On Monday, ViacomCBS announced it had acquired the English-language rights to Campeonato Brasileirão Série A, the top soccer league in Brazil. The press release, issued with the usual CBS corporate logo and staid Times Roman typeface, quoted a CBS Sports executive thus: “With CBS Sports’ robust and year-round soccer portfolio, we look forward to continuing to expand our world-class coverage on Paramount+ to even more fans of the beautiful game.”
Wait, what? The games aren’t airing on CBS? Not even the CBS Sports cable channel? Nope. If Brazilian expats and soccer nuts in the U.S. want to see Série A matches starting May 29, they are going to have to pony up for Paramount Plus.
Whether you give a kick about soccer or not — or know your derby from a darby — understand that this is a game changer. Someday we may look back at this moment and say yep, that’s when cable TV truly began its death spiral and streaming took its place.
The Brazilian rights deal is only the latest involving streaming networks and overseas sporting leagues. Paramount+ also added Italy’s Serie A and CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers to go with Argentina’s Liga Profesional de Fútbol, the U.S. women’s pro NWSL and World Cup qualifiers, and the UEFA Champions League, an annual competition among Europe’s top clubs that draws a billion viewers worldwide.
Meanwhile, Peacock launched last year with a fat package of games from the UK’s Premier League, the world’s most popular (and in America, best-known) soccer league. Some games would still air live on NBC Sports Channel, its cable network, but full replays of all telecasts would be posted to Peacock.
But the effect of soccer on Paramount+ has been nothing less than transformative. To be sure, ViacomCBS remains sensitive to the care and feeding of former CBS All Access fans (as Paramount+ was known prior to March 4). To that end there’s an Uhura doc upcoming, as well as an animated series that features a Janeway hologram. But CBS All Access only drew a few million subscribers at a time. As Paramount+ it’s expected to scale up into the tens of millions, and Captain Picard can’t get them there by himself.
So they’re reviving Frasier and Behind The Music and even The Game, because success in the streaming wars demands a very long tail of on-demand content. But nothing brings in so many eyeballs for so many hours as the sporting rights deal. This was axiomatic in the cable industry for a generation. People used to get cable TV just for the sports, and ESPN charged cable operators astronomical sums to carry their channels.
But now, streaming wants all that live sporting entertainment. Paramount+ leaned in hard to soccer because many of the rights deals are low-hanging fruit. It was a canny move, since soccer is the fourth most watched sport in the U.S., and after its spending spree Paramount+ will have a staggering 1,400 live matches available to watch per year.
So where does that leave sports on cable? We got our answer a few months after Peacock launched, when NBCUniversal announced it would be shutting down NBC Sports Channel by the end of 2021. The idea of pulling the plug on a cable channel currently in 80 million homes would have seemed absurd even three years ago. But now it makes perfect sense for NBCUniversal to sacrifice one of its weaker cable entities to bolster viewership for Peacock. I suspect we’ll be hearing about the demise of CBS Sports Network in the not-too-distant future as well. Tens of millions of cord-cutters have taken a toll at ESPN, which announced a third round of layoffs in March.
Meanwhile, the NFL has just negotiated the most eye-popping TV rights deal in history, and a lot of that involves streaming channels. Starting in 2023, you’ll need an Amazon Prime membership to watch Thursday Night Football. Other NFL games will be exclusive to Peacock, so be ready to pony up for that. CBS signal fuzzy? Not to worry, all the NFL games on CBS will simulcast on Paramount+. You can bet Major League Baseball and the NBA will be hot properties on the streaming market as well.
Netflix, Disney+, and Hulu aren’t involved in these sports-rights deals because they achieved mass scale of content the old-fashioned way — with movies and TV shows. And that in turn has produced viewer-loyalty stats that lead the league. Netflix had just a 2.5% subscriber churn in the fourth quarter of 2020. Disney+ at 4.3% and Hulu at 5.2% weren’t far behind. Peacock, by contrast, has a 9.5% monthly churn, which equates to turning over its subscriber base every 11 months. CBS All Access’s churn was 5.9% in December 2020, but that will likely shoot up as Paramount+ grows.
All of which is to say that if you’ve been hanging on to your cable subscription because you don’t like change, well, sorry but change happens anyway. Post-pandemic the TV world promises to be a whole new ballgame. And the big media companies are placing their bets. Where are you placing yours?
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.