Live sports and FAST innovation key for success in 2024

February 20, 2024 by Malik Khan, Executive Chairman, Co-Founder

All media companies are making critical decisions around how to maximize profitability and engage fragmented audiences in 2024, reshaping their content distribution strategies to secure their long term future. For many forward-thinking players, that means harnessing the rise of free ad-supported streaming TV (FAST) channels to build new monetization streams and align with shifting consumer preferences for affordable access to curated lean-back content experiences. FAST platforms are important television sources for growing digital audiences. 2023 research by Kantar placed FAST as the most rapidly growing streaming tier in the US, with 47% of US households using a FAST service each week. As subscribers look to cut their overall costs and reduce their total number of video services, keeping a FAST service in the mix is an increasingly attractive economic option.

Meanwhile, heavy investment in live sports rights and the shift to streaming for premium live events continue to present new challenges and opportunities for rights holders and content owners. The sports broadcasting arena has become more fragmented and competitive than ever before as streaming giants and traditional broadcasters battle for viewers' attention, propelling live sports to the forefront of many media business’ content strategy.

Live sports at an unprecedented scale

Growing interest in premiere live sports rights among media companies is driving market value. Rethink Research projects that the world’s top 15 sports leagues will benefit from still-rising costs worth $66.9 billion in global media rights by 2028, and $88 billion by 2033. At the same time, the ubiquity of online video consumption and more affordable access to streaming technology means that viewers can now enjoy a much wider range of niche sports delivered via OTT or direct-to-consumer streaming.

The attraction of major live sports events is undeniable, drawing in massive audience numbers across both traditional broadcast and streaming. While live sports events, predominantly NFL games, accounted for 96% of the most-watched TV broadcasts in the US in 2023. This year, the NFL’s first streaming-exclusive playoff broke streamed event viewership records with 23 million viewers.

This surge in demand for high-value live content presents both challenges and opportunities for major streaming platforms such as YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, and Apple TV+ that are staking their claims in the live sports space. Originally designed to deliver on-demand video content, these types of platforms are under pressure to adapt their infrastructure to support the delivery of high-value events and live sports content at global scale. Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery, and Fox recently announced the creation of a new sports streaming platform owned jointly by three leading traditional sports distributors. Major content rights owners and world-leading broadcasters are wrestling with the challenges of catering to audiences across digital platforms and traditional linear TV.

Meanwhile, traditional linear broadcasting continues to hold its ground for major live events. While the Super Bowl LVIII drew in record broadcast viewers in the US, streaming audiences experienced upwards of 42 seconds delay on digital platforms. Successfully managing the convergence of these models means maximizing monetization across multiple viewing platforms while ensuring that all audiences have the same high quality and low delay experience on FAST platforms that they are used to on traditional cable.

FAST channels: Unlocking the next frontier of growth

Major media brands and sports organizations are increasingly leveraging FAST channels to engage digital audiences with free-to-access, curated programming experiences via the familiar, lean-back experience associated with traditional linear television.

FAST allows media organizations to create channels that serve dedicated audiences and target advertisements to specific viewers or households. This ability to deliver more personalized, valuable ads is what really makes the difference. This year we’ll see the market mature, with media companies generating more revenue from FAST channels as their audiences expand and their content offering becomes more focused — and increasingly geared around valuable live content.

One of the key opportunities around FAST and digital linear on owned and operated properties channels is the ability to deliver geographically tailored content experiences to local audiences. This localization ranges from local and regional sports coverage to local news, enhancing audience engagement and strengthening platform loyalty.

Live news is emerging as a critical component in the FAST ecosystem, enabling media companies to grow their digital audiences and unlock new monetization streams. Content and channel creators are finding that delivering live news helps media organizations to engage younger, digital-first viewers who may have drifted away from traditional subscription services but are actively engaging with content on alternative platforms.

Live sports is increasingly becoming key to retaining audiences for FAST channels and digital platforms. According to Antenna research, SVOD churn was at over 30% in 2023; appointment viewing content like live sports creates consumer stickiness. It also opens up new advertising opportunities, as advertisers can target more younger demographics at scale.

The two key challenges of live news and live sports on FAST and other digital platforms are a) being able to create platform-specific versions in real-time, inexpensively, and at scale, and b) delivering high-quality and low delay consumer experience.

Solutions like LTN Arc enable broadcasters to leverage live sports content rights investments already made for traditional platforms and create platform- or geography-specific versions in real-time cost-efficiently.

Solutions like LTN Lift enable news, sports, and entertainment content creators to easily spin up rich channels for any and all platforms that attract new audiences with relevant, customized content experiences while providing valuable opportunities for advertisers. By leveraging sunk licensing and production investments, channels can be created either as pop-ups around live events or as unique full time linear experiences that seamlessly mix live and pre-recorded elements. These channels give consumers the optionality at the quality levels with the type of content they’ve grown to expect.

And, solutions like LTN Wave uniquely marry global reach to all platforms by enabling extremely high reliability, high quality, and low delay delivery alongside completely automated versioning and customization of linear channels.

Real-time customization driving success in live broadcasting

The ability to distribute content at an unprecedented scale while maintaining cost efficiency has become more crucial than ever. Content owners are now faced with the complex task of seamlessly delivering their offerings across multiple distribution channels while staying on budget amid tightened resources.

Real-time customization and content versioning are intricate processes, growing in complexity as the scale of content distribution increases. This complexity stems from the need to tailor content for different regions, languages, and platforms, all while ensuring maximum monetization via localized, targeted advertising. Live versioning is an incredibly demanding task, particularly when dealing with live sports content, where there are no second chances.

Services like LTN Arc are becoming critical tools for rights holders, enabling seamless live event versioning while unlocking multiple new revenue streams. LTN Arc simplifies multi-platform distribution for live sports, ensuring that content is seamlessly prepared with platform-specific video requirements for multiple subscription OTT, digital, and FAST platforms, while delivering custom ad profiles and tailored graphics, audio, and local language commentary to meet the diverse needs of a global audience. By leveraging LTN Arc, leagues, conferences broadcasters and rights buyers can scale their distribution and monetization capabilities without heavy CapEx investment or additional headcount.

IP foundations securing FAST success

Predicting what's next in the evolving media landscape is never easy, but one thing will always remain: the power of live content. Live sports, news, and events will be pivotal drivers of success for major organizations in 2024. Live, whether appointment-based or unpredictable and breaking, viewing captivates audiences, fosters platform loyalty, and pulls in ad buyers in a crowded digital space.

Delivering live content effectively and reliably requires robust and intelligent IP-based infrastructure that is trusted by Tier 1 organizations while supporting innovative content versioning technologies. Underpinned by LTN’s proprietary, multicast-enabled global IP network, LTN Wave provides a flexible and scalable video transport solution with high SLAs and ultra-low latency — giving content owners peace of mind while unlocking next-generation possibilities such as content replacement, custom ad profiling with unique and deep industry SCTE trigger expertise, all while adhering to complex business rules.

Looking ahead to the rest of 2024 and beyond, the importance of live content in securing audience share and driving viewer engagement across new digital platforms remains paramount. Success in this arena will depend on the ability to customize and deliver more live sports, news, and events than ever before via future-ready, IP-based distribution strategies. With a partner like LTN, content owners can confidently manage the convergence of traditional and digital platforms, leveraging proven and trusted expertise that is rooted in proprietary innovation and a customer-centric approach. Ultimately, the combination of compelling live content and smart technology decisions will define the winners in a fast-paced media world. If you’d like to stay ahead of the competition, schedule a demo with us today to discover LTN Wave.