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How streamers are keeping sports fans satisfied even in the offseason

Three people wearing sunglasses have a basketball, baseball, and footballs in the lenses.

Illustration by Nick DeSantis / Getty / Shutterstock / The Current

After flirting with live events and sports programming, Netflix took its biggest leap into both earlier this year when it announced that it would be the new home of WWE’s Raw starting in 2025.

The announcement was notable not just because it marked another dramatic shift for sports into streaming, but also for the frequency of the content. Raw airs once a week, year-round; there’s likely little fear of losing wrestling fans as subscribers if a recent survey is any indication.

According to the report, published last month by Hub Entertainment Research, 54% of U.S. sports fans surveyed say that content related to their favorite sport is more important than any other content they consume, even in the offseason (a whopping 79% said as much during the season). Hub surveyed over 3,000 people ages 13 to 74 who identified as sports fans via an online questionnaire from Dec. 29, 2023, through Jan. 3, 2024.

Live sports are one of the last bastions of the TV monoculture, and sports rights have increasingly shifted to streaming in recent years. The survey suggests that sports fans could be loyal consumers, even when their favorite sport isn’t airing — but streamers still need to find ways to engage them in the offseason. One possible way has emerged in the form of sports-related documentaries and other unscripted content.

“Think about how certain streaming platforms space out scripted content: A season of a hit show ends, and another season for a different hit show starts soon after in order to keep the consumer engaged with the platform,” says Sam Nursall, a senior analyst at research firm Ampere Analysis. “Sports-related content shows, documentaries, etc., can also fill this offseason gap and help prevent churn from sports fans.”

And keeping sports fans satisfied could benefit advertisers, as major streaming platforms seem to prioritize boosting revenue and more ad inventory becomes available via streaming. Younger people ages 18 to 34 are more likely than average to prefer to watch sports via streaming, according to Ampere Analysis: “Streaming services provide value for advertisers looking to reach this younger demographic,” Nursall says.

Further, according to the Hub survey, 31% of U.S. sports fans often discover new shows from promotions during sports content (another 41% said that they “occasionally” do, with just 27% saying they “rarely” or “never” do). These results suggest there are opportunities for advertisers to get in front of a highly engaged audience during sports programming.

Jaclyn Wyatt, head of digital marketing at Samsung Global, echoed this sentiment during a panel at Forward ’24, an event hosted by The Trade Desk earlier this month on the future of connected TV.

“I can tell the right story to the right audience during live sports, when their eyes are watching,” Wyatt said, regarding programmatic advertising.

Engagement is the name of the game

Sports can be an easy way to retain customers. A previous report by subscription analytics company Antenna found that sports-driven subscribers can often be more loyal than the average subscriber. For instance, 69% of those who signed up to Peacock for the Premier League’s Matchweek 1 in 2020 were retained over the following 10 months, 24 percentage points higher than the benchmark.

A sports-focused streaming platform like the upcoming joint venture from Fox, Warner Bros. Discovery and Disney’s ESPN could have a competitive advantage in the “yearlong nature of the content available,” Nursall says. He adds that the three companies account for 56% of all U.S. sports spend.

But for broad entertainment platforms, it may not be as simple as luring fans with sports. Jon Giegengack, founder and principal at Hub, says that the time consumers spend engaged is a pivotal metric for success as premium video streamers focus on building advertising businesses.

“If you have a user that only logs in once a month, that’s not going to cut it if you’re trying to build scale to deploy ads,” Giegengack says. “Something like the WWE, there is no season. It’s three hours a week for 52 weeks. It’s a very stable fan base who will tune in every week.”

Parrot Analytics Director of Strategy Julia Alexander wrote in a recent newsletter for Puck that to sustain growth, “Netflix needs to add subscribers to its ad tier, increase engagement through appointment viewing and create new inventory for sponsors. Live sports, still the lifeblood of the cable television business, checks all three boxes.”

That sentiment could probably apply to other streamers. While not every sports league has the benefit of a weekly Raw, there are other ways streamers can supplement a lack of live sports and keep fans engaged.

The rise of unscripted sports content

In the early 2000s, UFC was reportedly fighting for its life. According to ESPN, growth had stalled, and pay-per-views weren’t profitable; it needed a “splash.” In came The Ultimate Fighter, a reality TV series that former competitor Chris Leben told ESPN “saved the UFC.”

Giegengack says that unscripted sports content like this presents a “huge opportunity” for streamers to retain fans even in the offseason of their favorite sport and to create new fans of more niche sports. Not to mention, it’s a more cost-effective way to keep fans engaged compared to live sports rights.

Indeed, some major streamers and their cable counterparts — including Amazon, Netflix, ESPN, HBO, Discovery and Peacock — collectively commissioned 65% more sports documentary content in 2023 globally compared to 2020, according to Ampere Analysis’ Nursall. He adds that 56% of sports fans in the U.S. say they watch sports documentaries monthly.

“The current trend certainly indicates an increasing amount of investment towards unscripted sports-related content,” he says. “Given the benefit of keeping sports fans engaged on streaming platforms year-round, this pattern definitely makes sense.”

A 2022 Morning Consult report said Netflix’s docuseries Drive to Survive helped contribute to a rise in Formula One fans in the U.S. Outside the States, Netflix’s 2023 Beckham documentary on the eponymous soccer star scored its biggest audience of the year in the U.K. Other examples include docuseries like Netflix’s Quarterback and Amazon’s All or Nothing. Apple TV+ has capitalized on its deal with Major League Soccer with the docuseries Messi Meets America and an upcoming docuseries that will dive inside the next MLS season.

But Ampere Analysis data shows that the popularity of the average sports documentary has been trending downward since the pandemic. “Streamers must aim for quality as well as quantity when looking to engage sports fans,” Nursall says.

Similarly, Parrot Analytics’ Alexander cautioned that streamers shouldn’t mistake this strategy for an endpoint, writing that “documentaries about sports are a poor substitute for live sports themselves.” But she also suggested that they can provide audience data to determine the best fit for a streamer that may want to pursue sports rights.

That audience data can be a boon for advertisers too.

“Platforms know a lot about their users,” Nursall says. “And so this opens up great possibilities for more targeted advertising, which is somewhat more limited through traditional broadcast means.”

The Current is owned and operated by The Trade Desk Inc.