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Sometimes, the future isn’t necessarily an improvement.

In the early 1980s, Paul Stubbens was living in Toronto, where he’d moved a few years earlier with his family from England’s West Country. On Saturdays at 5 p.m., he would turn on the local multicultural TV station, Channel 47, pop a tape into his new Betamax machine and record a one-hour broadcast, a shortened version of whatever English Premier League soccer match had been played across the Atlantic seven hours earlier. Then he would take the tape downtown and put it on the Greyhound bus for delivery to London, Ont., where his stepfather-in-law owned a British pub.

Which is how it came to be that, on Sunday mornings at 9 a.m., patrons of The Poacher’s Arms (who, the early 1980s being prehistoric in regard to the speed with which news travelled, did not yet know the outcome of the previous day’s game) would cheer on their side as they downed their bangers and mash.

All of which came rushing back to Stubbens this week as he reflected on his frustration of not being able to watch English Premier League (EPL) games on his home television. For the past decade or so, Stubbens, a Manchester United fan since he was 8, had been catching the Saturday matches on Sportsnet and TSN. But earlier this year, EPL struck a three-year deal to sell the exclusive Canadian rights for its games to the global sports-streaming service, DAZN (pronounced Da-Zone): no more broadcasts from Sportsnet or TSN. And Stubbens, who now lives just outside of London, Ont., doesn’t have home Internet service robust enough for him to watch DAZN stream on his 70-inch TV.

“Going to online-only access is taking a step backward,” he suggested during a phone interview.

Stubbens can watch the games on his iPhone, using cellphone data instead of his home Internet, but once he tries to send the signal to the TV, everything just begins to buffer and seize. Besides, he can’t watch many games that way before hitting his 100-gigabyte-a-month cellphone-data limit. Living where he does, he explained, it’s “physically not possible,” to watch the games on a TV that receives its signal from the Internet.

Stubbens is roadkill on the express highway to the future, a utopia of frothy promises about endless consumer choice, easy to use globe-straddling TV networks and lower cable bills. But he is not alone: Out in Victoria, Paul Hanson says his 69-year-old father, a lifelong Arsenal supporter, all but stopped watching English soccer after the UEFA Champions League games moved to DAZN in 2018. “He was struggling to figure out: ‘How do I get this on my computer? Or onto my TV? And why can’t I just PVR the game and when I get home from the office just play it like I’ve been able to for the previous 10 years?’” Hanson explained.

As the sports-viewing landscape is disrupted by companies such as DAZN and Amazon Prime, – just as Netflix and others have upended the traditional movie and TV business over the past decade – many fans are thrilled with their new empowerment. But many are also frustrated as they navigate a confusing array of new apps and services and futuristic technology that doesn’t always work as promised. Millions more are wishing that somebody could just explain why they couldn’t watch Bayern vs. Tottenham on their TV this week and whether they’ll be able to watch Bianca Andreescu at her triumphal return to Indian Wells in March.

And as DAZN, backed by a British-American billionaire, with billions more in venture-capital funding, ramps up its activity in Canada, it is making no secret of its long-term goal to snatch whatever sports rights in this country might come available: perhaps even the NHL, when its 12-year agreement with Rogers Media expires after the 2025-26 season.

The future seems to be rushing toward us every day: This week, Amazon announced it had bought the exclusive German rights to 16 Premier League games, beginning in the 2021-22 season. That followed the company’s announcement a few days earlier that its broadcast of 10 Premier League games had spurred a record number of sign-ups in Britain for its Prime streaming service and loyalty program.

Convergence Research, a consulting firm based in Victoria, forecasts that 33 per cent of Canadian households will not have a subscription to a traditional TV provider (cable, satellite, or IPTV) by the end of this year. The firm also forecasts that households with subscriptions to what are known as over-the-top (OTT) services – that is, TV-style services delivered over the Internet, such as Netflix or Crave – will outnumber households with traditional pay-TV subscriptions, such as TSN, by the end of 2020.

Sports have been a staple of Canadian television since the earliest broadcasts. Less than two months after CBC-TV went on the air in September, 1952, it was regularly airing Toronto Maple Leafs games.

Initially, sports TV rights sold for a few thousand dollars a game, bringing in significantly less money than ticket sales did: CBC paid a reported $7,500 for rights to the 1952 Grey Cup. But as team owners grasped the value of the games as advertising platforms, rights costs began to escalate. Over the past few years, as audiences began to shift to on-demand viewing, embracing tools such as DVRs that allow them to record programs and then skip ads, sports became the sole programming genre to really make ad agencies salivate. Viewers are forced to tune in live – or risk either missing a great moment, or hearing about a game result before they can watch a recording – making them relatively defenceless against ads.

The consulting firm PwC projects the North American media-rights market will be worth US$21.7-billion in 2020, rising to US$25.3-billion in 2023, with the size of the increases escalating each year: 4.1 per cent in 2021, 5.6 per cent in 2022 and 5.9 per cent in 2023. (Meanwhile, ticket sales for live sports events are expected to increase only about 2.6 per cent annually.)

And the cable-TV industry loves sports fans, too: An October, 2018 report on Canada’s anglophone market by the Ottawa-based research company Media Technology Monitor found that 84 per cent of heavy consumers of sports subscribed to a traditional-style TV package, compared with only 73 per cent of the general anglophone population.

Still, there are reasons for broadcasters to be cautious. As PwC noted in its annual Sports Outlook report, released last month, “substantive increases in exclusive rights deals will keep trending upwards and will still come with a harsh reality. It’s hard to make money. Networks recognize that live sports delivers viewers. It is DVR-proof. Often, they consider exclusive live sports deals as loss leaders – a vehicle to drive viewers to prime-time programming as well as other content on other platforms in their media portfolio.” (Indeed, Bloomberg reported that DAZN lost about £500-million in 2018.)

DAZN is one of the players pushing the cost of those rights deals higher. Launched in 2016 by the London-based Perform Group, DAZN arrived in Canada in 2017 as the sole proprietor of NFL Game Pass and NFL Sunday Ticket, as well as NFL Red Zone, the day-long Sunday broadcast beloved by fantasy-football fans and other hardcore viewers, a “look-in” show that dips in and out of games across the league when teams look likely to score.

DAZN – whose offerings in Canada include MMA, cricket, snooker, boxing and other sports – has also launched in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Japan, Spain, Brazil and the United States. Most of its rights are specific to each territory, but the company envisions a future in which, similar to Netflix, it buys up global rights so it can offer them to a worldwide audience.

DAZN first appeared on the radar of many Canadians last March, as young Canadian tennis star Bianca Andreescu blazed her way into the finals of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, Calif., and fans began wondering aloud (and on social media) why the match wasn’t airing on the usual channels: either TSN, which carries the ATP men’s tour; or Sportsnet, which had the rights to the Women’s Tennis Association tour many years ago.

Spotting a marketing opportunity, DAZN Canada, whose parent company struck a long-term deal for the global rights to the WTA circuit in 2014, streamed the match free on its Twitter and Facebook accounts, as well as the DAZN app for those who downloaded it. Andreescu announced the free stream on her own Twitter account, helping drive viewers to the game.

“From a pure business perspective, obviously we wanted our brand to get out there and what better way than having this – at that point relatively unknown – Canadian upstart at the next-best tournament that wasn’t a Grand Slam, absolutely killing it,” Norm Lem, the senior vice-president of revenue at DAZN Canada, said in an interview.

Lem noted that women’s tennis has historically been less in demand than the men’s circuit. But because of DAZN’s global reach, “with the platform we have, we have a great ability to serve underserved markets.”

The match was one way to break through what Lem characterizes as a “duopolistic” sports-media marketplace in Canada, in which the two main players are owned by vertically-integrated companies. DAZN retails for $20 a month or $150 a year.

“When you look at Rogers and Bell, not only do they have broadcasting rights, they have over-the-air rights, they have specialty channels, they have cellphone companies, they have retail locations, they have obviously large cable and satellite TV distribution businesses, they are in publishing, they are in radio,” noted Lem, who has previously worked for both companies. “So, when you look at the marketplace here, they have a pretty strong grip on the sports-media market in Canada.”

Lem also pointed out that Bell and Rogers each have a significant ownership stake in the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Toronto Raptors, the Toronto Argonauts and Toronto FC, and Rogers owns the Toronto Blue Jays, giving both companies powerful leverage over any sale of Canadian rights the professional leagues might make.

DAZN certainly has a fan in Nitish Bissonauth, 26, a Torontonian who was born into a family now in its third generation of Manchester United support. “For me, soccer is a religion, so there wasn’t any room for me to compromise, or say I’m just going to catch the highlights. And because DAZN is an app, it allows you to watch literally anywhere.” Last weekend, Bissonauth said, a buddy of his watched the match between Manchester City and Manchester United on his phone, while at a Christmas parade with his girlfriend and her nephew. “He was able to watch and we were able to text about it, you know what I mean?”

And though his father misses the tradition of grabbing the remote and turning on the TV for the whole family, Bissonauth says his dad now carries the phone around in his pocket, listening to DAZN broadcasts with earbuds while doing his chores around the house: Not unlike an old transistor radio. Bissonauth says that, because he gets all the sports he needs from DAZN, he joined a growing number of Canadians and cut the cord: He cancelled his cable, which included subscriptions to TSN and Sportsnet.

Figures filed with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission paint a concerning portrait of businesses beginning to lose their grip on traditional viewers. Between 2014 and 2018 – the most recent year for which figures are available – Sportsnet’s total revenue grew to $575-million from $312-million, a rise of almost 85 per cent, largely on the basis of supercharged advertising sales for hockey. (Its 12-year, $5.2-billion purchase of national NHL rights began in the 2014-15 season.) And its profits rose handsomely as well. But its number of subscribers who accessed the service through a traditional cable/satellite/IPTV-style package – known as linear viewers – has fallen 13.7 per cent over the same period, to a little less than 7.2 million from 8.3 million.

Meanwhile, rights costs paid by Sportsnet rose to $295-million from $136-million over the same period, up a whopping 217 per cent. And they will likely continue to escalate, as the NHL deal becomes more expensive each year.

At TSN, meanwhile, revenue grew modestly to $477-million from $452-million over the same period, while rights-acquisition costs went up 39 per cent, to $143-million from $103-million. Mirroring the cord-cutting pressures facing Sportsnet, TSN’s linear subscribers fell 14 per cent.

Over the past few years, each network introduced its own DAZN-like stand-alone OTT services for viewers without cable, which can be accessed on mobile devices or Internet-connected TVs. Both TSN Direct and Sportsnet Now, which launched at a price point of $25 a month, now charge the same as DAZN: $20. Earlier this year TSN also began offering what it calls a Day Pass, for $4.99 – perfect for Canadians who might not subscribe to the network but wanted to catch a big event – such as, say, the Grey Cup last month.

Sportsnet’s minimum cost is $9.99 for a seven-day pass.

But, for viewers, there are some potentially confusing – and costly – complications. Those who have traditional cable-style TV subscriptions, which include subscriptions to TSN and Sportsnet, can access the channels’ apps free through their TV providers. But not everyone can keep tabs on all of their subscriptions: one sports executive who spoke recently with The Globe and Mail initially said that he had cut the cord, only to reveal during the course of the conversation that he still subscribed to cable for his family, but he just never watched TV in the traditional manner anymore. As The Globe asked questions about his viewing habits, however, he realized he might actually be paying twice for TSN and Sportsnet subscriptions: on his cable bill and again for the stand-alone apps on his phone and iPad.

It is difficult to gauge how many subscribers the networks might be making up with their OTT offerings, as neither network releases the figures to the public. But Bart Yabsley, the president of Sportsnet, told The Globe that the number of such stand-alone subscribers is less than one for every two that have cancelled their traditional cable-based subscriptions.

Nevertheless, both Sportsnet and TSN retain one significant advantage over their online-only competitors, which gives them extra leverage when they try to convince leagues to sell their rights. “We are still very, very widely distributed on those traditional platforms, such as cable TV services,” Yabsley said. “Some of those foreign players, we offer something that they can’t offer, which is millions and millions of homes and millions and millions of people watching on a given night.”

Leagues that want to grow their fan base might reconsider the wisdom of making exclusive deals with online-only services, which can reduce their mainstream relevance as casual fans who might otherwise have caught the games simply find other sports to follow.

Stewart Johnston, the president of TSN, suggested that may have been a factor that enabled the network to sign a six-year extension of its rights deal with the CFL last month, two years before the old one expired.

“Our conversation with the CFL was premised on two partners who had a significant amount of trust in what the other could deliver,” he said during a phone interview this week. “I don’t think there was a need to actually blatantly say that, by either party.

“Sport properties have recognized the power that comes with [our] kind of scale and reach. And even in the world today, knowing that there are new options available [to leagues and other rights holders] for distribution of any content, we have a lengthy list of major property partners who come to us and want to do deals with us.”

Robert Ruscitti, a teacher who coaches soccer in York Region, north of Toronto, believes EPL and Champions League risk losing their place in the culture if they remain on an online-only service such as DAZN. “We’re trying to grow the game,” he said. But some of his students can’t watch the EPL broadcasts anymore, since their families don’t have DAZN; some may not even have good enough home Internet service to stream games, anyway. “It just makes it that much more difficult to get a kid involved,” he said.

“Just think about hockey,” he added. “What would happen if hockey went from CBC and Sportsnet to DAZN – which unfortunately I think is the way things are going to go? What’s going to happen then? Canadians will be up in arms at that point. Because Hockey Night in Canada will no longer be hockey night in Canada.”

One NFL game, but at least six ways to watch it

An industry in disruption can be disruptive for viewers, too – or, at least, confusing. When the New York Jets strolled into the offensive thresher known as the Baltimore Ravens for this week’s Thursday Night Football NFL matchup, Canadians could choose from at least six legal sources – including three online-based services – all of which were airing essentially the same broadcast, except with different ads.

Here’s how it broke down: Viewers might have tuned into Fox, the U.S. over-the-air network, which was actually producing the broadcast. Or they could have chosen CTV2, the channel belonging to Bell Media, which owns the broadcast rights for NFL games in Canada and therefore has the right to impose its signal over that of Fox, in a practice known as simultaneous substitution (or “simsub”). But, because of that simsub, viewers of both Fox and CTV2 would see precisely the same broadcast, which featured a CTV2 logo in the right-hand bottom corner of the screen and included Canadian ads for a GMC truck, the electronics store the Source, Tim Hortons, and certain CTV shows.

Or, if they subscribed to TSN, they could have tuned into TSN1, where the same broadcast was running, but with different ads – and no logo.

Amazon Prime subscribers, meanwhile, could open up the app for that streaming service on their phone or tablet or TV, where the only difference they would have noticed would be an entirely different set of ads aimed at a Canadian audience. Not surprisingly, the ads included promotions for The Aeronauts, a new action-adventure film produced by Amazon Studios now in theatres, which will start streaming on Prime next week.

Viewers could also have gone online – either in a boring old browser, or through an app – to access Twitch, the free Amazon-owned streaming service popular with gamers, where viewers conduct a frenetic and endlessly scrolling, chat on the side of the screen. During commercial breaks on Thursday, viewers were shown a message that read: “Commercial in progress. Please stay tuned.”

Lastly, they could have tuned into the game on DAZN (through a browser, an app, or a device connected to their television such as Roku or Apple TV). There, despite paying for a premium foreign-owned service, they would see the same simsub broadcast shown to viewers on the free over-the-air CTV2 network: complete with ads for CTV shows such as Station 19 and Canada’s Walk of Fame Awards.