Rogers gambles on a standalone digital streaming sports channel

Comparable services were previously only available to cable subscribers, but Rogers is looking to get ahead of the unbundling wave

 
Troy Tulowitzki hits during a spring training game in March 2016
Home run? Too soon to tell. (Stacy Revere/Getty)

Canadian sports fans have some good news to celebrate, besides the opening of the Blue Jays season on Sunday. Rogers is launching Sportsnet Now, a Netflix-like standalone internet streaming service, on April 1 to anyone in the country with an Internet connection. The best part is, it’s no April Fool’s joke.

At $24.99 a month, the service will offer live streams of Rogers’ six Sportsnet TV channels, which includes programming from MLB (all 162 Jays games), NHL, NBA, junior hockey, soccer, tennis, curling, Indy car, Tour de France and WWE, as well as original shows such as Sportsnet Central and Plays of the Month. (Rogers Communications owns Canadian Business.)

I’ll have a deeper dive next week, but here are the basics:

It’s a First

Rogers deserves credit for pulling the trigger on standalone sports streaming before any other North American cable provider. With live sports being one of the last reasons to subscribe to cable, decoupling it and selling it on its own is a risky-albeit-inevitable move.

The motivation for Sportsnet Now is obvious. With cord-cutting accelerating and the number of cord-nevers—younger people who have never subscribed to cable and aren’t likely to—on the rise, there’s a market waiting to be addressed. By moving first, Rogers is looking to keep someone else from becoming the Netflix of sports.

“It’s no secret that all the major networks have looked at this possibility,” Scott Moore, president of Sportsnet and NHL properties for Rogers, told the Globe and Mail. “HBO has already gone there so it was just a matter of time. We wanted to be first [for sports].”

Rogers is on something of a winning streak overall of late. The company is also first in North America in leading the charge in 4K programming, with all Jays games and a number of NHL games this year being aired in the higher resolution.

And lastly, the company also warranted special mention in a report this week by the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services for having the biggest decline in consumer complaints.

Price

Other types of streaming services, from Netflix in video to Spotify in music, have set price expectations around the $10-a-month range, which makes Sportsnet Now’s $25 look rather high.

On the other hand, it’s still cheaper than cable. The Sportsnet package plus basic cable costs $43 from Rogers, plus hardware rental, so the streaming-only option is a relatively good deal in comparison. It’s also cheaper than what some sports leagues are charging for standalone streaming in other jurisdictions.

MLB.TV, for example, costs $24.99 (U.S.) a month in the United States, or $20 a month on a year-long contract, and that’s just baseball. MLB.TV offers more than just Jays games, so it’s really six of one, a half-dozen of the other.

Whether Sportsnet Now will attract a substantial number of subscribers at its price remains to be seen, but that’s one of the unknowns that come with being first.

No Obligation

Unlike many cable deals, there’s no commitment. Sportsnet Now subscribers can quit any time they want, which means you can subscribe for baseball or hockey season, then cancel after the playoffs are done.

It’s kind of like signing up to Netflix to binge watch House of Cards, then dropping it. It’s the beauty of streaming services.

It’s still got ads

One of the biggest problems with Sportsnet Now is that it’s still pretty much TV, which means it’s a live stream of the actual channels—commercials included.

Netflix, Spotify and others have created an expectation among consumers that a paid subscription service should be ad-free. Sports obviously work differently, since ad time is built into the games themselves.

Will this change as sports broadcasting move into streaming butts up against those expectations? It’ll be interesting to see—it’s possible that pro sports matches may speed up as a result, if all that built-in ad time gets cut out.

Limitations

So far, Sportsnet Now is available only on PCs, smartphones and tablets, with Apple TV, Chromecast and game console apps “coming soon.”

Given that Shomi, the Netflix competitor Rogers jointly runs with fellow cable company Shaw, is on all those devices, it probably won’t be a long wait. In the meantime, subscribers will have to use Airplay and similar beaming capabilities to watch on their TVs.

There’s also no 4K as of yet, unlike on cable, nor is there an on-demand component, which means you can’t pick up and watch a game any time you want. It’s got to be live.

One other issue is that Sportsnet Live only works in Canada, so it’s tough luck if you happen to find yourself outside the country when a big game is going on.

The Competition

Rogers’ competitors—notably Bell, which owns TSN—aren’t likely to sit around and let the company become the veritable Netflix of sports. Expect reactions in the form of competing services sooner rather than later.

With sports streaming being a veritable new and unconquered frontier, it’s also likely that consumers will see a higher level of competition from Rogers and Bell than they’re otherwise used to. That’s certainly going to be welcome news.


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