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Roku–MLB partnership marks a first for live sports on FAST platforms

Baseball player sliding home onto a 3 dimensional play button.

Illustrated by Robyn Phelps / Getty / The Current

For the first time, baseball fans will be able to watch Major League Baseball games on The Roku Channel beginning this Sunday when the Boston Red Sox take on the St. Louis Cardinals. The deal, giving Roku the rights to broadcast an exclusive MLB game every Sunday, was announced earlier this week. It marks a shift in the evolution of free ad-supported television (FAST) platforms.

It’s the first time one of the four major sports in the U.S. (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL), will air a live game on a FAST channel. The NBA G League (the NBA’s developmental league), UEFA Women’s Champions League, Liga F and the Saudi Women’s Premier League have all aired live games on FAST platforms in the past.

Still, this is the first time a FAST platform has entered the appointment-TV lane with one of the four major sports, with more sports fans intentionally going to Roku as a destination. With FAST grabbing 24.2% of the connected TV (CTV) market (and growing), according to research that market intelligence company IDC shared with The Current, this could be the first step to a seemingly bigger future for free live sports.

Roku’s strategy is fully supported by ads, offering a low barrier to entry, which is increasingly important in the fragmented live sports space. Roku offers scale, reaching an estimated 120 million households in the U.S., and is one of the most popular streaming services in terms of usage, according to Nielsen’s The Gauge.

Casting a wider net to audiences that aren’t restricted to content behind a paywall breaks down barriers,” Katina Papas Wachter, Roku's Head of integrated brand partnerships, tells The Current. "The larger the audience opportunity, the higher the chance to find new customers and drive lower funnel performance. Being able to measure this impact will be one of the many benefits of this partnership.”

“It’s the best of both worlds to me,” Alex Holtz, research director of worldwide media and entertainment strategies at IDC, tells The Current. “You have a low barrier to entry because there’s no costs associated. You have that ability to maximize the monetization capability for the publisher because the more metadata they attach to that content, the more discovery and awareness for that content [happens] and the more advertisers want to advertise on it.”

IDC’s research finds that advertising revenue on FAST platforms will nearly double to an estimated $13 billion by 2028, up from $7.2 billion in 2023. With advertising as a driving force, industry experts believe FAST will take more share.

“My POV was and remains that the FAST apps, both those backed by legacy media and the independents like Roku, will gradually look to add live sports as a way to increase time spent in the app and therefore ARPU [average revenue per user],” says Joel Cox, co-founder and EVP of innovation and strategy at media agency Strategus.

Last year, when discussing whether major live sports would ever hit FAST channels, Cox told The Current it was likely given the incremental ad opportunities the platforms offer.

Opening up the biggest fan base possible

As more live sports move to streaming, it’s easy to see FAST as the modern-day streaming equivalent to over-the-air TV because of its free, plug-and-play nature. Over-the-air channels are having their own success recently, several NBA and NHL teams all increasing the number of games they’re showing over the air to fill the void as regional sports networks flounder.

Ryan McConnell, executive vice president at research firm Kantar, tells The Current this strategy makes total sense to him as leagues weigh keeping their existing fans happy while cultivating new fans. And for the MLB specifically, McConnell said that Roku’s scale could help the sport get more national attention.

“This scale unlocks more customers for advertisers to target audiences in real time," Katina Papas Wachter, says. "Buying this way will not only drive incremental reach, but make the ad experience within sports a better, more targeted and more performant, format."

Context is everything

FAST platforms don’t always have the authenticated audiences that paywalled streaming services have because viewers aren’t required to log in. Holtz says platforms can get around this with contextual targeting based on what viewers watch. This harkens back to legacy ads through traditional TV, but with more precise viewership insights.

With CTV emerging as a premium channel for advertisers, the first-party data offered along with collaboration from retail media networks has the potential to bolster this contextual targeting.

Holtz also believes Generative AI will play a huge role in marrying data with content. “The more efficiently you marry those two, the higher the CPM [cost per mille] values and the more trust the brand has. It’s like a flywheel,” he says.