The NBA Just Changed the Game for Watching Sports Online

The league’s out-of-market subscription package will be available for single games and single teams next season

Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors during Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors during Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

Photographer: Tony Dejak/AP Photo

The NBA season ended last night with a TV bang. The Golden State Warriors’ championship-clinching win over the Cleveland Cavaliers capped a record-setting series for ABC, which has broadcast the NBA Finals since 2003. At nearly 20 million viewers per game, it was the most watched championship series since Michael Jordan made his last Finals appearance, in 1998. But just before last night’s mass audience tuned in to the 67-year-old network, the NBA made a small announcement with big implications for its digital future: Next season, for the first time, the league’s subscription package for out-of-market games will be offered on a per-game and per-team basis.

Until now, NBA League Pass has been available as a bulk offering. Customers paid a flat rate—$200 for the full season last year—and got access to every game that wasn’t available locally via a regional sports network. The package, sold by pay-TV providers and by the NBA itself through a digital media player, was the same no matter the carrier. The new offerings, according to the NBA’s press release, will allow fans to purchase individual live games or subscribe to just a single team for the season.

For now, the plan is to make single-game and single-team packages available only through the league’s digital subscription service for desktops, tablets, and mobile phones. “We are working with the television distributors now but do not know yet which ones will participate,” NBA spokesman Mike Wade said in an e-mail. Pricing information will come next month.

Whatever the details, the move is a jolt to the out-of-market distribution model for sports leagues. “Wow. That shakes the ecosystem,” says Jimmy Schaeffler, a former producer for ABC Sports and now the chairman of pay-TV consulting firm Carmel Group. “The whole idea of individual choice is seeping into something that could have gone a long time before it came to this.”

The NBA began offering League Pass in 1994. The other major sports—the NFL, NHL, and MLB—offer similar services that bundle a menu of out-of-market games. The NFL has an exclusive deal with satellite provider DirecTV for its Sunday Ticket package. Hockey and baseball, like the NBA, work with multiple providers.

The logic of bundling has held for two decades. A Warriors fan living in Florida has to pay for almost 1,000 games per season to get the 70-plus games she wants to watch. The NBA is ready to surrender this subsidy to provide easier access to its product. “They are trying to grow the game,” says Schaeffler. “You don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars a year to watch just a few games. You don’t have to get down to the local bar or find a friend who’s got it.” That should earn goodwill with existing fans and, in the longer run, help create new ones.

Carriers and programmers, however, are not particularly interested in the growth of basketball. For them, this is yet another attempt to peel apart the bundles within bundles that they spent the last 35 years weaving together—and that reality probably explains why none of the league’s distributors appear to be on board yet. The number and size of carriers, if any, that join the NBA’s new model will be another sign of how far we’ve come in the great unbundling, as will the prices. Schaeffler expects $50 to $100 for a single team across the season and $2 to $5 per game. The league declined to comment on whether prices will be uniform from team to team and game to game.

The move once again puts the NBA and its new commissioner, Adam Silver, at the forefront of a big shift in the sports industry. It also puts pressure on other leagues—especially on the large bundles offered by the NHL and MLB—to expand their offerings.