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Netflix Has Yet To Fully Embrace Live Sports Even as Interest Remains

  • Last year, Netflix had talks about acquiring the Premier Lacrosse League, sources told Front Office Sports
  • Netflix has yet to make the leap to live sports programming as it leans more into sports docs.
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The world’s largest — and most profitable — streaming service is still on the outside looking in for live sports. 

Last year, Netflix appeared set to do more than just acquire streaming rights, as they had discussions to acquire the Premier Lacrosse League, sources told Front Office Sports.

And the PLL wasn’t Netflix’s only potential target. The World Surf League also had talks with Netflix about an acquisition. The PLL declined comment. 

Neither of those deals — as well as Netflix’s bid to land F1’s broadcast rights in the U.S. — came to fruition as ESPN retained the package with a three-year deal worth as much as $90 million annually. 

More than halfway into 2023, it remains unclear when — or even if — Netflix will fully embrace live sports. 

“Our position in live sports remains unchanged,” Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos said in an earnings call last month. But it could be evolving at least somewhat. Sarandos said Netflix is working on some “experimental stuff,” including live coverage of a celebrity golf tournament in November. 

“We’re excited about that because it serves as a promotional vehicle for our sports brands like ‘Full Swing,’” Sarandos said. “So, we really think that we can have a really strong offering for sports fans on Netflix without having to be part of the difficulty of the economic model of live sports licensing.”

A Netflix spokesperson pointed to Sarandos‘ comments on the status of Netflix’s sports aspirations when contacted by FOS this week. 

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With more than $8 billion in cash on hand, Netflix could certainly become a player for sports rights like the NBA that expire after the 2025 season. 

“Live is hard,” said T.K. Gore, a longtime media advisor. “I know they’re Netflix, but there needs to be reliability in terms of the ability to deliver quality sports content — not just quantity. It’s one thing to be able to deliver video on demand, but live sports streaming is a different animal.”

There’s no signal that Netflix currently has plans to bid on the NBA — or any other sports rights — based on Sarandos’ statements, which match what sources with knowledge of the company’s medium-term plans told FOS.  

First, Netflix would have to figure out a sports advertising model to offset the high costs of major sports programming. 

Netflix added an ad-supported tier late last year. But rolling out a $6.99 per month ad-supported product — less than half of the $15.49 base ad-free product Netflix has been known for since it launched in 2007 — was just part of the equation.

Industry insiders said the next part is figuring out how to deliver ads during sports events. 

That would fall to the engineers and programers who are part of Netflix’s revenue infrastructure team.

“The revenue infrastructure team’s mission is to streamline revenue financial workflows so that our financial teams can close the books with a high degree of accuracy and confidence,” a current Netflix software engineer job opening reads. “The systems we build need to be scalable and accurate as we handle revenue operations for all Netflix customers.”

For now, that “all Netflix customers” part of the job description seems to include the company’s push into gaming

But one source said Netflix wants to have the ad technology laid out — including how much revenue it would generate — before it makes its live sports push.

Meanwhile, Netflix continues to be the king of sports docs. That includes docuseries like “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” and “Quarterback” along with traditional documentaries like “Untold.”

“We’re super excited about the success of our sports-adjacent programming,” Sarandos said. We just had it recently — just launched a great one called ‘Quarterback’ with the NFL. A few weeks ago, we had the Tour de France [docuseries], which did exactly what we saw with ‘Drive to Survive.’ … [Cycling is] not very well understood, and you do that through exceptional storytelling — not through the liveness of the game.”

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