Laura Slattery: Sport-averse Netflix finds itself between Chris Rock and a hard place

For broadcasters and most streamers, live sport is a key way to attract big audiences – but Netflix is on a different pitch

Netflix is still king of the streamers, but it has never been king of the livestreamers – as far as live events go, it is nowhere near the court.

Last Friday’s release of the first batch of episodes of Break Point, Netflix’s underwhelming tennis documentary series, only serves as a reminder of its increasingly unusual position: it likes sport, it wants to be sport-adjacent, but it doesn’t fancy paying for the kind of live sport that creates all that drama and intrigue in the first place.

Netflix co-chief executive and chief content officer Ted Sarandos has made it clear that it is the notoriously large price tags attached to sports rights that are the problem.

“We’re not anti-sports, we’re just pro-profit,” was his nifty line in December. Netflix does not need to use sporting hoopla to lure people to its other content, Sarandos added, citing the 165 million households that watched Squid Game without the series “having to follow the Super Bowl”.


Fair enough. But although live sport is apparently off the Netflix agenda, its non-sport livestreaming debut is lined up for the spring. “Netflix history” will be made on March 4th as stand-up comedy special Chris Rock: Selective Outrage becomes its first live global event, going out in this time zone at, um, 3am.

According to Sarandos, Netflix intends to use livestreaming for “things that are creatively benefited by live” such as reality competition shows that include a public voting element. It has made several forays into both interactive content and reality series in recent years, making a push on public voting the next inevitable step.

It won’t be the first streamer to do this either: Disney, its most direct rival, already exclusively livestreams Dancing with the Stars, having last year moved the celebrity competition format from broadcast network ABC to Disney Plus.

Still, Netflix’s ongoing aversion to live sport sticks out in an industry with a long tradition of making expensive swoops on live sports rights as a means to swiftly build a loyal subscriber base.

Live sport

Disney, which owns sports network ESPN, offers US subscribers a Disney Plus and ESPN Plus bundle. Warner Bros Discovery – which has just extended its Olympic Games rights through to 2032, this time in a joint deal with the European Broadcasting Union – is active in sport through its subsidiary Eurosport.

Love of live sport has firmly spread to the Big Tech streamers, too.

Since 2017, Amazon Prime Video has made various rights plays in different territories for American football (NFL), soccer (Premier League and Champions League), tennis, baseball and basketball.

Apple TV Plus began dipping its toe into live sport last year through deals with Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer and is now rumoured to be interested in a piece of English Premier League action.

Even Google’s parent, Alphabet, is keen, having recently won rights to stream Sunday NFL games via YouTube.

These streamers, unlike Netflix, are embracing a fact that broadcasters have known for decades, yet have the pleasure of rediscovering each year. When it comes to garnering mass audiences, three little words work more powerful magic than any others: “And it’s live!”

Viewers of Sky Sports will be familiar with the prematch refrain. It is part hype generator, part rallying cry, part bat signal to take your place on the couch.

Live is everything in television. Audience ratings consistently prove there is no single better currency than “it’s happening now”.

Take, for example, the top 50 list of most-watched shows on Irish television in 2022, published last week. You have to scroll all the way down to 13th place to find the first non-live programme: Room to Improve. Above the Dermot Bannon ratings magnet sits coverage of 10 live sporting fixtures plus perennial poll-topper The Late Late Toy Show and the 11th-placed Six-One News.

Most-watched programmes

The bulletin in question aired on January 21st, 2022, and featured a live address to the nation by then Taoiseach Micheál Martin as he lifted the remaining Covid-19 restrictions.

Across the top 50, only 12½ programmes were pre-recorded, with the half here being the 25th-placed I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here, which mixes non-live and live segments.

Because only the most-watched episode of any given series is included, the way TAM Ireland and Nielsen compile the top 50 list increases the chances of it being clogged up by separate live sport events.

But the dominance of live shows is nevertheless remarkable, with last year’s highly ranked non-sport programmes including the RTÉ Nine O’Clock news bulletin (14th), The Late Late Show itself (18th), the New Year’s Eve Countdown Concert with Westlife (20th), Dancing with the Stars (22nd) and the Rose of Tralee International Festival (27th).

These disparate events have one thing in common: viewers consuming them know absolutely anything can happen within their allotted run time, even if it’s only the briefest sight of a tedious streaker.

This makes Chris Rock, unplanned recipient of the back of Will Smith’s hand during last year’s Oscars, an interesting choice of first livestream for Netflix. Rock wound up at the centre of one of the 2022 television year’s most bizarre moments. By livestreaming his set, Netflix is effectively admitting how much it craves even a smidgen of that real-time unpredictability.

The Californian company is coveting its share of the obvious thrills. It just doesn’t want to put its hand in its pocket for sports rights – for now, at least. “Never say never” was Sarandos’s caveat.

This will be an important year for Netflix and a pivotal one, too. If the streamer, which publishes its next quarterly update later this week, can’t make sufficient revenue from its new advertising business while also re-energising subscriber growth, it will need to come up with new tactics.

Cheering on from the sidelines of sport is all very well until you’re drowned out by the sound of rivals racing straight onto the pitch.