Rights, revenues and the future of sports fandom

A super summer of sport

The summer weather has finally arrived, just in time for the start of a long hot summer of European sports – July alone features EURO 2024, the Tour de France, Wimbledon, the Grand Prix at Silverstone, London Diamond League Athletics, the England v West Indies Test series, The Open and the start of the Olympics in Paris – phew! Throw a stick and you’ll more or less hit some gripping live sport right now, although I don’t believe stick throwing will be one of them (and this year’s cheese-rolling race has already happened!). It therefore seemed timely to take a look at how the sports media landscape is changing, and what this might mean for the future of fan engagement.

The value of free

Luckly in the UK, thanks to Ofcom’s Listed Events rules we’re able to watch events deemed to be of ‘national interest’ for free from the comfort of our own homes. These ‘crown jewels’ must be free to access and reach at least 95% of the UK population to ensure that as many people as possible have the opportunity to enjoy, and be inspired by, sport. At the same time, the potential to reach such a sizeable and diverse audience offers the national governing bodies and event organisers excellent opportunities to engage and grow their fan base.

In a bid to reach and engage the widest possible audience (including younger viewers), for the first time ever this year Channel 4 will be showing the Paralympics on their Sport’s YouTube channel in addition to its televised broadcasts. While selling broadcasting rights is an obvious and important revenue-generator, free-to-air sport has been shown to bring financial returns to the wider economy; in 2022 it was estimated that free-to-air sports broadcasting accounted for €4.9billion of Europe’s GDP.

Rights and revenues

Despite the value of free, selling sports rights remains big business and the landscape is becoming more fragmented as an increasing number of streaming services enter the mix, competing with Pay TV providers to acquire exclusive content and boost subscriber numbers. Recent estimates suggest that spending on sports rights by streaming services increased from 5.2 to 8.5 billion US dollars from 2022 to 2023 and is set to grow further year-on-year. And the landscape looks set to become even more fragmented, with several leagues around the world launching D2C services of their own including FIFA+, FIBA Courtside 1891, and FIVB.

Beyond the widespread migration of live sports to streaming platforms is the explosion of short-form sports content online. Instead of tuning in to full-game broadcasts, many (younger) fans prefer to follow their teams via short-form videos from their favourite social media accounts and personalities, with 9 in 10 16–24-year-olds who follow sport in the media doing so in this way. In the past, the onus has been on teams to grow their brand and build a fanbase, but the sports industry has entered a new era of athlete influence where sports stars have become brands in their own right, followed by tens of millions of followers who are not only interested in their performances on the pitch (court, etc!), but also their interests off it – whether that be music, fashion, or causes like sustainability, as perfectly illustrated by GQs recent Global Creativity Awards 2024 issue which features ‘F1 Legend, Fashion Disrupter and Filmmaker Lewis Hamilton’ on the front cover.

The future of sports fandom

National bodies and event organisers need to continue to strike the optimum balance of reach and revenue through sports rights, but now more than ever they also need to utilise the wider opportunities for fan engagement at all stages of the fan journey in order to truly maximise the opportunities they’re creating through broadcasting. The needs – and ultimately the potential value of fans – are likely to differ across the spectrum of engagement, and the disruptive influence of streaming services, social media and other digital channels is transforming expectations.

Instant access to behind-the-scenes content, always-on commentary and endless performance stats is creating the desire for similar enhancements while viewing at home or attending live events. Fans at home are hungry for real-time data and analytics, a choice of different camera angles including watching the game from an athlete’s POV, more and more behind the scenes content, and the ability to co-view with friends and family.

And while they’re at events, 6 in 10 US sports fans would like access to the same stats, analysis and replays they can watch at home, rising to 7 in 10 US millennial sports fans. In answer to this, several sports leagues and teams, including MLB, the PGA Tour and the NBA, are experimenting with in-venue apps that utilise the technology offered by Apple’s Vision Pro. For example, PGA Tour Vision offers users a customisable control panel for golf viewing, including 2D panels for tournament information and video highlights, plus real-time, 3D-rendered shot trails.

Fuelled by a surge in technological advancements and the splintering digital media landscape, sports fandom appears to be on the cusp of a monumental transformation. Sport is no longer something to passively spectate, but instead set to become a field of diverse immersive experiences where fans can craft their own unique, personalised, digital sports reality.