 referral to NBA.com.”

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