While tech giants have badly wanted to gain streaming rights for top-flight sports content, doing so has been easier said than done, since these rights mostly remain locked up by old media firms for the next several years or more.
That's what makes a CNBC report about Amazon.com (AMZN) entering a first-round bid for all of 21st Century Fox's (FOXA) 22 regional sports networks (RSNs) especially intriguing. If Jeff Bezos' firm gets its hands on the RSNs, it would represent (pardon the pun) quite the end-around, allowing a tech giant to get its hands on locked-up sports rights by simply buying the rights owner.
According to CNBC, Amazon was joined by broadcasters TEGNA (TGNA) and Sinclair Broadcast Group (SBGI) in making bids, as well as PE firms Apollo Global, KKR and Blackstone. Fox -- that is, the firm that will own 21st Century Fox assets not being sold to Disney (DIS) -- could reportedly be among the firms to submit second-round bids, which are expected before year's end.
The RSNs are collectively estimated to be worth over $20 billion. Disney agreed to sell them in order to obtain DOJ approval for the Fox deal.
Amazon, it's worth pointing out, is no stranger to bidding on sports rights. The company has been (via Prime Video) streaming Thursday Night Football games since 2017 (the games are also broadcast on the NFL Network), and it's just five months removed from winning the right to stream 20 Premier League soccer matches per year to British Amazon Prime members starting in 2019. Amazon has also won exclusive U.K. rights for U.S. Open tennis matches.
However, all of that would pale relative to buying Fox's RSNs. Between them, the networks have regional broadcast rights for over three dozen MLB, NBA and NHL franchises, including (thanks to an 80% stake in the YES Network) the New York Yankees. The networks also have broadcast rights for Big-12 and Pac-12 college football and basketball games, and for several MLS franchises.
Presumably, Amazon, which is clearly obsessed with keeping consumers hooked on Prime, would want to give Prime members in a region that a particular RSN has broadcast rights for the ability to stream the RSN's content. And though the specifics would vary based on the rights conferred with a particular broadcast deal, Amazon could also gain the ability to make some of the content broadcast by an RSN available nationally.
Meanwhile, all of the digital video ad inventory opened up by streaming the RSNs would be a boon for Amazon's fast-growing ad business. The company could leverage its considerable shopping data about Prime members to improve targeting, and also track when an advertised product is purchased via Amazon's site or apps.
In the near-term at least, it's unlikely that Amazon would stop offerings the RSNs to traditional pay-TV providers. This is partly because the revenue hit caused by the loss of traditional pay-TV ad revenue and (though they'd be diminished by the fact that the RSNs are also available on Prime) affiliate fees would be substantial. And it's also because sports franchises would be upset at seeing the viewing of their games restricted to Prime members. Here, it's worth noting that while Amazon's Thursday Night Football broadcasts have gained a healthy following, their viewership still pales relative to what the NFL Network has been seeing for traditional broadcasts.
Nonetheless, with cord-cutters and "cord-nevers" steadily growing as a percentage of the U.S. population, and with sports content often the biggest reason why consumers choose not to cut the cord, access to Fox's RSNs would undoubtedly be quite the selling point for millions of Prime members. Conceivably, it's also the kind of perk that could make it easier for Amazon to carry out a fresh Prime price hike in a few years' time.
Eventually, other tech giants will probably make large bids of their own for prized sports content. Facebook (FB) has already landed the rights to stream a smattering of MLB, NHL and MLS games via its Watch video platform -- sports are a natural fit for Watch, given Facebook's focus on using the platform to drive social interactions -- and Alphabet/Google (GOOGL) YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki has said she would "love" for her company to stream NFL games.
Verizon (VZ) , for its part, has a deal with the NFL that gives it the right to stream national and in-market games to mobile devices, including devices using rival networks. However, the deal doesn't cover TV and PC streaming.
Thus far, the fact that the likes of Disney, CBS, NBC and Time Warner have the U.S. rights to the lion's share of marquee content from major pro and college sports leagues locked up for the next few years (and in some cases, longer), has been a major roadblock for the sports ambitions of tech giants. And certainly, the presence of this roadblock has done a lot to keep a lid on how much cord-cutting is happening.
It's far from clear at this point whether Amazon will be able to circumvent this roadblock by cutting a large check to Disney. And given that the company is ESPN's parent, Disney may be less than keen on the idea of selling Fox's RSNs to Amazon, even if it has the highest bid.
However, Amazon certainly has the resources to pay for the RSNs, and the consumer reach to make a deal for them pay off. And it's not too hard to see how such a deal would fit with its long-term ambitions for Prime.