Future of soccer broadcasting
John GuppyMike Koeshartanto

The Future of Soccer Broadcasting

One of the compelling trends to watch over the next few years is the multi-dimensional disruption of the soccer broadcast industry in America. What is the future of soccer broadcasting? How will broadcasters utilize soccer to address linear and OTT platform needs? How will properties view this evolution and balance exposure desires with maximizing rights fees? What new opportunities will technological advances open up? How will the industry adapt to changing consumer viewing habits?

We’ve taken a crack at trying to break this all down and provide our perspective on what the future will hold for the American soccer fan.

Soccer landscape will remain fragmented and saturated

In 2020 there were 63 unique soccer competitions broadcast in the U.S. across 31 different channels. These dizzying numbers are likely to increase as more and more traditional and non-traditional media entities enter the soccer space.

What’s driving this interest? Simple. Soccer is a growth stock that delivers attractive live programming, at scale, with a young, diverse and hard to duplicate viewing audience. Programming is often during less-crowded broadcast times, as well.

A quick glance across some of the top soccer properties reveals every major broadcaster now has a piece of the annual soccer pie.

  • ABC/ESPN: MLS, Bundesliga, Serie A, Liga MX, La Liga
  • CBS: UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europe League, NWSL
  • NBC: Premier League
  • FOX: MLS, Liga MX, Concacaf Champions League, Concacaf Nations League
  • beIN SPORTS: Ligue 1, Copa Libertadores, Copa Sudamericana
  • Telemundo: Premier League, Liga MX
  • Univision: Liga MX, MLS, Concacaf Champions League, Concacaf Nations League

Throw in all the other competitions available to U.S. soccer fans and this fragmented reality makes knowing where to turn for a specific game rather challenging.

As we look to the future there is nothing to indicate this fractured broadcast landscape for soccer will reverse course. If anything, we can see it becoming even more convoluted. Why? Other leagues will push for audience growth in the U.S. and broadcasters will continue to add compelling programming to their mix.

The recent acquisition of the Argentine Primera Division and Brazil’s Campeonato Brasileiro Série A by Paramount+ is a perfect example.

OTT platforms will become the primary home of soccer

The shift from linear TV to OTT distribution is well underway and soccer rights are a key ingredient in this new broadcast landscape.

Incredibly, the 2,261 soccer broadcasts in 2020 represents a 25 percent decrease year-over-year. The global pandemic certainly played a role and can’t be discounted, but what’s also true is the soccer broadcast landscape is changing.

According to Conviva’s 2020 Q4 State of Streaming report, time spent streaming increased 44 percent after Q4 2019. Smart TV streaming time also increased 157 percent YOY. The wheels for an OTT-heavy landscape were set in motion long before the pandemic and is clearly the direction in which the industry is headed. As the number of linear broadcasts decrease, the number of OTT broadcasts increase.

Look no further than NBC who has owned the Premier League’s rights in the U.S. since 2013. Over the years there’s been an evolution in how the league has been made available to American fans. The linear distribution component has largely remained the same (until the announcement of NBC Sports Network’s dissolution). On the streaming side, however, NBC went from NBC Extra Time to NBC Sports Gold (2017), which led to the launch of Peacock (2020) – NBC’s standalone OTT streaming platform for sports, news, and other entertainment.

In March 2020 through the end of the season in July, 69 percent of all Premier League matches were broadcast on linear TV. However, since the delayed start of the 2020/21 season in September, the percentage of TV broadcasts has shrunk to 58 percent.

The second reason OTT platforms will become the primary home for soccer is the opportunity for limitless original shoulder programming.

The first generation OTT viewing was simply a matter of logging in, watching a game, then exiting. Now the experience is much richer with volumes of original programming to keep you on the platform well beyond live games. During the 2021 SportsPro OTT Summit, fuboTV CEO David Gandler stated the average user spends over 7 hours per day on the platform.

Retention is key for the OTT business model, which is built on teasing consumers with desirable viewing opportunities that motivate subscription. Once they are under the tent the job is to keep them by providing a deep, always-valuable entertainment experience. Great live events plus robust original programming is the winning formula.

One of the Premier League’s inherent advantages is the sheer volume of British-produced (English language, of course) content that NBC can utilize. Peacock has an entire channel now dedicated to the Premier League that serves as one more compelling reason for the fan to remain subscribed.

Linear TV distribution is not going away

So, what’s the role of linear TV in the future? While OTT will become a driver of distribution, these platforms are still in their relative infancy in terms of audience development. Consequently, traditional linear TV still has a very important role to play.

The TV industry is built on linear distribution revenue models and the opportunity to leverage the reach of these established channels will remain. Marquee soccer events, such as the FIFA World Cup, will continue to drive significant value for linear channels. This will only change when one of the big networks feels its OTT offering can deliver subscription economics to justify the switch.

The other important thing to note is that, unlike the NFL, soccer is still in a growth phase. Access and exposure matter as the sport and specific leagues look to grow awareness and mainstream interest. Case in point is the Bundesliga. With the recent influx of young American talent, both the property and ESPN recognize there is opportunity sitting in front of them.

Finding a balance between matches and content that live on ESPN+ with the opportunity to leverage the established reach of ABC and ESPN is the key. The consequence? Last weekend ABC broadcast its first ever Bundesliga match on network television with an audience of 576,000 viewers.

Addressing Hispanic fans, in-language, will remain critical 

Almost half of all soccer fans in the U.S. are minorities with 1-in-3 of Hispanic ethnicity. As such, Spanish-language networks will continue to be major players in the soccer broadcasting landscape moving forward.

Case in point, TUDN broadcast almost a quarter of all soccer matches on linear TV in 2020. Liga MX games continue to be among the most-watched matches every week, every month, and every year.

Given the importance of this audience we wonder if a truly bold play may lay around the corner. Customization by language is a very well established practice within the soccer distribution world. Properties have been bifurcating their English and Spanish rights for years, but with the capacity and flexibility available via OTT one broadcaster could now control it all if they were willing to pay the price.

Take La Liga or even the FIFA World Cup. These properities have massive appeal across both General Market and Hispanic segments. Could a broadcaster snap up the rights in both languages and go all-in on driving every American soccer fan to one OTT destination? We may have just seen a foreshadowing of this with Peacock broadcasting Premier League matches with English-language and Spanish-language feeds sitting side-by-side

Growth of non-traditional media companies in soccer

The bidding war for broadcast rights will always include the major players like ESPN, FOX, etc. However, e-commerce and social media platforms like Amazon and Facebook will play a major role in how leagues are consumed in the future.

You can see the road map Amazon is building, for example, as it tries to grow its presence in the soccer media landscape. Amazon already has its All or Nothing docuseries, dedicated team stores, domestic Premier League coverage, and UEFA Champions League rights in Germany. All of these efforts expose fans to more entertainment offerings and ultimately lead them to an Amazon Prime subscription.

Twitch, owned by Amazon, will be a player, too. The platform streamed 18 matches of the NWSL’s fall tournament, seven of which were available to the U.S. audience for the first time.

Between Amazon, Twitch, Facebook, and others, expect to see more rights acquired by these non-traditional media companies.

Soccer teams create in-house distribution platforms

We may also see certain popular teams take their distribution rights into their own hands in markets other than their home country. Take, for example, what Chivas de Guadalajara did with Chivas TV during the 2020 Clausura campaign. The only way for American fans to see Chivas home games was via the team’s streaming app. If you wanted to watch their rivalry match against Club América, for example, you needed to access Chivas TV.

This concept works in Mexico because teams are able to manage their own rights to broadcasters. This creates an ever-changing situation that keeps fans on their toes, however. For example, the 2020 Apertura and the current 2021 Clausura rights for Chivas are with Telemundo.

Prior to the 2016 season, La Liga teams owned their own broadcast rights, as well. If the current OTT landscape and streaming technology existed in 2015 would they have made a similar decision to package league rights? We’ll never know, but you can envision a scenario where, in the future, where mega clubs like Real Madrid and FC Barcelona target American fans with an OTT platform for exclusive access to games.

5G will guarantee picture quality and more

Let’s not overlook the basics.

While streaming has come a long way, reliable network performance is a lingering challenge for OTT platforms. This is frustrating for all TV viewing but is particularly problematic for live sports. Picture quality is the single most important factor for all sports fans and the adoption of 5G technology should eliminate this concern for streaming (both at home and on mobile) once and for all. Boom.

Next gen gamified experiences

The arrival of 5G will not only secure the basic viewing experience, but it will allow for the roll out of next gen value-added viewing engagements.

What’s a next gen soccer broadcast? Think about a traditional soccer broadcast with a real-time statistical overlay delivered with a gamification feel. Still not totally getting at? Take a look at this show real from Second Spectrum, one of the companies at the forefront of this evolution.

Companies like Second Spectrum are working with Major League Soccer and the Premier League to develop enhanced viewing experiences that utilize the power of machine learning to integrate live data and analytics (predictions, polls, trivia, votes) right into the live broadcast. When delivered via dynamic graphic augmentation the viewing experience can be quite stunning.

Some of these added-value experiences are available to fans presently via various second screen applications. In one of our most recent GESM proprietary fan studies, 80 percent of soccer fans (83 percent female, 78 percent male) said they engage in a second screen activity while watching soccer. This experience includes things like looking up stats, engaging in polls, scrolling through social media, checking betting odds, etc.

What’s going to be different in the future is these engagements will be woven into the primary viewing experience. Under this delivery the broadcaster maintains control of the viewer and fans will be provided with a frictionless engagement experience.

AR/VR experiences

The low latency of 5G networks enables augmented and virtual reality experiences to become more feasible.

In November 2020, FOX Sports and Facebook signed a deal to bring boxing to the Oculus Quest. Aside from being able to watch matches, fans could socialize and interact with other viewers in a VR lobby. The NBA has also been experimenting with VR in recent years. If you have an Oculus headset and NBA League Pass you can sit courtside at a game via Venues.

Imagine being able to wear a VR headset and being able to watch a live game from seats in a stadium halfway across the world. You still get to experience the atmosphere and excitement of the in-stadium experience, but from the comfort of your home. Bud Light worked with Club América in 2019 to achieve this for a small audience, but it’s conceivable this becomes more widely available to fans.

Gambling integrated broadcasts

Here are some fun facts via the Fantasy Sports and Gaming Association (FSGA). In a 2019 report, FSGA indicates that 19 percent of the American population participates in sports betting. Of that 19 percent, 16 percent bet on soccer in the previous 12 months.

It’s well within reason to expect those numbers to continue to climb. States now have the ability to allow legal sports gambling and Americans are becoming more acclimatized to the betting experience.

What does this mean for the soccer fan?

It means gambling-integrated soccer broadcasts will be become common place. The betting narrative will be woven into games and the source of conversations for dedicated shoulder programming.

In-game betting

5G will enable the delivery of the most desirable gambling experience: in-game betting. In game graphics will prompt viewers to place in-the-moment prop bets. Will Real Madrid score on this counterattack? Will Lionel Messi convert this penalty kick? The potential prop bet integrations are limitless.

While technologically realistic, this fully immersive integration will be restricted by the illegalities of gambling at a national level. However, expect to see these integrations in regional sports locales where gambling is legal in the near future. Simply put, betting integrations create active viewers – an engagement experience that benefits all parties when done responsibly.

Whether you are personally vested in the betting experience or not, there’s also a belief that this will enhance the general viewer experience.

Over 80 percent of fans who place a bet on a game will tune in to watch live.

J.R. McCabe
CBO, D2C/Gamification, Sinclair Broadcast Group

Why does this matter? In a time where viewership numbers are down, growing a betting audience more inclined to watch live sports is important.

Communal viewing parties

It wasn’t that many years ago when being a soccer in America was a lonely affair. The emergence of soccer bars, U.S. National Team watch parties, and social media chat platforms have connected many fans around a common passion. Communal viewing experiences are the next expression of this desire to watch with like-minded fans.

Communal viewing / virtual watch parties truly sprung to prominence in 2020 during the global pandemic, but the appeal of a blended watching experience with your friends isn’t a short term fad.

A number of third party apps and browser extensions can power this experience today, but we expect to see this experience woven seamlessly into the broadcast experience in the future. 

Match watch-alongs 

An extension of this is engagement is the talent streaming watch-along. These experiences lean into the appeal of recognizable talent to turn just another soccer match into a unique engagement experience.

CBS has experimented with this during the UEFA Champions League. In mid-February, hosts Jenny Chiu and Aaron West did a livestream during PSG’s defeat of Barcelona on CBS HQ’s Twitch channel. The result? A total of 169,000 viewers tuned in during the 2-hour live stream. It averaged 5,200 concurrent live viewers and peaked at 7,500 viewers during the game’s second half. The watch party ranks as the third most-watched video in the Twitch channel’s history.

Barstool Sports has been doing watch parties for years, but recently expanded into the soccer space with the acquisition of Troopz (via AFTV as in-office talent. Troopz and other Barstool employees have been doing watch-alongs, hosted on Troopz’ YouTube channel, for every Arsenal game. The stream during Arsenal’s 3-2 victory over Benfica garnered over 190,000 viewers.

When you have the option to watch the game, but still cast at least an occasional eye on a watch-along, it drives home two important insights: 1) talent is extremely important and 2) consumer viewing habits and interests are changing.

Barstool owns no broadcast rights, but with the right talent and a devoted audience they’ve proven not being able to see live game action doesn’t matter. At least not for a certain audience. Anticipate other networks following suit and experimenting with watch-alongs to compliment traditional linear or streamed broadcasts.

Personalized experiences

At this point you might be saying to yourself, “these enhanced viewing experiences are all well and good, but I don’t want to do xyz”. Well, not to worry OTT should have you covered. Unlike linear distribution OTT platforms have the ability to provide basically a limitless array of offerings. It’s not hard to envision a single match being available via multiple streams, each delivering a different enhanced experience. Consider unique feeds for:

  • English-language commentary
  • Spanish-language commentary
  • Director choice feeds
  • Data-enhanced feed with real-time stats seamlessly integrated
  • AR/VR experiences
  • Gambling feed delivering betting-enhanced experiences

In so many ways, the future of sports television is a personal one.

Recapping the future of soccer broadcasting

Soccer broadcasting in the U.S. has come a long way since the days of Soccer Made in Germany with Toby Charles. Back in the 1980s, after the demise of the NASL, this was pretty much the only soccer available. Fast forward to modern times and America is arguably the greatest country on earth to be a soccer fan. Fans have more access to the sport than anywhere else.

We don’t expect any change to this status in the future, but that’s not to say soccer fans won’t experience several disruptions to their experience in the coming years, including:

  • Broadcasts and programming will continue to gravitate toward OTT platforms, while linear TV keeps marquee matches. This means fans will need multiple subscriptions to access all your favorite soccer action
  • 5G technology will enable immersive next-gen viewing experiences
  • Match presentation will look different with real-time data and gamification enhancements
  • Communal watch-along parties hosted by celebrities will grow in popularity
  • Personalization will be key and allow fans to have the experience they want

The traditional lean-back, passive soccer-watching experience will always exist, but it’s no longer what most people do. Current viewing trends are about personalized, socially-connected, immersive, lean-forward engagements. The one thing that won’t change is the desire for fans to consume matches live.

John Guppy
President & Founder, Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing

Categories: Broadcast, Research