The same experience has surely unfolded for millions of American families over the past month: Someone tries to watch a big Olympic sporting event. Maybe it’s Simone Biles competing in the women’s gymnastics all-around qualifier. Maybe it’s a big U.S. men’s basketball game. Maybe it’s any number of track-and-field events. Someone in the house can’t find it on TV and texts someone else, who has the solemn duty of informing their father (or whomever) that the sporting event they’d like to watch isn’t on TV at all. Instead, it’s on Peacock, a new NBC streaming platform with a lousy user experience that, until now, was mainly known by lots of people for being the place that now houses the whole catalogue of The Office.
Maybe you remain a holdout and do not pay the $4.99 a month for the premium version (there’s also a free offering with extra ads), because you have pledged you are done giving more money to NBC’s parent, Comcast, to watch things you’re accustomed to watching with your cable subscription. Maybe someone gives in and buys it. Or maybe you’ve figured out that you can work around Peacock by streaming events on an NBC app, despite Peacock’s corporate communications seemingly making it clear that Peacock holds the key to U.S. men’s basketball. These are the choices we make at forks in the road.
The constant push to get you to buy Peacock—whether through advertising or the coercion of putting major events on the platform—is an annoyance. There’s a great chance you already pay for NBC and its many sports offerings on linear TV or a digital equivalent like Hulu + Live or YouTubeTV, to say nothing of CNBC, MSNBC, USA Network, Bravo, and assorted other products under NBC’s umbrella. The effort to blunt-force you into paying for the streaming service is an overt attempt by Comcast to double-dip into your wallet, or even to triple-dip if the telecom company is also your internet or cable provider. Then you’re paying for Wi-Fi, NBC’s TV channels, and Peacock.
If you are a sports fan, keeping up the resistance much longer will prove quite the endurance test. Fans who care enough about particular teams in particular sports have already been paying for streaming services for years to watch the games they’re passionate about. But the 2020 Olympics feel like an inflection point, the first moment when high-profile competitions in arguably the world’s most mainstream sporting event are stashed behind a streaming paywall instead of beamed out over network, cable, or satellite TV (or, again, a digital version of the same). Starting more or less right now, it will be increasingly hard to be a serious fan of a popular American sport and not buy a streaming service to keep watching it. The alternative will be missing a lot of games, which plenty of sports fans will decide is not a palatable choice.
It bears repeating that this won’t be a new requirement for a lot of American fans. If you like the English Premier League, NBC already presented you with the choice of getting Peacock or missing about half the games that would otherwise be available to you. If you like an out-of-your-market team in MLB, the NFL, NHL, or NBA, you may have been buying a streaming service for years, or at least a similar cable package add-on.* Otherwise, you’ve only watched occasional national TV games. If you want to watch much of the WNBA or NWSL, you’ve had to buy a streaming service, regardless of whether that service is any good. If your alma mater’s football team is in a nonpower conference, it has almost certainly had games behind a digital paywall at ESPN+ ($6.99 a month). Making an exhaustive list of all the sporting events exclusively on streaming platforms would take a year.
The Olympics are a different animal, though. The Tokyo Games are the most popular sporting event yet to require American viewers to pony up for streaming in order to take in marquee contests. Traditional TV ratings for these Games are way down, but NBC was probably prepared for that kind of freefall given that it’s been happening all pandemic. The company decided to lean into streaming and had no problem finding advertisers, whom NBC says spent more than $1.2 billion (at least) to air ads during the Games.
If the most blue-chip of all sporting events and advertising opportunities can get partially paywalled on a streaming site, then so can anything else. And while time zone differences have made it easier for NBC to put Olympic events on Peacock in nontraditional sports-viewing hours (late at night and in the mid-morning on the East Coast), that won’t hold for long. On Wednesday, NBC announced that Notre Dame’s Week 1 football game against Toledo would get Peacock Premiumed. Sure, it’s just one game, and sure, it’s against a team from the nonpower Mid-American Conference. But a Notre Dame game going behind the paywall is as sure a sign as any that digital-only football games aren’t just for the MAC anymore. (The Big 12, which is likely on its way to nonpower status, has also already had streaming-only games.) This fall, the NHL will return to ESPN for the first time since 2004, and 75 games that would typically be national telecasts will now be streaming exclusives on ESPN+ and Hulu. ESPN+ is also taking over the NHL’s out-of-market streaming package, making it even more of a must-get for hockey fans.
The motherlode of streaming rubicons will come in 2022, when the NFL’s Thursday Night Football becomes an Amazon exclusive—save for in the participating teams’ home markets, where there will still be a telecast. Amazon is paying about $1 billion a year, Bloomberg reported, for the right to cudgel football fans into buying Prime Video ($8.99 per month, unless it’s included with your overarching $12.99 Prime subscription). Once that arrangement begins, football fans at every level above high school will have a significant force tugging them toward streaming paywalls from some company or another.
The move to streaming is not all in all a bad thing. The portability of these services is nice—ESPN+, Peacock, and Prime are all available in whatever app format one might need—and Peacock’s Olympics confusions aside, the user experience tends to be clean. It’s not like there is anything inherently worse about paying for streaming products than paying for cable or YouTube TV, which is itself a streaming product but is designed to be more like a cable replacement (offering many channels) than to provide supplemental programming from one network.
But that’s also the frustration: If you care enough about watching live sports, you will still have to pay for whatever traditional TV package you already buy. NBC isn’t moving the entire Olympics to Peacock. It’s just moving a few key events that it reckons you will want to watch. The NHL isn’t moving every game to ESPN+, just a handful of the best ones throughout the year. The NFL will still have more games on FOX and CBS than on Prime, but the Prime game will be the only one on Thursday, so if you’re the type who wants to watch football Thursday to Monday, the choice will be made for you to keep paying for everything. Consumption always wins.
A few years ago, it was possible to bargain-hunt if your primary interest in cable was to watch sports. As recently as 2018, you could cut the cord on your cable contract (easily around $100 a month) and instead pay $35 a month for YouTube TV, which includes all of the big national sports channels and even has an easy DVR function to watch games later. Then the service rose to $40, then to $50, and then to $64.99, all in about two years—not usually because the service got any better, though a handful of newly added Discovery channels were the stated reason for one hike. The proposition that you could save a little money and still watch the sports that were important to you went from sound to impossible with incredible speed, and that was before outside streaming services became so necessary for a devoted-enough fan.
The companies that own the rights to live games think we care enough about sports to put up with additional bills and price hikes, time and again. If they didn’t get you with Biles trying to win a medal in 2021, they’ll get you with Patrick Mahomes throwing touchdown passes in 2022. Their bet is that, at some point, enough of us will be unable to resist. They are probably right.
Update, Aug. 5, 2021: This article has been updated to clarify that while Olympics men’s basketball is available to stream on other apps, NBC has advertised its featured availability on Peacock as the reason to join.
Correction, Aug. 5, 2021: This article originally misstated that out-of-geographic-market sports fans had to either buy a streaming-channel subscription or only watch occasional nationally televised games. A third option for such fans can be to buy cable-package add-ons, such as MLB Extra Innings or NFL Sunday Ticket.