Sports are no savior to big cable bundles, survey says

Sports are often seen as the linchpin keeping people in pricey cable packages, but a recent survey found most subscribers don't need games to keep paying for TV. Plus, many sports fans would pony up for streaming.

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Joan E. Solsman
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About half of sports fans said they'd pay to stream their favorite games. Getty Images

Sports TV is some of the most expensive around, but a new survey says it isn't how cable companies can sack cord cutting.

Of cable subscribers, 67 percent said sports weren't the reason they kept their service, according to a survey by Clearleap, a company that helps deliver video not only to traditional TV systems but also to computers and mobile devices.

As more traditional television migrates online outside traditional pay-TV subscriptions, live sports is often viewed as a key deterrent against cord cutting, the term for people untethering from a pay-TV subscription in favor of online alternatives. Clearleap's data suggest cable companies don't necessarily need sports to keep many people as subscribers.

"Sports is a major deterrent to cord cutting, but it is not the full answer to stop all or most cord cutting," said Mike Vorhaus, president of media research and consulting firm Magid Advisors, after reviewing Clearleap's report.

Clearleap's data indicates sports programmers and leagues face unmet demand for streaming sports outside a pay-TV subscription. Among people who indicated they often watch at least one sport, nearly half -- 49 percent -- said they'd pay to stream their favorite sport without a cable subscription. The most popular pay level was, no surprise, the cheapest: 37 percent said that they would pay $20 per month or less, while 8.1 percent said they would pay $21 to $49 and a diehard 4 percent would pay $50 or more.

"People want to watch it whenever it is convenient right now," said David Mowrey, Clearleap's vice president of product management. "There's still a lot of opportunity to create better experiences particularly around streaming sports."

Due to its need-to-watch-it-live nature and its high demand, sports programming is often some of the most expensive for TV programmers and distributors. Pay-TV companies, for example, must pay ESPN the highest fees per subscriber by far: more than quadruple the next priciest network, according to estimates from SNL Kagan. It's because of these economics that sports have often been kept out of purely online streaming options. It is costly for fledgling services to license it, and rights holders don't have much incentive to jeopardize the lucrative arrangements already in place in the traditional TV system.

Some top sports are moving to cord-cutter friendly arenas. ESPN is part of the $20 basic package of Sling TV, a purely digital live television service from Dish Network. But other sports programming is sticking in traditional TV. For example, CBS All Access is a service that streams the broadcast network live online for a $6-a-month subscription, but it can't include NFL games that are part of the channel's normal lineup because CBS's deals with the pro football league don't allow it. (CBS is the parent company of CNET.)

Clearleap surveyed 435 consumers between the ages of 18 and 49 in January. The margin of error in the survey was 4.7 percent.

The demographic of 18 to 49 is important: It is often referred to as television's "key demo" of mainstream audience most attractive to advertisers. However, many heavy sports viewers are older side of the age range, according to Vorhaus. Surveying people 50 and up as well might have yielded slightly different results.

Among Clearleap's other findings:

  • Fans of the "big three" professional sports in the US -- baseball, basketball and football -- overwhelmingly prefer watching on traditional TV. Outside those three, fans are more likely to watch in other formats: Soccer and hockey fans were 14 percent and 13 percent more likely to use streaming boxes, gaming consoles, smartphones and laptops to watch live sports, respectively.
  • 46 percent of sports fans don't use TV Everywhere, which allows pay-TV subscribers to watch programming online because they're already paying for it offline. The reasons they didn't use it were because they didn't know the service was available, they don't know how to log in, or they felt it was too difficult.
  • 45 percent of sports fans have never downloaded a sports-related app. Those who had said final scores were their favorite element, followed by game summaries, team news and highlight clips.