Netflix Just Live-Streamed a Comedy Show. Will Sports Finally Be Next?

The TV innovator has yet to stream live sports, even while its biggest competitors dive into the category. But there might be good reasons to not go there.

Netflix cues up on a smart TV in a darkened room
Netflix's biggest competitors stream live sports, but for the TV innovator there's reasons for pause
Thibault Penin / Unsplash

On Saturday night Netflix streamed its first-ever live event, which wound up being a so-so Chris Rock stand-up performance. Much of the attention since then has been fixed on the closing few minutes, when Rock predictably discussed the infamous Will Smith Oscar night slap. (Rock pointed out the whole fiasco started when Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett, said Rock should not have hosted the awards show in 2016 because Will was snubbed for his acting work in the film Concussion. Then, Rock said, last year Smith gave him a concussion.) But the comedy show could have marked the beginning of a new era of Netflix, one with more live-streamed events — something its closest competitors have already featured plenty of, especially in the category of sports. 

Amazon’s been streaming NFL games for six football seasons now. Hulu has an ESPN+ extension with live-streaming games. Apple TV just launched its MLS Season Pass add-on with live-streaming soccer. Paramount+ just enjoyed its most-streamed live sporting event ever, the 2023 AFC Championship Game between the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals. 

But while Netflix has seemingly committed increased dollars to sports content with a nice return on investment — Drive To Survive, the streamer’s Formula 1 racing series, and its golf show Full Swing are just two recent hits — the company’s long-term status as a top-flight entertainment platform might depend on partnerships with pro sports leagues. Its head honchos don’t seem to think so, though.

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“While Netflix continually refuses to take the plunge, with the company’s cameras following so much action as it happens, it still needs live sports — they just won’t broadcast them in the moment,” Doug Greenberg wrote in Front Office Sports this past weekend. “The Silicon Valley-based company has barely entertained the idea — even as its competitors, like Amazon, dive headfirst into live sports rights.”

Year after year, live sporting events completely dominate linear TV ratings, keeping the old way of watching television on life support. In 2020, Axios reported that major U.S. cable TV and satellite TV have lost 25 million subscribers since 2012, and are projected to lose another 25 million by 2025. “As traditional TV subscriptions decline in favor of streaming, live sports games have become the last remaining programs that advertisers can rely on to draw massive viewership,” Sara Fischer wrote last year in Axios as well.

So why won’t Netflix, the streaming innovator that radically changed the way we consume screen entertainment, help bury linear TV and get an even bigger slice of the sports revenue pie by broadcasting live events in the category?

Netflix wouldn’t talk to Front Office Sports on the matter, but the publication pointed out that Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s co-CEO, said in December the company has “not seen a profit path to renting big sports.” He added: “We’re not anti-sports…We’re just pro-profit.”

Consumers just might not think of Netflix as much of a sports-centric brand, in spite of the relative success of some of its sports documentary series. As Front Office Sports pointed out, Netflix’s tennis series, Point Break, which was produced by Box to Box Films, the same company behind Drive To Survive and Full Swing, didn’t perform very well (perhaps because it was boring). And available Netflix data dating back to June 2021 indicates that “no sports film or series is among the streamer’s Most Popular, defined as hours viewed in the project’s first 28 days.”

One thing the most-watched Netflix sports series have in common is high drama and human moments, Front Office Sports also noted. There are intimate interviews and scenes with athletes that give viewers a sense they’re getting to know them on a different level. That’s an element of sports entertainment that viewers, particularly young ones, crave and come to expect in a post-social media world where high-profile personalities regularly interact with fans and post (curated) scenes from their personal lives.

Perhaps instead of live sports from Netflix, we can just look forward to more hilarious memes emerging from its documentary series. Gary Payton beware. 

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