Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Step one in Apple’s sports strategy

Over the years, all sorts of entities have purchased the television rights to sporting events at prices that don’t make sense, at least if you’re expecting them to turn a profit directly from the sporting events themselves. Fox famously overpaid for NFL rights to establish itself as a network; regional cable networks have overpaid for exclusive local baseball TV rights to keep fans from cutting the cord.

So when Apple signed on with MLB to air Friday Night Baseball, the question should probably not have been, “How does Apple intend to profit enough from selling ads and new subscriptions to make its investment profitable?” It should have been, “What is Apple trying to achieve more broadly by spending money on live sports like baseball?”

There are lots of possibilities. Maybe it’s purely brand recognition for Apple TV+—baseball helps Apple reach a new audience that might never have considered the service before. Maybe it’s about pumping up the value of Apple’s service and bundles for existing subscribers so that they don’t churn. Maybe it’s about building a new sports-focused service as an add-on for TV+. Maybe Tim Cook has Friday nights free and wishes there were better baseball games on TV.

One of my favorite theories comes from Charlie Chapman, who suggests that it’s free promotion for Apple TV+ as, market by market, local news outlets has to explain what Apple TV+ is and how fans can get it to watch their team on Friday night.

I like it. And a similar idea occurred to me: What if Apple started buying up sports rights to increase the addressable market for Apple TV+ by prompting fans to upgrade their equipment?

Sure, for many of us on the cutting edge of tech, Apple TV+ seems to be available just about everywhere. Not just Apple TV boxes but Amazon and Roku devices, not to mention just about every relatively recent smart TV out there. But the truth is, many people don’t have a device that’s capable of viewing Apple TV+. And many of the people who do, have no idea that they do!

It’s also a matter of priorities. My friend Greg, who is one of the most technically adept people I have ever met, told me that he would have to watch the Dodgers on Friday Night Baseball on a computer because his TV couldn’t stream Apple TV+. Not everybody rushes out to buy a smart TV or a streamer box. I get it.

Fortunately, the inability to put a baseball game (or, perhaps next year, NFL Sunday Ticket) on a TV set is easily solved. You can pick up a compatible device from Roku or Amazon for about $30. And once you do, you’re now part of the potential universe for Apple TV+. And if your current TV or streamer box has support for Apple TV+, maybe you’ll go to the trouble of figuring that out to watch your favorite team.

It may not sound like a lot, but every little bit helps.

Apple’s not alone in this. Amazon is broadcasting exclusive NFL games this fall, potentially even on Black Friday. Like Apple, Amazon’s motivation in spending money on sports rights for Prime Video is not about a direct payback. Needing to watch a favorite team is a great reason to buy a streaming stick.

Sure, creating great programming is one way to build your service. But even the very best-reviewed movies and TV shows compete with an avalanche of other programs on other services. If you’re a fan of a sport or a particular team, though, you will want to go where your team goes. There’s a lot of leverage there, and the streaming giants know it.

Step one is to give them a reason to start streaming. Step two is for them to give it a try. Step three… profit?

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