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Amazon Prime's NHL deal breaches cable TV's last line of defence: live sports

NHL linesman Jonny Murray tries to separate Brad Marchand and Mitch Marner during Game 5 of the NHL playoff series between the Bruins and the Leafs Tuesday in Boston. Cable TV's last line of defence against cord cutting has long been the audience for live sports, but a bid by streaming companies to air sports on their platforms could change that. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press - image credit)

For years, cable TV has bled viewers and subscribers to streaming giants like Netflix, Apple and Amazon. Now, those same companies are vying to stream live sports, one of the last lines of defence when it comes to audiences paying big bucks for traditional cable packages.

AppleTV+ has a 10 year, multibillion-dollar deal to stream MLS soccer matches and also streams some MLB games. Netflix has paid to secure the rights to WWE wrestling.

But Amazon was among the first streamers to aggressively bid on broadcast rights for a range of sports, and just this week, it added Monday night NHL games to its offerings.

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"We're committed to driving more innovation for fans as we bring the NHL into more Canadian homes and across more devices on Monday nights than ever before," said Magda Grace, head of Prime Video, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, in a news release.

Meanwhile, several U.S. media outlets have reported that Amazon is also poised to secure the rights to stream next season's NBA games.

"This is a bad sign for the ever-shrinking cable TV business," said Wade Payson-Denney, an analyst with Parrot Analytics.

Sports a lifeline for cable

In many lists of the most watched television shows of the year, sports dominates.

In both Canada and the U.S., the Superbowl occupied the top spot. In the U.S., the NFL claimed every other slot in the top 10 most watched telecasts. In Canada, hockey dominated the top 10 with a mix of world juniors and Stanley Cup playoff games.

Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters
Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

The only non-sports program to make a dent in these lists was the 95th Academy Awards. The 2023 Oscars broadcast was the eighth most watched TV show in Canada and the 15th most watched in the U.S.

Those sports programs have been a lifeline for cable giants dealing with cord cutters as viewers abandon their cable packages.

"[Sports] used to be the one of the only things keeping people tied to cable," said David Hardisty, an associate professor of Marketing and Behavioural Science at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business.

But as more sports migrate to streaming platforms, Hardisty says the long, slow decline of cable TV may speed up.

"I think this will accelerate the switch to streaming."

Traditional broadcasters not giving up

But traditional broadcasters aren't giving in without a fight.

This week, the president and CEO of Rogers said he plans to pursue a renewal of its deal to broadcast NHL games.

At a Canadian Club luncheon on Wednesday, Tony Staffieri said the company's existing agreement with the NHL has been a "terrific deal for us."

George Pimentel/Rogers/The Canadian Press
George Pimentel/Rogers/The Canadian Press

That deal, announced in 2013, upended the Canadian hockey broadcasting landscape when Rogers paid a then staggering $5.2 billion for 12 years of hockey rights. The way the deal was structured meant Rogers would pay as much as $500 million per year to the NHL in the final years of the agreement, which is set to expire in two years after the 2025-26 NHL season.

"As we look to contract renewals, it's something we're very interested in and something we will chase and certainly expect to be at the table," Staffieri told the Canadian Club lunch crowd.

No wonder. Hockey audiences are up significantly this year with four Canadian teams qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

That has been a welcome boost in a time when traditional broadcasting has been clobbered by dwindling audiences and slipping ad revenue. But as more power shifts to the streamers, audiences will be increasingly caught in the middle.

Cord cutters left traditional cable because many felt they were paying too much and not getting enough in return. Now though, many households are paying for Netflix, Amazon Prime, AppleTV+, Crave, Disney+ and more.

And as more sports shift to streaming platforms, many consumers may feel the need to add yet another service to their monthly subscription bill.

"The leagues, platforms and athletes are set to win big from these deals," said Payson-Denney. "The fans, however, will not."

WATCH | Consumers warned to get used to paying more for streaming: 

'The great re-bundling'

He says the streaming industry is headed for a consolidation of sorts, where viewers can group a handful of subscriptions on a package deal that will come to resemble the traditional cable bundle that drove so many away in the first place.

"The great re-bundling already underway is making it increasingly difficult and expensive for sports viewers to watch their favourite teams," Payson-Denney told CBC News.

"A one-stop-shop will likely emerge by the end of the decade, but who or what is in control of that remains to be seen."

For now, sports will be broadcast on multiple platforms all at once. And that means fans who don't want to miss a game will likely have to navigate several different streaming services plus continue to pay for cable packages that still have key sports rights.