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Volume 27 No. 30
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COVID-19 is opening up the sports media landscape for non-marquee sports

Professional sports leagues have been returning to action this month despite the continued COVID-19 threat. Everyone is cautiously optimistic that given time (and medical breakthroughs), sports will eventually be back to “normal.”

But the pandemic’s interruption has accelerated the migration of sports from traditional pay television to digital platforms, creating new opportunities for non-marquee sports.

Sports fanatics have been abandoning expensive cable sports packages that funnel millions into league coffers through rights fees and lucrative advertising and sponsorships in favor of mobile and subscription services offering popular, underexposed sports.

During the lockdown, consumers’ habits changed; they have not only embraced distance learning, online grocery shopping and telemedicine, but myriad streaming services that feature live sports programming.

Now, sports fans are cutting the cord and sampling OTT (over-the-top) options. According to eMarketer, during the pandemic the average time spent with OTT video content jumped by 23%, with 9.2% of U.S. consumers saying they had already canceled or were planning to cancel their pay TV subscriptions.

COVID-19 didn’t start the move away from pay television, but surely accelerated it. Already more than half of sports fans worldwide watch their teams on pirated platforms, largely because the sports they want are not available on local standard or cable TV, according to a global study for Synamedia, a video software provider.

Consider what’s already been happening with the NBA.

When a few stars suffered early season injuries in last fall, television ratings met headwinds. Despite this, Commissioner Adam Silver was appropriately sanguine, noting ascending social media engagement, League Pass viewership and the league’s ability to reach a young audience. The NBA’s fans, which along with Major League Soccer, are the youngest among the five major U.S. sports leagues, are canceling cable TV subscriptions or never had one in the first place. 

The NBA has been prescient, distributing its content on social media, reaching more than 1.6 billion fans worldwide; the league’s presence is growing on mobile devices, video games and even sports gambling platforms. League Pass subscriptions, the NBA’s streaming platform, are up 11% vs. last season and unique viewership is up 25%. 

All of this points to a gradual shift for major professional sports to reach new audiences that are increasingly watching their favorite sports on mobile devices and OTT services.

This shift also presents a prime opportunity for emerging sports to develop audiences and attract sponsors. Rugby, professional lacrosse, women’s soccer, and action sports are gaining a foothold. Even Italy’s top flight soccer league, Serie A, is using this moment to re-energize its brand, showing games on ESPN’s paid streaming service, ESPN+.

A new roadmap

Niche sports such as rugby and lacrosse have devoted fan bases that will pay for programming. Women’s soccer, which has massive support in the U.S. but struggles to get the broadcast coverage it deserves due to seasonal overlap with historically more popular American sports, is a perfect OTT offering. And a number of action sports, which play well on the screen and don’t rely on large in-person crowds, are ideally suited to take the spotlight now as we still socially distance.

For instance, CBS aired the National Women’s Soccer League’s shortened-season tournament for the first time. The opening match of the Challenge Cup reached a record 572,000 viewers. NWSL matches also streamed via CBS All Access as well as Twitch for fans outside of the U.S. This establishes a digital footprint fora growing audience once more established sports return to the network to compete for airtime and eyeballs.

In another example, the National Lacrosse League and WAVE recently announced a content partnership that allows both parties to offer new sponsorship inventory, something that would have been impossible with traditional broadcasters and opening the door for subscription-based services.

And AVP, the professional volleyball league, is hosting a three-week tournament on Amazon Prime this month into early August, continuing a partnership that will reach new fans in the absence of the 2020 Olympics.

Streaming is the future

OTT providers that offer live TV — so-called virtual multichannel video programming distributors or VMVPDs, such as Hulu + Live TV and YouTube TV — as well as those with direct-to-consumer offerings (such as ESPN+) are well positioned win viewers who are more selective about what they want to watch while eschewing the cost of traditional cable bundles. 

Amazon, iTunes, Facebook, FuboTV and DAZN are diversifying a market that was once relatively simple. Many expect that as live sports return, the largest viewership increase will be among those under 40 who are watching streaming services. 

Emerging sports can take advantage of the opportunity this presents. Just as the NBA is ready to meet its audience on mobile, streaming and OTT services, emerging sports can also pivot to these delivery mechanisms. Relatedly, the NBA and MLS have employed cloud-based production technology and drones to create high-end but efficiently priced innovative productions for fanless games run by socially distancing staff. So emerging sports don’t need to wait for big sponsorship deals or large live audiences before launching compelling content.  

Instead, create demand for the product by getting on platforms where the audiences are. The big sponsors will follow.

Michael Kuh is a partner in Hogan Lovells' Sports, Media & Entertainment industry sector group.