Why Amazon Wants to Buy 22 Regional Sports Networks

Get the DealBook newsletter to make sense of major business and policy headlines — and the power-brokers who shape them.
__________

Amazon is reportedly interested in buying nearly two dozen regional sports networks. That would be a bold gamble on the future of how viewers consume sports content.

The e-commerce giant is said to have bid for the 22 regional sports networks that 21st Century Fox is offloading as part of its sale to the Walt Disney Company, CNBC reported, citing unnamed sources. Together, the networks air the games of 44 teams in the N.B.A., Major League Baseball and the N.H.L. An earlier report by Reuters that also cited unnamed sources suggested that the networks could be valued at over $20 billion, which would make the purchase Amazon’s biggest deal ever.

But what does Amazon want with 22 sports networks?

The simplified logic runs like this: At a time when pay TV is in decline, sports content drives viewership across platforms. Owning rights to big franchises would help Amazon market its Prime program (which costs $119 a year), especially if that membership included access to those games. That, in turn, could add more revenue, as Prime members tend to buy more on Amazon.

Growth in the number of Amazon Prime members in the United States has slowed recently. It hit 97 million members this year, up from about 90 million last year, according to an estimate from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. A pickup in membership growth would be welcome.

Amazon has some experience with sports broadcasts. It streams “Thursday Night Football” on Prime, for which it paid $130 million for two years. But $20 billion is a big price tag. So why would Amazon pay up for a business in which it has little experience? The answer is complicated.

Regional sports networks are effectively the middlemen of sports rights. They are paid by cable and satellite companies that carry the network, but the network also has to pay teams for rights to broadcast their games. The problem is that cable and satellite companies want to pay less to carry these networks, because fewer people are paying for television these days, while sports teams are looking to receive higher fees.

There are bargaining tools that some companies could employ to make owning the middlemen worthwhile. A big media company, like Fox, could bundle the regional sports network with other channels, like Fox News, to get higher rates, making up for the corresponding increase in rights fees. Local TV station owners, like Sinclair or Tegna, both of which are also interested in Fox’s regional sports channels, could use a similar tactic, by bundling local news broadcasts with a regional sports network.

But Amazon doesn’t have such leverage, which may not matter.

One theory is Amazon could take the games off the cable and satellite systems and make them exclusively available to Prime members. There are two problems with that idea. First, Fox has already negotiated agreements for its 22 regional sports networks with most of the major pay-TV carriers. Those contracts will have to be honored for the next three to five years. Second, even after those contracts run out, team owners may not want to limit the visibility of their games to a single online service, even — or, perhaps, especially — if it’s Amazon.

Another option would be for Amazon to make games available to Prime subscribers in addition to the local cable system. That way team owners don’t lose out on audience. But the cable operators are sure to balk. They likely don’t want to carry a regional sports network that a Prime subscriber could get for less than $10 a month. And if the pay-TV operators refused to carry the networks, Amazon would face owners unhappy about their teams’ lack of visibility.

So why would Amazon want to spend so much for a business that could come undone in the next few years? The obvious answer is that Amazon expects — or plans to create — disruption.

Streaming could become the dominant media business in the next few years, which could mean that streaming companies become the leading sports broadcasters if they line up the right deals. (Amazon could aim to win exclusive rights for Monday and Sunday N.F.L. games when they come up for renewal around 2021.) And while that may be risky, Amazon does know a thing or two about how to dominate a business. Ask anyone.