The defining moment of Thursday night's Game 4 of the NBA Finals came in the second quarter, when Cleveland Cavaliers star Lebron James tumbled into a row of cameras and cut the back of his head. The Cavs and their star player never looked the same afterward.
A record number of viewers watched that moment online. Game 4 generated 744,500 unique viewers on WatchESPN, ESPN'S livestreaming service. That's a 128 percent increase from Game 4 last year.
Those figures represent another step in the "cord-cutting" movement: people getting away from their paid television providers by watching shows — and now increasingly sports — over the Web.
"I think people are realizing this other segment is big," said Greg Ireland, the multiscreen video research director at market intelligence firm IDC. "It's getting bigger every year, and we have to provide for them."
ESPN isn't the only one to embrace streaming for live sports. CBS uses its app to stream college basketball games during the NCAA Tournament. NBC does the same with its sports programming, including the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs. The NFL announced earlier this month it will stream the Oct. 25 game between Buffalo and Jacksonville nationally on Yahoo!
Folks are still watching live sports primarily on television, and ESPN executives don't expect that to change any time soon, they say. Viewers change their day-to-day habits so they can be in front of a television screen. And the record-setting viewership numbers from the NBA Finals speak to how indispensable live sports are to American TV viewers.
"People have to watch it live," said Justin Connolly, ESPN's executive vice president for affiliate sales. "Because there are such passionate audiences and fans, the interest to watch it live becomes so much more important personally."
But have you ever had to miss a big game? You turn your phone off, set the DVR at home to record for an extra hour in case there's overtime, warn everyone you come in contact with you haven't watched it yet.
"That sucks. It's a horrible experience," said ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell.
And that's the beauty of livestreaming, Rovell said. "People are gonna go get it. They’re going to have to watch it live. Sports fans more than others are addicted to the immediate."
That doesn't mean that all sports junkies are ready to cut the television cord. Paid TV providers are still a key middleman in connecting viewers to live sports. For example, WatchESPN users still have to sign in or "authenticate" their account with information from their paid TV provider before they can stream content.
And streaming providers still don't have universal rights to games shown by local broadcasters. The run-of-the-mill Washington Wizards basketball game isn't streamable on WatchESPN, for now.