Steve Ballmer on Netflix and sports: Don't count it out

Ballmer noted that Netflix has been forced to change, as content-owning companies have begun to pull back from Netflix's platform.
Image: 2018 New York Times Dealbook
Steve Ballmer, Founder, USAFacts and Former C.E.O., Microsoft speaks onstage during the 2018 New York Times Dealbook on Nov. 1, 2018 in New York City.Michael Cohen / Michael Cohen/Getty Images for The New York Times

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By Claire Atkinson

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has stated publicly the company has no plans to get into the live sports business.

But Steve Ballmer, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers and the former chief executive officer of Microsoft — where Hastings served on the board of directors for five years — isn't convinced.

"Reed says sports is an interesting content type: It is not replaceable," Ballmer said in an interview with NBC News at The New York Times' DealBook conference on Thursday. "They have built their new model on non-replaceable content."

Netflix has remained focused on streaming on-demand content over the internet directly to consumers, a business that has boomed in recent years and pushed other media companies to play catch up.

But Ballmer noted that Netflix has been forced to change, as content-owning companies have begun to pull back from Netflix's platform. Their new model, he said, was to have content that people couldn't get anywhere else.

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Hastings was the lead independent director of Microsoft until 2012, when he stepped down.

"I know the guy who runs Netflix well, he was my boss," Ballmer said.

But sports leagues may not need Netflix. Ballmer said the leagues could one day explore their own direct-to-consumer services rather than going through existing distributors.

Ballmer clarified that he wasn't speaking on behalf of any leagues.

"Sports leagues are popular enough that if the NFL wanted to have all games on NFL.com, they could," he said. "And they could reach every place Netflix reaches."

Ballmer acquired the Clippers in 2014 for $2 billion and immediately set about exploring a plan to offer the team's games direct to consumers. Ultimately, the Clippers sold their TV rights to Fox, and the two developed a joint plan to provide fans with increased digital options such as viewing games from multiple points of view.

In October, the team launched "Clippers CourtVision," which integrates data visualization and augmented reality into livestreams of games.

When asked if the value of the Clippers has risen, he said: "If I looked to sell the team now, the first number would be a three."

Ballmer, however, said he is not in the market for a football team. He had been floated by some in the sports industry as a possible buyer for the Seattle Seahawks, which may come to market following the death of owner Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft.

"I'm not looking to own a football team," Ballmer said.