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Sports viewing habits changing as fans look to save in growing streaming market

Toronto Maple Leafs' goaltender Joseph Woll (60) makes as save as Boston Bruins' Brad Marchand (63) and Charlie Coyle (13) look for a rebound during third period action in Game 6 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series in Toronto on Thursday, May 2, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

For most of his life, Adam Holmes never had to worry about where to find his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs on television.

At puck drop time, the 39-year-old would flip to Sportsnet, TSN or CBC to see the blue-and-white face off against their latest opponents.

But now a father of two and less than a year removed from purchasing a house, money is tighter. That meant a cable subscription this year — including a season's worth of Leafs games — wasn't in the cards for the first time he could remember.

Holmes, who lives in Sudbury, Ont., found a workaround to get a small taste of his Leafs fix — tuning into CBC Gem on Saturday nights when it airs Hockey Night in Canada for free. Then, when the Stanley Cup playoffs began, he decided to purchase a monthly subscription to Sportsnet Plus, allowing him to stream every NHL post-season game, along with action from other leagues.

As more Canadians ditch cable and satellite TV subscriptions, streaming services have moved in to grab a piece of the action on sports, where viewers have shown they are willing to pay for live coverage.

"I wanted something where I could ... go on a monthly subscription base," said Holmes. "For $20, it was just like, 'Why not?' I'll just throw my money into that and when I'm bored of it, I'll just cancel it."

Holmes' experience is not unique in an ever-changing sports viewing landscape — with no one-size-fits-all solution. For Canadian fans looking to watch their favourite athlete or team, options range from traditional television packages to the growing presence of streaming platforms.

There are 14 paid streaming providers in Canada that offer sports as all or part of their programming, compared with just two a decade ago, said Brahm Eiley, president of Convergence Research, which publishes an annual report on Canadians' television viewing habits.

He said Canadian sports fans had a "streaming wake-up call" in 2017 when U.K.-based DAZN purchased the exclusive digital broadcasting rights in the country to all NFL games, followed by English Premier League soccer rights in Canada the next year.

More recently, Canadian hockey fans learned that all national, regular-season Monday night games in English would be moving from Rogers Sportsnet to Amazon's Prime Video for the next two seasons — marking the NHL's first exclusive broadcast deal with a digital-only streaming service in Canada.

For certain sports, especially soccer, streaming now dominates in Canada, said Eiley, but traditional television audiences are still larger for most.

"Deciding if it's economical to cut the cord is often a larger decision than just sports," he said.

"Bell and Rogers still provide the majority of sports and their streaming offers are not necessarily priced (lower)."

Still, there's been a "massive change in how content is consumed" over the past 10 years, amid the introduction of new competitors through digital platforms, said Dan Berlin, an assistant professor of sport media at Toronto Metropolitan University.

"When you think of Canada and you think of sports, it's like, 'Well, is CBC going to air it, is Sportsnet going to air it or is TSN going to air it?'" he said.

"Although they're still trying to stay in the game and try to maintain their pieces of the pie, obviously, we see new players like Apple TV, Amazon Prime, and DAZN ... coming in to really further diversify — and in some cases, even potentially threaten — legacy media companies as well."

Berlin said there are some advantages to this trend of "fragmentation" — both for consumers who now have more choices and the sports leagues that accrue more revenue from selling a combination of rights deals.

"There seems to be only a growing insatiable appetite for live sports and I think part of the advantage for consumers is that they do have more flexibility and choice in terms of what they want to interact with," he said.

But it also comes with drawbacks for many consumers, such as the inability to watch all the sports they crave at an affordable price. He said that leaves sports fans with some tough decisions "in terms of what they can watch and what they might have to give up."

"As a consumer, what do I choose and what am I willing to pay for and when does it get to a point where I'm not going to be able to choose everything?" said Berlin.

Holmes said although he was satisfied with his Sportsnet Plus streaming subscription during the NHL playoffs, it's unlikely he'll renew it after the Stanley Cup was awarded to the Florida Panthers Monday night — at least notuntil the post-season rolls around again next year.

He's also not interested in purchasing a cable or satellite package in the near future while his family tries to cut costs, instead being content with catching a game for free on occasion.

"My fandom has kind of changed because of how greedy the networks are. I can take it or leave it," said Holmes, adding there are now many other ways to follow sports beyond just watching games — including online highlights, social media discussion and post-game podcasts.

"There's enough online for me to see every goal. There's enough to keep me gamed in that I don't need to be sitting and watching."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 27, 2024.

Companies in this story: (TSX:RCI.B)

News from © The Canadian Press, 2024
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