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Steve McCaskill | Why sport is turning to FASTer streaming

SportsPro's technology editor offers his take on the recent trend towards free ad-supported television.

6 February 2023 Steve McCaskill

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Every now and again, Silicon Valley is accused of reinventing products or concepts that have existed for decades, if not centuries, and positioning them as a revolution.

Ride-sharing platform Lyft once excitedly announced the launch of ‘Lyft Shuttle’, a multi-passenger vehicle which would have a designated route and pick up and drop off passengers at certain waypoints. Silicon Valley had invented the bus, was the joke.

There are countless other ideas that have been greeted by similar mockery – although that hasn’t stopped many securing millions of dollars in venture capital funding.

At first glance, free ad-supported streaming television (FAST) channels could be added to this list. ‘What? A linear stream with adverts? Dude, you’ve just invented television,’, might be the cynical social media response. But the reality is more complex.

One of the initial selling points of subscription-based streaming services in the early 2000s was no ads. This was less of a pull in markets where public service broadcasters (PSBs) like the BBC don’t carry commercials, or where the market is more regulated, but in places like the US this was a revelation.

But now that model is under pressure. Streamers have spent millions, if not billions, on content and customer acquisition but are now struggling to find new sources of growth. Market saturation, intense competition, and the need to prioritise profitability mean many services are still not sustainable. Meanwhile, viewers only have so much disposable income to spend on streaming and in a challenging economic climate, many are cutting back.

This backdrop is why Netflix and others are launching cheaper, ad-supported subscription tiers in a bid to reduce churn, while advertising video on demand (AVOD) has been around for some time. But others believe pure FAST channels are the way forward.

By making a selection of content available for free, broadcasters and rights holders can create an additional revenue stream and engage viewers that would otherwise be out of reach. Longer-term, FAST channels can encourage sign-ups and be an acquisition tool.

Advertisers are able to launch more data-driven campaigns than they can on traditional television and also target specific niche audiences. Many also believe big screen advertising to be far more effective than on a smartphone.

Many of the streaming giants have established their own FAST networks. Amazon has Freevee, CBS has Pluto TV, and ITV has FAST channels on its new ITVX streaming platform. Last month, YouTube confirmed it was testing FAST channels in the US – a move which could be especially successful given the reach of both the standard platform and the growing popularity of YouTube TV – while Warner Bros Discovery has plans in the works too. Meanwhile, smart TV and streaming stick manufacturers have assumed the role of aggregator in this emerging space.

Sport is a growing category, with many channels offering live action, documentaries, or archive content. Before its deal with Apple (more on that later), Major League Soccer (MLS) had a FAST channel on Pluto TV, while DAZN launched its first ever FAST channel in Germany late last year.

DAZN’s offering serves highlights, full matches and documentaries for non-subscribers. It acts as a promotional tool for its platform, gives rights holders additional exposure, and also brings fans into its ecosystem at a time when it wants to become a ‘sports platform’ offering betting, ecommerce and other features alongside its core streaming proposition.

But for niche sports, FAST can be an opportunity to reach a previously unreachable audience whilst still monetising content – especially if it can get on one of the main aggregation platforms. Only this week, Amazon added extreme sports channel InTrouble to the Freevee line up. In many ways, FAST is the successor to linear television as more and more people cut the cord.

However, FAST and free streaming services are not for everyone. NBC’s Peacock has just confirmed it will be closing down its free, ad-supported version to new subscribers shortly after revealing its number of paid subscribers has more than doubled to 20 million.

Well, after investing billions to get to this point, who can blame them?

Apple will show every single game from MLS live around the world (Image credit: Apple)

Apple and MLS go live ahead of opening day

Apple’s US$2.5 billion tie-up with MLS was one of the sporting stories of 2022, attracting plenty of interest and raising eyebrows about how this all-encompassing streaming deal would manifest itself.

With less than a month to go until kick-off, we now have a much better idea. The tech giant and the North American soccer league have spent the past few months working behind-the-scenes to get re

Apple’s US$2.5 billion tie-up with MLS was one of the sporting stories of 2022, attracting plenty of interest and raising eyebrows about how this all-encompassing streaming deal would manifest itself.

With less than a month to go until kick-off, we now have a much better idea. The tech giant and the North American soccer league have spent the past few months working behind-the-scenes to get ready for the first match on 25th February and reached a major milestone this week with the launch of MLS Season Pass on Apple TV.

Fans can now subscribe for a selection of classic games and original content before the live coverage starts in three weeks’ time. With regional sports networks (RSNs) out of the picture, MLS has assumed responsibility for production of every single match – in multiple languages. In January, it detailed the nearly 50-strong roster of reporters, analysts and commentators that will be the faces and voices of Apple’s coverage, and production teams have been assembled across the US and Canada.

Meanwhile, Apple has been adding sports-specific features to its mobile and television platforms ready for launch day. There will be plenty of people waiting to see how it tackles the sport creatively and how its infrastructure handles simultaneous live events – it’s a huge step up from two Major League Baseball (MLB) games a week.

Apple’s focus for the next month will be driving awareness, hoping that as many people as possible tune in for the free selection of matches and become full subscribers. Promotion with iOS, as well as Apple’s huge profile – especially among digitally native audiences – will be huge assets in that particular endeavour.

The company is also working on its advertising arrangements. Rather than the conventional model of selling individual adverts, Apple is instead seeking annual partners who will receive spots across the entire season. The most expensive ‘Gold’ option costs approximately US$4 million per season and includes the playoffs and integrations such as sponsoring a ‘Player of the Match’ award. The ‘Silver’ and ‘Bronze’ packages cost about US$3 million and US$1.5 million per year.

Apple is said not to be guaranteeing partners a certain number of viewers – a prudent move given Amazon has reportedly had to compensate its advertisers despite itself being happy with the ratings for the first season of its exclusive National Football League (NFL) Thursday Night Football (TNF) coverage.

There are still questions but after months of waiting, the (Apple) pieces are falling into place.


What trends will shape the sports OTT space in 2023?

At the start of each year, it is inevitable that the world of sports broadcasting looks towards the trends, narratives and technologies that will shape the next 12 months.

We asked some of the biggest names in the industry – including Dapper Labs’ Teodora Ivanova, Warner Bros Discovery’s Andrew Georgiou, the PGA Tour’s Anne Detlefsen, Dyn Media’s Andreas Heyden, the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) Finn Bradshaw and Snap Inc.’s Kahlen Macaulay – to give their predictions.

Watch the video above to find out what they think.

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