As streaming service debuts go, Paramount Plus is hardly off to a promising start. The library of shows at this point is essentially what you got at CBS All Access. (That's not surprising since Paramount Plus is essentially CBS All Access with a fresh coat of paint and a Super Bowl ad buy.)
Any eye-catching original programs are far off down the road. Even the Oprah Winfrey interview with Harry and Meghan that everyone's been talking about this past week week has aired just about everywhere —including for free on CBS.com — but it's not on Paramount Plus anymore.
Add it all up, and there's not much of an argument for signing up for Paramount Plus. So why am I going to mash that subscribe button anyway?
I can sum that up with four letters: NWSL.
The NWSL is, of course, the Nation Women's Soccer League, which is about to kick off its ninth season (making it the longest-running women's professional soccer league ever in the U.S.). If you haven't watched an NWSL match, you really should give it a try — almost all of the members of the U.S. Women's National Team that have won the last two World Cups play in the league, so the games are high quality. Last year, even with COVID-19 wreaking havoc on the schedule, the league set viewership records.
The NWSL announced its schedule for this year, both for the regular season and the 21-game Challenge Cup tournament that precedes it. And apart from a handful of games airing on CBS Sports Network, if I want to watch to watch any of the Challenge Cup — including the final on May 8 — I'm going to need Paramount Plus.
Paramount Plus and live sports
NWSL soccer may be the highlight of Paramount Plus, but it's not the only live sports that you'll find on the $5.99/month streaming service. Paramount Plus is also where CBS parks a lot of its UEFA Champions League coverage, and while the likes Manchester City and Bayern Munich may be a step down from the Portland Thorns and Chicago Red Stars in my mind, it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make. Paramount Plus streams other live sports like NCAA basketball, NFL live streams and golf as well.
And that's a sign of how a streaming service — even a profoundly mediocre one — can stand out at a time when every media entity seems to have amassed a content library with plans of charging people five bucks a month to gawk at it. The ability to watch live sports is still a differentiating factor. It keeps people tethered to pricey cable TV packages, and outside of immediate access to Turner Classic Movies, the challenge of watching live sports on TV is one of the few things I miss after cutting the cable cord myself two years ago.
Some streaming services understand that better than others. The $19 per month Disney bundle includes ESPN Plus along with Disney Plus and Hulu if you need your fix of soccer, college sports and ESPN originals. (If you aren't the least bit interested in either Disney Plus or Hulu, ESPN Plus is available for $5.99 monthly all by its lonesome.) Amazon Prime works live sports into its offerings as well, highlighted by NFL games.
Even services with no sports to speak of see the value of live sports for drawing in potential subscribers. HBO Max doesn't offer much in the way of live sports outside of what's already available on the HBO cable channel, but executives have hinted that could change in the future (just not this year).
Last year, rumors circulated that Apple was in talks with the Pac-12 conference to bring sports programming to the Apple TV Plus streaming service. (Or, if you're familiar with the state of Pac-12 football these days, sports-like programming.)
Live sports matter for streaming
The strategy is pretty ingenious — if the streaming service's current offering don't grab you, then maybe the live sports will (Peacock's made a similar play by adding live WWE pro wrestling events). And if you spend enough time watching a streaming service, maybe you'll grow to like it. Paramount Plus is certainly betting that my interest in seeing Portland Thorns matches will lead to me discovering things in its library that keep me around after the NWSL season wraps up this fall.
Live sports don't appeal to everyone, of course. And an unwillingness to pay cable rates that have skyrocketed in part to fund sports broadcast rights is why some people have dumped cable in the first place. Then there's the class of sports fan that sticks with cable TV, figuring it's better to pay one lump sum to the likes of Comcast or Spectrum every month than a bunch of mini payments to Viacom, Apple, Netflix and others only to discover there's no real savings over cable TV.
But for now, adding Paramount Plus for its NWSL coverage works for me. It will be up to the streaming service to convince me that there's more than just soccer to justify that $5.99 monthly fee.
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