Last Saturday night, I turned in to a live pay-per-view match on Roku’s new Ultimate Fighting Championship channel. Now I have no interest whatever in UFC fights and would never have actually paid for the event. But it was an important milestone: UFC on Roku shows how live sports events–pay-per-view, subscription, and free-are insinuating internet TV.
This is a big deal. Sports events are one thing that even the most dedicated time-shifters generally want to watch live. and the fact that many sports events are only available on cable channels will keep sports fans, a significant part of the total TB audience, from cutting the cord to their cable or satellite service. But bit by bit this is beginning to change.
Major League Baseball has been the most aggressive at breaking the cable-satellite-broadcast hold. MLB.TV, which includes full-game HD coverage, is available on Roku, Boxee, PlayStation Network, Windows, Mac, and iPad. A premium subscription, which covers multiple devices, is $110 a year.
The National basketball Assn. has been a lot more tentative. You can get NBA Game Time on Roku and Vizio TVs, but it only provides highlights, scores, and news, not actual games. The National Hockey League serves up a lot of high-quality video on NHL.com, but not full games and not on devices that you can easily connect to a TV. The National Football League doesn’t offer much online, and college sports have generally been laggards, though CBS did webcast every game in the NCAA basketball tournament.
The reason for the big sports operators’ reluctance to push more internet TV is understandable. TV money is the lifeblood of sports and online revenues are couch change compared to what the leagues collect from broadcast and cable networks. The Big Ten Conference even operates its own cable network. The NHL would seem to have the least to lose, since its regular-season games (and many playoff matches as well) are carried nationally only on the fairly obscure Versus network (owned by Comcast).
Change will come, but it will come more slowly than lost of us would like. But as long as most sports remain unavailable over the internet, cord-cutting will remain very unattractive to most of the population.