Sports remains one of the last things people are willing to watch live, which is making it lucrative for networks and streamers alike — and leagues are asking them to pay up. 
The first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs on ABC, ESPN, and TNT averaged 3.06 million viewers, up 46 percent over 2020 and 3 percent above 2019. And while critics are wondering if numbers will be down considering LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers are out, they had the same worries when Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors didn't make it. And, it didn't seem to matter.
It's no surprise then that the NBA is reportedly seeking a $75 billion rights deal over nine years when its contracts are up, per CNBC. With the NFL receiving $113 billion for 11-year contracts with Amazon, CBS, ESPN/ABC, Fox, and NBC according to NPR, media companies may be willing to pay up. And even the sports documentary has seen renewed interest, especially during the pandemic when production was halted and seasons were cancelled or delayed. 
"Must see TV Thursday: Those things don't exist anymore for the most part," said Greg Mishkin, vice president of telecom and consumer and retail divisions at Escalent. "It's much harder to get those eyeballs. Where it does exist is sports."
For companies straddling the line between running their networks and also building out their streaming platforms for the future, buying sports rights can serve a dual purpose even if the price tag can be exorbitant. The MLB's recent deal with Disney and ESPN will not only give it access to 30 exclusive regular season games and other baseball content over the next seven years, but games can be simulcast on ESPN+. This can help increase television viewership numbers and also get more digital subscribers.
 "In a few years, legacy linear companies will have made the full transition to the digital environment," said Jeremy Carey, managing director of Optimum Sports. "And they're looking at these deals as a bridge to get them there."
Once media companies have sports fans hooked on exclusive games and matches, these customers may be more likely to subscribe to other products thanks to discounts and bundling deals. In the case of Disney, in addition to ESPN, ABC, and other networks, they also own ESPN+, Hulu, and Disney+. 
And even those platforms that are digital only are betting they will get viewers to adopt their other products. Amazon Prime, for example, will be the exclusive digital broadcaster for Thursday Night Football for the next 11 years, starting in 2022. (It will be required to broadcast the games on over-the-air television stations in the team's local markets.) But it's also hoping those who tune into the NFL will also stick around for its other content, as well as shop its marketplace. 
"What they want to do is keep those eyeballs in the family," said Elena Klau, global chief strategy officer for Momentum Worldwide. "Sports becomes a really important hook if you want to ensure that happens."
Most companies are hoping that because of the large audience sports brings in, they can recoup the costs through high advertising prices. While digital audiences are more ideal for advertisers due to the ability to target more specifically on these kinds of platforms, for now the majority of people are still watching sports on networks. And with more than half of new televisions in the U.S. being smart televisions, according to Hub, even those who have cut the cord may be watching on a television. Having the ability to buy advertising across all types of distribution becomes key.
 "If you do have a cable subscription you're going to be consuming that game on good old-fashioned TV, and even if you're subscribed to YouTube TV you have a TV," Optimum's Carey explained. 
Still sometimes, the cost can be too expensive. Escalent's Mishkin points out that AT&T may not renew its DirecTV deal for the NFL Sunday Ticket package and even sold 30 percent of DirecTV to private equity firm TPG, opening the door for companies like Disney to bid up the prices.
"The challenge though is that the providers don't always make money off of these deals," he pointed out. 
But no matter which company wins what sports rights, it's all going to depend on where people are willing to watch. 
"At the end of the day, what wins is what's best for consumers," Mishkin said.