Online 'wild west' spurring cord cutters, hurting sports media

This Wednesday, March 18, 2015 photo shows a coaxial cable in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

As the ranks of Canadians who have cut the cord grows, with more than 247,000 expected to opt out this year, traditional TV services continue to take a hit – particularly the sports media.

According to CBC, Sportsnet and TSN experienced a mass exodus of subscribers between 2011 and 2015.

Data from the CRTC indicated that the Rogers-owned network shed nearly a million customers during that time, while TSN took a smaller hit but still lost 200,000 subcribers.

This mass migration away from traditional TV services has cut into the revenues of sports networks, as they can’t promise as many eyeballs to advertisers.

“If this is a trend that accelerates and continues, you either have to make up that revenue elsewhere, on digital platforms or wherever that may be, or you need to cut further,” industry analyst Mario Mota told CBC.

At the root of the issue is the way millennials watch and consume sports content. While their passion hasn’t faded, many are unwilling to foot the bill for traditional cable subscriptions.

A recent study found that 54 per cent of consumers between the ages of 18 and 24 have watched illegal streams of live sports, while a third admitted to doing so regularly.

“The problem with the Internet is it’s kind of a wild west,” said Mota, referring to proliferation and resilience of illegal streams.

“You shut somebody down on one site, the next day there is something, somewhere else. It’s an unwieldy and challenging battle.”

Alex Evans, a managing director at consulting firm LEK, told CBC that the way millennials consume sports is “evolving” and it differs greatly from that of past generations.

“A lot of online highlights and clips, basically compressing the time they are spending but still getting the story line,” Evans said.

“Social media is also big — you’re constantly getting feedback on the game from friends so you’re sort of caught up. This generation is time compressed, looking to optimize their time. So instead of dedicating three hours, they say ‘I’ll give it 15 minutes, get what I need, and then do other stuff.”

But millennials are still willing to pay for their access to sports content.

According to a survey by LEK, 58 per cent of respondents said they would be interested in a sports-centred digital subscription, with nearly two-thirds saying they would “definitely” or “probably” sign up if the price was right.

LEK pointed to the WWE’s video streaming, which launched in 2014 and now has about 1.5 million subscribers, as a model for success.

In Canada, Rogers was one of the first networks in North America to attempt something similar. Its Sportsnet Now offering, which comes with price tag of $24.99 a month, gives subscribers access to its six channels online.

Rogers and Bell have also tried to cash in on cord cutters who are heading to bars to catch the game.

In March, the media giants dropped TSN and Sportsnet from their bundled channel lineups that were offered to businesses with a liquor license and started offering them as separate packages with a significantly higher price tag.

The move drew the ire of bar owners and industry experts.

Despite these changes, the future of sports television networks remains unclear.

“Let’s say cord cutting continues and Sportsnet (and TSN’s) subscriber base continues to drop,” said Mota.

“They can find other ways to deliver the content, like through digital platforms, but there is no guarantee those digital platforms will deliver the same revenue the traditional TV space has in the past.”