When Spain beat England in the finals of the women’s soccer World Cup in Australia in August, millions watched through streaming services. The 2023 tournament has been a landmark one for women’s sports, but the fact that FIFA had to chastise broadcast rights bidders for undervaluing the tournament suggests that there’s still a way to go.
Nevertheless, for broadcasters like Fox Sports in the U.S. and the BBC and ITVX in the U.K., the bet paid off. This was particularly clear in the U.K., where the BBC saw a 75 percent increase in streams over the 2019 World Cup in France.
Around the world, more and more broadcast companies are scouring available streaming rights across a diverse range of sports — from cricket to sailing — to boost viewership and provide differentiation for both established and burgeoning platforms. The plot thickens in a new chapter of the streaming wars.
“I wouldn’t say that streaming is sort of transforming sport,” says Tim Westcott, senior principal analyst for digital content and channels at Omdia. “But it’s certainly being transformed [by sport].”
By hitching their wagons to a streaming sports franchise that may traditionally be overlooked, marketers may seize on its potential to build up a huge audience.
Shattering into fragments
The emergence of streaming rights for sports outside the English Premier League (EPL), NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB is the result of the growing appetite for content to fill the raft of streaming services available worldwide.
“The sports market is definitely fragmenting,” says Minal Modha, consumer research lead specializing in sports at Ampere Analysis. In 2022, Ampere’s Sports – Media Rights data showed that there were 47 unique U.S. broadcasters that held live sports rights, compared to 23 in 2019.
The ballooning of diverse sporting events is happening for a number of reasons, experts say, as streaming platforms look to differentiate themselves from competitors and keep audiences engaged. “Live sport is arguably the last bastion of appointment-to-view TV so, in theory, it provides guaranteed eyeballs, which can either result in subscription or advertising revenues,” says Modha.
But there’s also another reason that niche sports are starting to see interest from big broadcasters. “Sport-rights holders are now more willing to sell to online platforms because the technology for streaming has advanced to a place where there isn’t a compromise in the quality of the content,” she says.
That’s good news for sports with committed audiences that just happen to exist in areas that aren’t in close geographical proximity.
Streaming can attract viewers to niche sports in a way that linear TV could not, says Westcott, as they can pull small audiences all over the world into one big global audience, rather than having to rely on a big audience within one country.
“When you put together lots of people who are interested in road cycling or sailing or windsurfing, that has potential,” Westcott adds. For example, last year’s Rip Curl WSL Finals, a surfing competition, drew 8.3 million views across WSL digital channels. While this figure is considerably smaller than the 13.08 million who tuned in to watch this year’s NBA championship Game 5, it was still up 22 percent on 2021’s figures. The NBA final’s viewership, however, only grew 1 percent versus last year’s Game 5.
Streamers like DAZN have upended the sports streaming market, diversifying it beyond mainstream sports and big competitions to create a more holistic market. And it’s notable that DAZN has part rights to stream Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket in the U.K. alongside linear broadcaster ITV. In the U.S., Willow TV has the streaming rights to the IPL, which has a committed fan base among Indian migrants in the country.
Demographics are also at play: older sports fans are happy to pay for a single cable TV subscription to see their favorite sport. Younger fans less so, says Westcott. “They prefer to cherry-pick.”
Yet that younger audience typically has disposable income to spend, making them rich pickings for marketers — which is why nabbing rights to European football in the U.S. is becoming such a hotbed of competition.
More choice, more revenue?
The diversification of sports means consumers can now log on to a streaming platform and watch live sports from around the world at a rate that was never previously possible. But the competition for increasingly niche sports rights is such that it’s no longer possible for viewers to get their sport fix from a single streamer, and instead have to keep track of an endless array of app icons on their smartphones or smart TV screens.
Any story about the growth and diversification of sports rights can’t ignore what’s happening off the field too. The amount of content linked to non-mainstream sports has increased. “We’ve seen the impact [the Netflix series] Drive to Survive has had on F1’s [Formula One’s] following and there are reports suggesting that the recent Tour de France documentary [Netflix’s Tour de France: Unchained] also helped to boost viewership numbers this year,” Modha says.
It all adds up to interesting times for the smaller sports organizations looking to build their brand. “There are opportunities for more niche sports,” says Westcott. “I think we’re going to see more creativity about how sports are marketed to consumers online.”