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A winning strategy for the future of sports streaming

As options to consume sports multiply, leagues and media companies need to prioritise the fan experience

In this “golden age” of sports content, fans have more options than ever to watch what they love. Currently, this means navigating a combination of cable, broadcast and streaming services across their big and small screens. Helping to usher in this age, streaming has increasingly become a favourite channel for watching live sports, especially for younger fans. With the move to streaming, sports organisations are seeking further monetisation of their rights and chasing a shifting consumer base. And streaming services are looking to use live sports as a differentiator to fight off competition and reduce churn.

Examples of this emerging relationship include Amazon paying US$1 billion per season to stream NFL “Thursday Night Football”; “Friday Night Baseball” and Major League Soccer on the Apple TV+®streaming video service; and a number of US women's and men's national soccer team matches landing on HBO Max, starting 2023.1 In addition, leagues and regional sports networks (RSNs) are looking to launch their own direct-to-consumer (DTC) offerings.2 Their goals are to better control their own destiny and engage fans in a more personalised way, capturing and monetising data.

Increased competition could lead to a better overall product, both on and off the field. This may include novel game formats, improved production quality, additional ancillary content, enhanced uses of data and preventing teams from “tanking” (in order to retain subscribers). However, there are some dangers to watch for. As this new landscape matures, fans could face an increasingly confusing mix of options to wade through to watch their favorite teams and events: home and mobile streaming services, RSNs, and cable/satellite channels. Instead of building deeper relationships, leagues and providers may therefore be creating artificial barriers for fans. Also, by having so many options to watch a specific player or team, leagues could miss out on maximising their potential audience because of market fragmentation.

To explore how fans feel about this unfolding future, we surveyed 500 US respondents, of which 319 were identified as sports fans.3 We found that sports fans crave content and many pay for it; they just want to access it easily. Over half of sports fans surveyed (53%) said that they paid for a streaming video service to access sports content in the last year. But fans have some frustrations with their experiences, which could potentially reduce their level of overall engagement. Negative sentiments include feeling burdened by too many subscriptions (49%), feeling frustrated by difficulties finding content (62%) and actually missing events they wanted to see because of these difficulties (54%).

These statistics are representative of the challenge—there is no “one-size-fits-all” for the entire fan base. Fan attention is being pulled in myriad directions by different entertainment choices and if providers aren’t careful, they could see fans drifting away. This raises some difficult questions in the streaming era:

  • Will fans continue to crave this jam-packed sports ecosystem?
  • How can leagues build loyalty and create superfans that keep tuning in?
  • How can teams, leagues and streaming providers meet the needs of younger fans, who seek more interactive and engaging entertainment experiences?
  • How will streaming providers incorporate and leverage fantasy, social media, betting and other engagement channels?
  • What will the new data ecosystem look like and what does it all mean for relationships with advertisers?

Recommendations for sports leaders

This market is going to take many years to develop and mature. There will likely be a long transition as licensing rights expire and change and streaming providers build their live sports infrastructure. Those who want to reach sports fans through DTC offerings should focus on some key considerations:

  • Ask fundamental questions. Why do you want a DTC service? Who are you building it for? What will make it special? What aren’t you going to do? How are you going to make money? Can you be in it for the long term?
  • Put the fan first. If you build it, fans won’t come unless they know how to get there. Focus on overall user experience, search capabilities and unique value for the consumer.
  • Create an omnichannel experience. Think about how traditional broadcasting, streaming, social media, sports betting, gaming, fantasy and other engagement channels can all come together to support and enhance one another. Build a strategy to integrate and leverage fan data across these different areas.

Technology, Media & Telecommunications

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  1. Alex Sherman, “Amazon's exclusive ‘Thursday Night Football’ package will begin in 2022 instead of 2023 ,” CNBC, May 3, 2021; Apple Newsroom, “Apple and Major League Baseball announce first 12 weeks of ‘Friday Night Baseball’ doubleheader schedule beginning April 8 ,” March 29, 2022; Rachel Bachman and Tim Higgins, “Apple, Major League Soccer strike 10-year streaming deal for all MLS games ,” Wall Street Journal, June 14, 2022; Joe Lemire, “Turner obtains U.S. soccer broadcast rights, will produce first sports livestream on HBO Max ,” SportTechie, March 1, 2022. This article is an independent publication and has not been authorized, sponsored, or otherwise approved by Apple Inc. Apple TV+ is a registered trademark of Apple Inc.

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  2. Daniel Kaplan, “NFL considers creating a streaming service of its own ,” The Athletic, March 28, 2022; Brad Adgate, “Sinclair’s regional sports networks look to streaming to grow revenue ,” Forbes, January 11, 2022.

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  3. We surveyed 500 US respondents in February 2022, to identify sports fans and understand their beliefs and behaviors. To determine who was a sports fan we asked the question, “On a scale from 1–10, how much of a ‘sports fan’ are you?” (One equated to “Do not actively follow sports” and 10 equated to “Spend a significant amount of money and/or time actively following sports”). Those that answered six or higher were considered “sports fans” for purposes of the survey. Approximately 63% of the total sample were sports fans (56% male, 44% female).

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The authors would like to thank Akash Rawat and Chad Deweese for their valuable input.

Cover image: Jaime Austin.

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