Sports are at a critical point. While TV viewership is in a clear state of decline (though still sizable), younger fans are embracing new ways of engaging with leagues with decreasing importance placed on watching games live.
This brings opportunities to leagues but also risk. Tweaking competitions and game structure to attract more younger viewers comes with the possibility of alienating older fans, but what’s clear in Variety Intelligence Platform’s latest special report, “Sports’ New TV Formula,” is that things cannot remain the same for much longer.
VIP partnered with leading services insight firm Maru/Matchbox to survey fans of major U.S. leagues, including the NFL, NBA and MLB. The results depict a radically different type of fan who values brand extensions into areas of interest while placing less value on watching whole games.
Video highlights are of increasing interest among younger fans, with new content rights revenue streams emerging. Coupled with the continued decline of pay-TV subscriptions, and thus the ability to watch full games, launching direct-to-consumer services is often touted as a solution to the issues of eroding subscriber bases and a desire to avoid sitting through full games.
It is not always so simple. As WWE discovered with WWE Network, a league D2C solution means core fans will sign up but at the cost of raising barriers to entry for casual or new fans. It also shouldn’t be forgotten that access to highlights via free ad-supported platforms like YouTube makes sports more accessible. Locking these away may curtail growth.
Traditional sports networks are also in the midst of the digital migration. This has meant some sports that used to be shown on pay-TV are locked away behind the D2C window on services such as ESPN+, Paramount+ and Peacock.
While this has seen a premium paid for sports rights as leagues increase fees in return for restricting total audience, not all leagues are happy with being paid more to reach fewer people. This looks likely to become an interesting corporate battleground in the coming years.
One area to anticipate growth for sports is FAST (free ad-supported streaming TV). As services including Pluto, Xumo, Peacock’s free tier and Tubi keep growing, more leagues and competitions will launch FAST channels.
Existing league FAST channels, from the NFL, MLB, MLS and EPL, will evolve, moving from random replays of old games to digging into their libraries for clip-based content and showcases of highlights, epic rivalries, feuds, plays and moments.
Sports are at an evolutionary juncture. Some will be more adept than others at adapting to suit the tastes of new fans. Decisions made in the next few years will have a magnified impact on the next generation of emerging fans and how they both watch on TV but also engage in general with the leagues.
Read on to learn about:
How fandom is changing with a new generation of fans aging in to sports
What viewership trends for leagues suggest for the future of televised sport
Challenges facing football, baseball, basketball, soccer, pro wrestling, college sports, NASCAR, hockey and golf