Thanks to the new promise of HBO without a cable subscription, we're getting very close to the cord-cutting future of TV we've hoped for. It's not hard to imagine that soon you can pay for only the content you want and none of what you don't. It'll be pretty great, as long as you hate sports.
The truth is we're already pretty close, despite Aereo's untimely demise. A wide array of streamable options exist that don't require a cable subscription. There's Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and in 2015, HBO. Not to mention movies and TV shows to rent or buy via Vudu or iTunes. Not much missing there. Broadcast channels? No problem! You can get those with a cheap HD antenna. Or you could pay CBS six bucks a month for... more CBS that you didn't want in the first place. Any combination of those offerings, plus a basic internet plan, is still much more affordable than cable, and you'll never have to flip through QVC and reruns of Pound Puppies on the Hub Network to get to what you really want to watch.
It all sounds great, until you want to watch a hockey game on a weeknight. Or you miss Romo blowing yet another Cowboys win. You may be comfortable watching Mad Men a few days after it airs, but time-delayed sports are next to useless. It's not news that sports are the major holdup to the cord-cutting dreams of most Americans. But it's worth a reminder that it's going to stay that way for a very, very long time.
The old argument used to be the reason we can't have our TV channels a la carte is they made cable companies too much money as a whole package. Standalone HBO is a sign that this might be changing, but it certainly still holds true for ESPN, and it only takes a quick look at the numbers to see why.
According to the most recent available figures, ESPN costs cable providers $4.69 per subscriber month. But that's just the wholesale price, from three years ago. By the time ESPN hits your cable bill, it's been inflated by marketing costs and whatever kinds of costs the likes of Time Warner Cable, Comcast, et al want to add.
So say, hypothetically, an all-internet ESPN did happen. (It won't). Add up the costs that are traditionally shouldered by a cable company, and it's not crazy to guess ESPN on its own could cost you $20 (or more!) a month. Netflix is $9. Hulu is $8. More than twice that for just one network is far too expensive.
It's also totally moot. ESPN won't offer itself a la carte because ESPN is making LOL-money, so much that it'd be foolish for the network—and its parent company, Disney—to do anything but exactly what it's doing right now.
ESPN has deals in place with almost every sports league there is. They're for huge dollar amounts and they're good for years and years from now. For example, just this month, ESPN extended its broadcast deal with the NBA through the 2024-25 season for an estimated $2.66 billion dollars per year. And bear in mind that ESPN has been doing business with the NBA since 2002, back when it won rights from NBC.
The NFL has the most lucrative broadcast TV rights, and its biggest deal is with ESPN, which pays the league $1.9 billion per year. Sure, ESPN lost the rights to Sunday Night Football in 2005, but it still has a monopoly on Mondays through 2021, and Monday Night Football is consistently the highest-rated show that night. Between ESPN's original NFL programming and its broadcast deal with the NFL, it's the network with the most NFL content around. And that's a deal that's good for both sides.
But if you think the professional leagues are the only place where the money's coming from, you're underestimating just how pretty ESPN is sitting. Here's a list of NCAA conferences, and what their TV contracts look like. ESPN has first-tier, billion-dollar rights to every single conference except the SEC, which is with CBS. National broadcasts of football and basketball games. Millions of eyes. Dollar dollar bill, y'all. As with the NFL and the NBA, the terms are for 10, years and more, for hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
None of this is changing anytime soon. It's too lucrative for all the everyone involved, and there are too many existing deals in place. And the ones we've mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg. You have options for sports streaming, they just aren't good ones. DirecTV has a streaming deal with the NFL, but you have to have DirecTV. There's also that new CBS package we mentioned before, but it's $6 a month and doesn't even include football because of that DirecTV streaming deal. CSI: Miami, though. You could pay for MLB.TV ($25 for post-season or $110 for the whole year) or get an NBA League Pass (200 bucks for all games for the whole season), but at that rate, you might as well just bite the bullet and pay for cable. They also don't include in-market games, if you happen to be a homer.
You're not counted out completely; here are games shown on broadcast channels that you can access with a good enough antenna. Sunday Night Football! The World Series! The mother-lovin' Super Bowl! But if you really do love sports, you're sprawling your butt out on the couch all weekend long in the fall for college football on Saturdays, and staying put for NFL on Sundays. And when November hits, you're doing the same several nights a week for the NBA. See where this is going?
The future of TV is a good thing. Game of Thrones and Veep without Property Brothers and Parking Wars? Finally. Being able to pick and choose the content you want is the future we've been waiting for. It's just not a future that includes you, sports fans. Well, unless you count the WWE.