As Sports Return, Virtual MVPDs Chart Their Return to Consumers’ Living Rooms

Services like Hulu and YouTube TV hope to capitalize on pent-up demand

Hulu released a fall campaign timed to football’s return. Hulu
Headshot of Kelsey Sutton

The NFL returned earlier this month, almost half a year after most professional sports were shut down by Covid-19. And Hulu’s virtual multichannel programming distributor (vMVPD) service, Hulu + Live TV, had a big marketing campaign waiting to welcome its return.  

The ad, which debuted during the NFL kickoff game on Sept. 10, digitally grafted the faces of athletes like Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley onto a decidedly less athletic body to poke fun at the challenges of filming ads. It also pushed Hulu’s service squarely in front of fans flooding back to live sports.

“What we knew was there was a ton of pent-up interest and demand,” said Ryan Crosby, Hulu’s vp of marketing. “Early sports returns were big performers.”

But it’s not just about the love of sports—it’s about business. Virtual MVPD services like Hulu + Live TV, YouTube TV and Sling TV offer American consumers the chance to watch live TV and sports without the same level of commitment as a traditional cable package. As the MLB, NHL, NBA and now NFL came back, those vMVPD services, many of which already count on sports seasons as business drivers, are making moves to get back on customers’ screens.

“We know in the cycle of our business that sports are always a driver of viewing on our vMVPD service, and we see a lot of subscription and a lot of engagement in our live service when sports start,” Crosby said. And right now, he continued, “we’ve got this alignment of all of these sports events coming together in a singular point, which is unlike any other previous season.”

Virtual MVPD services, which offer lower prices than traditional cable packages, are hoping to make up some ground with consumers looking to cut the cost of a traditional TV cord while still accessing programming they love.

The price point and flexibility that makes services appealing to consumers, though, can put services in a tricky business spot. Churn on vMVPD services can be as high as 70%-80%, according to Steve Nason, research director at market research firm Parks Associates.

As sports stalled, many services, some of which had already undergone price hikes, had to shell out carriage fees even as they let customers cancel or pause subscriptions. That means recapturing customers who sat out a sports-less spring is crucial to a strong showing in the fall.

YouTube TV, a vMVPD that brought on alternative programming during this year’s sports drought, is now looking to reengage former subscribers that have paused or canceled subscriptions due to the lack of sports. In its marketing materials, YouTube TV isn’t just emphasizing the programming that’s coming back—it’s also spotlighting features such as Key Plays View, which tracks important plays, one-tap replays and spoiler mode, which lets customers avoid spoilers for favorite teams.

There’s also an effort to appear front and center of sports audiences. The service is the presenting sponsor of the NBA Finals and has also struck up a sponsorship with the Los Angeles Football Club, said Jodi Ropert, YouTube’s vp of marketing.

“The return of live sports—even without fans in the stands—offers some welcome normalcy and joy to our TV routine, and, of course, live sports have always been important to our business,” Ropert said.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 28, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.