SBJ/Oct. 21-27, 2013/Leagues and Governing Bodies

NBA near deals to allow live local streaming leaguewide

Fox- and NBC-owned RSNs on board

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The NBA is poised to become the first major U.S.-based sports league to allow its games to be streamed live locally.

The league is finalizing TV Everywhere deals with Fox Sports Media Group and NBC Sports Group, the country’s two biggest owners of regional sports networks. Other RSNs, such as Root Sports, MSG, Time Warner Cable Sports, and Altitude Sports and Entertainment, are expected to offer live in-market streaming later this season.

The agreements break a six-year logjam that prevented viewers from watching their hometown teams on their computers or handsets locally. The frustrating negotiations also caused industry executives to question the viability of such a service, even as national TV channels were profiting from their own streaming services.

Now, the financial viability of live local streams will be tested, starting soon after the NBA opens its season later this month. The deals will allow people who subscribe to a distributor that carries Fox Sports Net or Comcast SportsNet to log in and watch their local teams’ games via broadband or mobile.

Fox has deals with 16 NBA teams; Comcast has deals with eight teams.

MLB and the NHL have yet to cut deals that allow for live in-market streaming.

“It is not going to roll out at one time for everyone,” said Bill Koenig, executive vice president of business affairs and general counsel for the NBA. “My sense is that Fox, from a technical standpoint, is further along. The good news is that I think it will happen in a significant way this year.”

The streaming deals run through the 2015-16 season, ending at the same time as the NBA’s linear TV deals.

The deals came about after the NBA changed course on two contentious points, paving the way for an agreement. First, the NBA relaxed demands to charge RSNs a per-game fee for rights to stream the games. The NBA had offered to sell the rights to RSNs for around $3,500 per game in each market, a price RSN executives complained was much too high and a reason they used for why local streaming hadn’t launched.

For years, RSNs had countered that they believe they already had paid a hefty rights fee to carry games on linear TV, and they felt an additional rate for streaming rights was excessive.

In the past few weeks, however, the NBA dropped its demand for a per-game fee — to zero, in order to get the local streaming services up and running.

“We did eliminate that charge,” Koenig said, adding that the fee was not the chief issue standing in the way. “We have gotten a lot smarter about authentication.”

The NBA also backed away from its position about where the streamed games should be housed.

Fox will make its games available to distributors with whom it has cut TV Everywhere deals, including Comcast, AT&T U-verse and Suddenlink, via its Fox Sports Go video player. Distributors like DirecTV, Time Warner Cable and Dish Network haven’t cut TV Everywhere deals with Fox to carry these games yet.

Similarly, NBC Sports Group will make its games available to both distributors and its RSNs, as well.

Games will not be housed on team sites or league sites, a key factor in getting the RSNs to agree to a deal. Originally, teams wanted to provide the games on their sites. Sources said Comcast, in particular, balked at giving teams access to authenticated subscriber information.

Team sites will be able to promote and link to the games. Those links will take users to the RSN’s page or the Fox Sports Go app, where the viewers will be authenticated as current cable subscribers and will be able to watch the games at no extra cost.

For the NBA, it came down to changing its terms in order to jump-start a new, potentially lucrative service that has been languishing for the past six years. The league had been testing the viability of local streaming off and on, but with tepid results. One 2009 streaming test in Portland had only 500 people pay $3.99 to watch the Trail Blazers’ opening-night game against Houston. Another test in Philadelphia brought similarly small numbers.

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