This season, the Chicago Cubs simulcast four games on Facebook as part of an experiment in new ways to distribute the team’s live rights. And according to Sports Business Journal, team executives have come away so satisfied with the test run that they’re hoping to negotiate similar partnerships with other digital media companies.
“These are conversations we’re having today; that’s the next phase of the test,” said Crane Kenney, the club’s president of business operations. “One of the questions we’ve been asking is, What if you sold OTT rights separate from your linear package?”
Kenney, who has been with the team since 1997, has seen the Cubs media rights move through the rise of cable television. He believes the media business is going through another cycle of disruption.
“We’re at one of those inflection points,” he said, pointing to the popularity of social media and digital media companies. “There is enormous value right now for nonlinear distribution of media.”
Per SBJ, the Cubs are plotting how best to utilize their television rights when their current deal with NBC Sports Chicago ends in 2020. Traditionally, teams in need of a new TV deal would simply ask local outlets to bid against each other or maybe start their own network if they were feeling ambitious. But with Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon scooping up sports streaming whenever they can, the Cubs are getting creative.
We have seen leagues enter into all kinds of streaming agreements with digital media companies, but we have yet to see an individual team in a major American sport make over-the-top streaming a key component of its TV distribution, as the Cubs apparently plan on doing. That said, there’s little reason teams couldn’t start selling their OTT rights to the tech companies who seem to crave them.
Selling OTT rights separate from linear rights makes a whole lot of sense. Currently, most Major League Baseball teams’ games are available for streaming locally with a subscription to the network that is airing them. But giving those OTT rights to Facebook, Twitter, Amazon would allow teams to reach wider audiences, distinct from those watching on RSNs, while potentially profiting from a separate deal.
Meanwhile, Facebook’s enthusiasm for sports streaming should excite every sports league and franchise. Though CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in May that sports streaming was not a long-term goal for Facebook, the company has since invested in rights to NFL highlights, Champions League matches, college football games, an MLB package and more. If that enthusiasm continues, a lot of teams, including the Cubs, could wind up with some extremely lucrative streaming agreements, on top of their regular TV deals.