Note: The following is based upon content from Variety Intelligence Platform’s special report devoted to exploring free ad-supported streaming TV (FAST), available exclusively to subscribers.
Sports are a key genre on FAST, accounting for 117 distinct channels as of July 2022.
Yet while sports channels are numerous—as they are on cable—the reality of FAST is very different. Many major sports leagues and brands lack a presence, be they cable networks, leagues or digital brands that could easily cross over.
What does exist in the world of sports FAST is a cornucopia of channels making the most of one of the major premises of the format: inexpensively bringing niche content to viewers. To that end, the four most distributed sports by distinct channels are MMA, adventure sports/outdoors, motor sports and professional wrestling, all of which fall beneath the major sports leagues when viewed on TV.
The carriage of sports varies drastically by platform. Some, such as Allen Media Group’s Local Now and Sports.TV services, offer a wide variety of sports programming, even if a lot of it is niche. Key, however, is the fact that the vast majority of FAST platforms do offer some mix of sports content, with most including over 10 channels in their lineups.
When assessing the most widespread sports FAST networks, a few interesting patterns emerge. First is the use by some networks that are also available as over-the-air diginets of FAST as an alternative means of distribution. Channels such as beIN Sports Xtra and Stadium are utilizing FAST to the maximum in order to be in front of as many viewers as possible.
Next there is the plethora of special-interest channels, led by World Poker Tour, Outside TV+ and Outdoor America. These channels are able to thrive as FASTs given the low start-up costs, which dramatically reduce the scale of audience needed in order to turn a profit.
Brands with an established TV presence looking to take advantage of monetizing existing audiences also account for some of the most widespread sports channels. Impact! Wrestling, Pac-12 Insider and ACC Digital Network are widely distributed and point to a future where, in particular, other college football conferences launch their own channels.
But not all of sports has embraced the potential of FAST. Many cable networks either spurn it entirely (ESPN) or program their FASTs with older talk-show content that isn’t a viewer draw (Fox Sports).
Leagues too are slow to act on what FAST can bring. There are no NHL, NBA or NASCAR channels available at all, with leagues like EPL (1), MLS (1), UFC (1), PGA Tour (3), (WWE (1), NFL (4) and MLB (4) all yet to see big expansion. This is a big mistake, as FAST offers a way for leagues to monetize old content and engage fans more frequently. A shift in strategy should soon occur.
The same could be said for SVOD services with exclusive sports rights. The likes of Paramount+, Peacock and ESPN+ have no upsell channel, showcasing some content in order to advertise and attract more viewers. For Paramount+ and ESPN+ specifically, with their range of sports content available, this is a strategy that could be easily rectified without compromising existing subscriptions.
Some sports have shown that they recognize the value FAST can offer. Within the next 18 months, anticipate many of the major sports brands to fully engage, too, and radically alter the face of sports FAST.