Since the rise of cable TV, live television has meant bundling. Consumers have a growing, but still limited, ability to pick and choose their live TV channels. Even with new "skinny" bundles, there's some kind of bundle involved. But not all parts of your pay TV bundle are created equal. Sports have come to dominate the live TV conversation, and for good reason.

A football sits on a field

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Sports, live TV, and the "DVR-proof" dream

When consumers pay their steep cable and satellite bills, they're paying primarily for sports: ESPN channels account for as much as $9.06 of each monthly cable bill. Throw in other, non-ESPN sports channels, and the total reaches nearly $20 per monthly bill. Nonsports channels measure their shares of cable costs in mere cents.

All of this is because advertisers love sports. When advertisers buy ad time during a big sporting event, they can be far more certain that their ad will be seen than they would be if it aired during a sitcom or a drama. That's because the rise of DVRs and streaming options have decimated the live TV audience for such programs. Few types of programming have been resistant to the trend, and sports have been the most powerful example.

Viewers prefer to watch their sports live. That means no fast-forwarding through the commercials or waiting to watch things later on a subscription streaming service. And that means advertising dollars and big business for sports leagues, sports channels, and cable companies.

Bundles and live sports

The disproportionate value of sports to satellite and cable bundles has led to talk of a "sports bubble." It is hard to calculate the value of sports when no other forms of live TV programming are really comparable, though the alleged bubble has remained intact for years.

But there's another question worth asking about sports and live TV: what is the future for nonsports live TV in an era when direct-to-consumer options are so feasible?

Sports have been available in direct-to-consumer form to varying extents since the debut of Major League Baseball's streaming service, MLB.TV, in 2002. But network TV channels like ESPN and FS1 have remained bundle staples through cable and satellite services. Crucially, they've also been centerpieces for a new type of live pay TV service: the live TV streaming service, or "skinny bundle." Skinny bundles like Dish Network's Sling TV aim to keep costs low by offering only a few channels.

A channel changer points at a TV showing sports

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Yet sports channels have proven largely nonnegotiable even in services that seek to slash bundles and prices. Pricey ESPN and FS1 are skinny-bundle staples, available from every major live TV streaming service. Only Philo -- a start-up dedicated specifically to creating a super-cheap skinny bundle by ditching sports and news -- and AT&T's (T -0.59%) WatchTV have made real efforts to slash sports. AT&T's more successful and significant skinny bundle effort, DirecTV Now, includes sports channels. The folks behind major skinny bundle services clearly believe that a $40 bundle with sports channels in it is a more winning proposition than a $15 bundle without them.

That reveals a stunning dependence on sports among bundled live TV offerings and the nonsports channels that fill them out. In an era when bundles are not necessarily going to remain the default for live TV, where does that leave companies like AMC Networks?

Threats to the bundle model

The bundle is essential to the survival of nonsports channels. Without live TV viewers and direct subscribers, traditional network TV channels become producers of content for on-demand streaming services like Netflix -- or, worse yet, useless middlemen between the outside studios that created their content and the streaming services people will actually watch that content on. And with streaming services becoming increasingly focused on using their own in-house studios, even these grim options could dry up.

Sports may be able to save the live TV bundle. But why should sports leagues and networks want to do so? In the streaming era, sports leagues and networks could focus on direct-to-consumer options instead.

Walt Disney's (DIS -3.12%) ESPN+ does not offer content from the ESPN network TV channels, but Disney could decide to use what it has built as a foundation for a true ESPN direct-to-consumer option in the future. Sports leagues could use their streaming services to bypass regional sports networks, particularly in cases where such regional networks are not owned in whole or in part by the teams that they show.

And then there are the stand-alone live sports streams popping up via sports deals cut by Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and others. These companies know that live sports get eyeballs which is why they do not show any real inclination to rescue channels like the ones owned by AMC or Discovery Communications. Social media giants and other tech companies with live streaming ambitions are looking to purchase live sports broadcast rights or to license those rights from established sports networks like ESPN. They're not planning to recreate the bundles that help nonsports channels reach their audience.

Live TV's future

Sports are powerful enough to save live TV bundles, but the days of piggybacking on ESPN may be numbered. High bidders for sports rights may not be network TV channels in the future, and owners of network TV channels like ESPN may decide that a direct-to-consumer solution will serve them better than being a part of a bundle. The future is bright for live sports, but for other forms of live TV, there is much to worry about.