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NBCSN’s shutdown is a bellweather for the future of sports broadcasting

USA Network will pick up some of the slack, but the big winner is Peacock.

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30 Rock From the Empire State Building in New York City Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Regular readers of PSA know that I’ve tried to carve out a beat for myself on the future of broadcasting. I’ve been captivated by the Yankees’ re-purchase of the YES Network, especially the partnership with Amazon and generally think we are about to see the biggest shift in consuming live sports since the radio-to-TV transition.

A story, then, that likely flew under the radar for a lot of people in a very big news week was the shuttering of NBCSN at the end of 2021. NBCSN isn’t a baseball channel — they broadcast NASCAR, the NHL, and Premier League games mostly. However, I think it serves as a signpost for what we can expect from live sports over the coming years. NBC has publicly talked about moving sports to the USA Network, but the real play is shifting live, premium content to Peacock.

Peacock, NBC’s streaming service, got off to a late start relative to other services like Disney+ and Amazon Prime, and that’s been reflected in total subscribers now, and projected subscribers five years from now:

The late entry means that Peacock has to come up with some way to pull subs in from other services. One way is tiering their packages depending on how much you want to watch The Office — I beg you all, find a new show — but another will likely be the service leading the market in streaming sports. Already, Peacock has put several Premier League games on the service exclusively, including Manchester United vs. Liverpool last week. This upcoming week of games sees six of the ten EPL games NBC will cover on Peacock.

Obviously EPL and NHL aren’t the biggest sporting events in the United States. Baseball is solidly the number three sport in the country, and there are some streaming options for consumers. Hulu lets you stream FOX, ESPN, FS1 and TBS broadcasts, as well as certain “regular” broadcasts through a team’s RSN, but only if you are in the right geographic area. Youtube TV offers a similar kind of deal — where the real gap exists is a reliable streaming option for all 162 games in a season, blackout free.

NBC, outside of NBCSN, also runs affiliated regional sports networks for the Giants, Athletics, White Sox, Phillies, and owns an 8% stake in SNY. This is, I think, the most likely avenue for an expansion of streaming in the MLB market. NBC already has stakes in these teams’ broadcasts, and clearly are using other sports as a wedge to get consumers to switch to Peacock.

Of course, as noted above the Yankees split ownership of YES with Amazon, and the long-rumored expansion into streaming Yankee games on Prime hasn’t happened yet, nor have real plans been publicly announced. Legacy media still dominates the distribution of baseball, despite the once-weekly free game on Twitter.

I think the best solution, or at least the one that could be adopted the quickest, is actually an a la carte option. Something like Prime, that’s in a third of all American households, could stream a Yankee game for a dollar each game, and allow the consumer to decide how many games a year they want to stream. This departs from the streaming default of the recurring revenue bundle, but I think it presents the opportunity for either casual fans to consume the sport at their leisure, or for more traditional cable customers to get used to the mechanics of streaming.

The price of such a move to the consumer would be an important factor, of course, but perhaps more important would be the work needed to find the game. If I watch YES on cable, it takes two clicks to access: one to turn the TV on, one to change it to YES. To navigate multiple different streaming services, with content silo’d off between them, takes exponentially more clicks, making the user experience more difficult.

NBCSN isn’t the most important sports channel. A lot of people who are baseball purists probably don’t watch the channel at all. As more and more live sports move online, though, the demise of smaller channels will have been the canary in the streaming mine.