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Game changer: The rapid rise of sports streaming

It's Thursday night in a downtown bar and I am as close to sports heaven as I can get on this Earth.

I have an iPad in my hand, hooked up to a TV the size of a school blackboard. I'm watching a National Football League preseason game that features the Baltimore Ravens pounding Washington, my least favourite team. Over the course of the evening, I can use the iPad to flip between six more games, while simultaneously texting friends and researching who to draft to my NFL fantasy team, a task that takes more time than I care to admit.

This evening is being provided by a Britain-based streaming service called Dazn. The cool kids pronounce it "Da Zone." For $20 a month, newly launched Dazn will let subscribers watch every NFL game this season, anywhere they have Internet access.

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Read more: Split screen – What a deeper roster of streaming options means for Canada's broadcasters, producers and viewers

Upstarts such as Dazn, which is backed by billionaire industrialist Len Blavatnik, are a nightmare for BCE Inc., which paid up in June for the TV rights to NFL games in Canada, along with Rogers Communications Inc. and the television networks that invest heavily in sports programming.

These broadcasters made massive financial commitments to football, hockey, basketball, even curling. They are trying to preserve ties with an audience that still shows up faithfully for live sports and hang on to advertisers who want to reach beer-drinking, car-buying consumers. Sports are shaping up to be a poor investment.

I'm the latest of late adopters when it comes to technology: I consider Pac-Man cutting edge. But I am a passionate NFL fan and one night with Dazn is enough to convince me to cut the cable cord, in favour of streaming.

In the past, streaming sports meant watching games that were frequently interrupted by technical glitches: The screen froze as a potential touchdown pass was thrown. If Dazn's recent Canadian premiere is any indication, the bugs are out of the system, as streamed games matched the quality seen on any TV network.

"Our starting point is a rock-solid, HD [high-definition] level broadcast," said James Ruston, Dazn's chief executive and a 14-year veteran of parent company Access Industries Holdings LLC, which also owns Warner Music.

If Dazn's experience in Japan and Germany is any guide, approximately two-thirds of subscribers will watch NFL football and other streamed sports on their television. "We're not trying to dictate how fans watch sports," Mr. Ruston said. "If you want to watch football on your 60-inch flat screen, we made sure you can do that."

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The NFL is one item on a long sports menu at Dazn. The company offers subscribers everything from European soccer to tennis, snooker and Russian hockey.

Going forward, Mr. Rushton said Dazn will be in the mix when Canadian rights for any sport are up for grabs; the London-based executive seemed intimately familiar with details of Roger's 12-year, $5.2-billion broadcast deal with the National Hockey League. Dazn's long-term goal in Canada is to sign up 10 per cent of connected households, or approximately 1.2-million subscribers.

The NFL got into bed with Dazn after "exhaustive" work on its digital and broadcast strategy, said Michael Markovich, the league's New York-based vice-president of international media. Dazn already delivers NFL football in Japan and Germany and Mr. Markovich said the three-year Canadian streaming agreement "is meant to meet the digitally savvy sports fan's interest in all NFL products."

Dazn's challenge has not gone unnoticed: BCE, Rogers and Canada's other telecom and media companies are increasing their offerings to stay relevant to an increasingly online audience. So, too, are sports leagues: "Streaming and digital are at the forefront of every professional sports league's strategy when they think about the fan experience," Mr. Markovich said.

But doesn't it feel as if fans are ahead of the leagues when it comes to the way they watch games, and are poised to leave traditional broadcasters behind? I don't consider myself to be digitally savvy, but I take in NFL games while tracking a fantasy team and texting. Allow me to do everything on one device that carries every game and I'll open my wallet and dive into digital.

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About the Author
Business Columnist

Andrew Willis is a business columnist for the Report on Business at The Globe and Mail, based in Toronto.He has been in business communications and journalism for three decades. More

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