For a quarter of century, Sky Sports has been the undisputed king of sports broadcasting. Since the company first scooped up the Premier League rights in 1992, if you wanted to watch your team play, you needed to pay a subscription.
But 25 years on, Sky is under threat. Not from some young, upstart broadcaster - but from illegal streamers. As Kodi boxes and similar hardware have become commonplace, more and more viewers have turned to illicit streams to get their sporting fix. Viewing figures (which of course only measure legal viewers) are down, and 54% of millennials admit to having viewed an illegal stream. According to that same Guardian report, 18-24 year olds are only half as likely to pay for Sky or BT Sport as older fans.
And this is presumably one of the major trends that if reports are to be believed, is forcing Sky to shake things up and rebrand its sports channels. Numbered channels will be done away with - and instead they will be replaced with sport-specific channels: Sky Football, Sky Golf, and so on, in the mould of Sky F1 which already exists. Sports that don’t merit their own channel, like Rugby and Tennis, will be shifted onto an all-purpose “Sky Arena” channel.
Perhaps even more significantly, for the first time viewers will be able to subscribe only to the sports they’re interested in. So no more paying for hundreds of hours of Premier League football you don’t care about, if what you’re really into is Ice Hockey. The new, cheapest package will start at £18/month - dramatically lower than the £50 it is demanding now.
This new pricing will also provide a new mid-price point for sports fans who want to watch more regularly than just the occasional day-pass on Sky’s Now TV on-demand service, but aren’t completely obsessive about all sport.
And perhaps most crucially, it’ll mitigate the impact of so-called “fully loaded” Kodi boxes.
A Legal Alternative
If Sky can get the pricing right (and my sense is that it is still slightly too expensive), the new structure could have the same transformative effect as Spotify and Netflix on piracy of music and film respectively. For a small monthly fee, Spotify means that you can access essentially all of the music in the world, for “free”, on whatever device you use - and it’s a million times easier to use than a pirate equivalent.
Netflix hasn’t ended movie and TV piracy to quite the same extent, but by offering an enormous library of films at the touch of a button, it is again much more attractive than piracy. And crucially, there’s no satellite dish, special box or any other fees attached.
By stripping away all of the bullshit and cutting the price - it seems likely that this new Sky Sports offering will offer an attractive legal alternative to illegal streaming.
A Path To The Future
The move also makes sense from a strategic perspective for where sports broadcasting will likely go in the future. It’s easy to imagine the end-point as you only have to look at other categories and countries to see that we’re already there:
Forget channels, the future is inevitably going to be an app-style interface that will fire up whatever live sports you like, on demand. And this will enable Sky to go even further - not just segmented the audience by sport, but by team. Said app could remember that you’re a supporter of Manchester United, and then skin and and customise the interface to be all about your team: Team stats, team-specific news, highlights that focus on only the team you care about, and so on.
This actually already exists - but for American sports. In the US and Canada, all of the major sports have their own subscription services and apps which work in exactly this way. If you’re a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL GameCenter will look more like a Maple Leafs app.
And across the pond, broadcasting goes further too, which every team having (in effect) its own broadcast of each game. Each team has its own presenting team, studio and commentators - enabling them to offer explicitly partisan coverage to their own fans. Given the collapse in the cost of broadcasting thanks to technology, surely it is inevitable that the same will happen here? (Some bigger football clubs already have their own branded channels, but these mostly do not show live games.)
So it is surely within Sky’s interest to build towards that, so that it can become the distribution platform for this sort of content - rather than inevitably cut out directly if clubs decide to go direct to fans instead.
In any case - this strikes me as a sensible move from Sky - and knock Kodi down a peg or two.