Why Streaming Services Are Bingeing on Sports Rights Deals

Leagues of all sizes help ESPN+, Paramount+ and Peacock grow subscribers, reduce churn

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With the explosion of streaming services in recent years, not only are there more ways to watch live sports than ever before, but also a greater variety of rights for various platforms to snap up.

Media companies’ streaming services have been prominently included in several huge sports deals struck this year, including the National Football League’s massive extension with its media partners, Disney’s expanded agreement with Major League Baseball and new National Hockey League pacts with Disney and Turner Sports.

Streamers are finding that live sports brings in more subscribers and reduces churn. But that’s not just the case with the biggest leagues; it also holds true for smaller properties, like global soccer, cricket and rugby, that might not have found a home on linear.

The sports streaming craze started when Disney debuted ESPN+ three years ago. The platform became the first U.S. streaming service dedicated to sports, and fundamentally shook up the sports rights landscape.

“ESPN+ has opened up a world of new properties for us to consider that in a purely linear world would have been difficult to get into a meaningful conversation about,” Burke Magnus, president of programming and original content, ESPN, told Adweek.

In the past 18 months alone, ESPN struck a seven-year deal with the NHL to bring games to ESPN, ABC, ESPN+ and Hulu, extended MLB rights to ESPN+, signed an eight-year ESPN+/ESPN/ABC agreement with La Liga soccer league and set a new rights deal with the NFL that will put games on ESPN+. But the company is constantly looking for new sports rights to acquire to help boost its streaming service, which will soon cost $1 more each month.

“It’s funny to read articles that say there’s a lot on the market or there’s nothing on the market,” said Magnus. “I always chuckle because in the sports business there is always something that’s coming around for you to consider from a rights perspective. You can’t have everything in the sports business; the cost of entry is just too high. But we have a very specific game plan and priority list.”

Soccer ‘is really the sweet spot’

Soccer is high on ESPN+’s priority list; Magnus pointed to global deals the company has made for ESPN+ in the soccer landscape, particularly Bundesliga and FA Cup.

“Global soccer is tailor made for the direct-to-consumer environment because there’s a lot of content, it’s growing in popularity, it can draw audience on a big reach on broadcast and cable platforms, but it’s got hundreds and hundreds of games that help fuel the growth of direct-to-consumer,” said Magnus. “That’s really the sweet spot for us right now. And more than anything, we’re looking for things that have utility across all of our platforms.”

While soccer is a particular strength for ESPN+, other global properties like cricket and rugby have been effective in both driving subscriptions to the streamer and helping retain customers.

“The beauty of ESPN+ is that we don’t have the capacity constraints that a linear network has, so we’re able to take advantage of more capacity and putting more content on to satisfy and serve sports fans,” said Russell Wolff, evp and general manager of ESPN+. “We’re doing more cricket or rugby, and that’s to serve the cricket and rugby fans and bring them into ESPN+ and then discover all of this other content, and all the other benefits of being an ESPN+ subscriber.”

Paramount+ also goes all-in on soccer

ViacomCBS first dove into streaming sports when Paramount+ was still known as CBS All Access. The service had the NFL, college football, college basketball and golf—mostly simulcasting events airing on CBS—but is now expanding into other properties like soccer and mixed martial arts.

“We saw how effective sports could be in driving acquisition to a streaming property,” Jeff Gerttula, evp and general manager of CBS Sports Digital, told Adweek. “It’s been really successful, and now in terms of where we go with it, we’re obviously on a broader soccer strategy.”

If it seems like you can’t turn on Paramount+ without seeing a live soccer match, that’s deliberate. The streaming service currently has the rights to larger leagues like UEFA Champions League and Europa League, the National Women’s Soccer League and Serie A, but also leagues such as Argentine Primera División and Brasileirão, and Gerttula said the streamer’s overall sports acquisition strategy is tied to soccer.

“We’ve been very intentional in a soccer-based strategy now,” said Gerttula. “We have some big ones, but we’re also looking at leagues that help fill out the calendar and help fill out different time slots and are of a very high quality. We saw that audience is young, is streaming, is passionate, just saw these qualities that we thought lined up, and there was a good set of rights available.”

ViacomCBS snagged the rights to the Asian Football Confederation last month, adding an extra 300 club and national team matches to its streaming service.

“That’s broadened our views into some leagues that maybe the U.S. public hasn’t been exposed to,” said Gerttula, pointing to the AFC. “Our goal is when you go into Paramount+ any time, any time of the year, we’ll have a really high-quality match for soccer fans to watch.”

Gerttula said that the company’s soccer strategy bolster’s acquisitions by improving the value proposition. “When a fan comes in, they’re seeing I not only get this league and this league, but I get all these other leagues, so you’re just making a more compelling offer to soccer fans,” said Gerttula. “So the end goal for us is how do you get it so you maximize the value proposition, but then also reducing churn and increasing overall subscriber value.”

Looking forward, Paramount+ is keeping its eye on future rights acquisitions based on availability, price and value, as well as customer fit.

“In the end, it’s a bundle play too,” said Gerttula. “That’s the goal here, we bring them in and it’s not just a soccer subscription or not just an NFL subscription, it’s something where they’re also drawn to the selection of movies and originals and other content on the service.”

Peacock builds its sports lineup

NBCUniversal is no stranger to sports, but its new streamer Peacock is making a splash in the sports streaming landscape. The streamer will have a major Olympics presence, but subscribers can also watch a variety of niche leagues like Premier Lacrosse, track and field’s Diamond League and pro motorcross.

And like ESPN+ and Paramount+, Peacock also has its toes in the soccer landscape: the Premier League is performing particularly well on the service.

“When we’re analyzing a sports property, whether it’s something as big as the NFL or the Olympics, or a smaller sports property, we have constant communication with our Peacock team,” Pete Bevacqua, chairman of NBC Sports Group, told Adweek.

NBCUniversal is finding that utilizing a combination of its cable, broadcast and streaming platforms is the most effective way to divvy up sports rights, though the company is shifting many rights from its soon-to-be-shuttered NBC Sports Network to USA Network and Peacock, in an effort to grow audiences in both cable and streaming.

“As we move NBCSN and really pick some of the best sports and move them to USA Network to create this super channel, now we have the benefit of also having this streaming platform in Peacock,” said Bevacqua.