It's that time of year again: football is back. For some die-hard fans, the start of football season brings more than just excitement — it brings a rollercoaster of emotions every weekend. For others, it brings an excuse to chow down on chips and dips every Sunday. (Guilty!)
But while watching football is a long-standing tradition, how fans tune in is an entirely new experience.
It’s estimated that 185 million fans tuned in during the 18-week season last year. But unlike seasons past, users were not confined to what was available with their cable package or whatever was playing at their local sports bar — they were also streaming the games.
In 2022, TV providers saw a combined net subscriber loss of approximately 5.9 million users. And as the cord-cutting movement continues to weaken the cable TV space, streaming has exploded. Research shows that 88% of American households own at least one internet-connected TV device, and nearly three-quarters use a streaming service.
While scripted series and movies have been the dominant content on streaming, live sports have begun to make serious headway in the streaming space. From college and pro football to soccer, basketball, and cricket, massive leaps are being made to make streaming the new, preferred destination for live sports.
And with it comes new ad inventory and innovative integrations for brands to get in on the action.
Amazon Prime Video x Thursday Night Football
The NFL signed its first-ever exclusive national broadcast deal with a streaming service last year when it made Amazon Prime Video the new home of "Thursday Night Football." It was a digital success, with its opening game drawing a larger digital audience than Super Bowl LVI, making it the most-streamed NFL game ever.
As expected with a streaming exclusivity deal, there was a loss in viewership, with the previous Fox, NFL Network, and Prime Video tri-cast averaging 5 million more viewers than 2022's Prime Video numbers. But the move drove growth in other valuable areas, tapping into a new audience base that is:
YouTube x Sunday Football Ticket
After three decades on DIRECTV, this season marks the first of seven that NFL's Sunday Ticket programming will be licensed by YouTube — a deal valued at roughly $2 billion annually. While national ad buys will still be done through the national TV broadcaster, YouTube now has access to the spots that local network affiliates would have otherwise filled: ~4.5 minutes of ads per game on average.
This move comes as YouTube continues to battle for more ad budget. This offering unlocks more premium inventory to target paying subscribers that big brands and legacy advertisers shell out big bucks for — but with a digital ad buy's targeting and reporting capabilities. YouTube's addition of "multi-view" to this product also opens additional inventory. Viewers can watch up to four games simultaneously on the same screen, translating to four times the opportunity for brands to catch viewers’ attention.
While only a few weeks into the season — the NFL Sunday Ticket package debuted September 10 across YouTube and YouTube TV — the offering is already proving successful. The NFL reports that the Sunday Ticket package already has more subscribers on YouTube than it had last year on DIRECTV.
Apple TV x Major League Soccer
February 1 of this year marked the launch of Apple TV’s Season Pass, a subscription service for every live MLS regular-season match, playoffs, and the Leagues Cup. The 10-year, $2.5 billion deal established the MLS as the first U.S. sports league to go almost entirely streaming-exclusive. With this, Major League Soccer can tap into the 860 million Apple subscribers on 2 billion connected devices in over 100 countries.
Unlike the NFL — which has long been in the iron grasp of linear TV — MLS has historically had more limited TV airtime. Because of this, soccer fans are more accustomed to deferring to streaming providers like Peacock, Paramount+, and Max to watch the games, making the transition to Apple TV less of a behavior change for these fans. While MLS will primarily air matches on Apple TV, the league is not abandoning TV altogether: 34 regular season matches and select Leagues Cup games will remain on FS1/Fox and Univision.
This deal has created new ad inventory available through Apple, rather than local broadcast and MLS club control. Traditional 30-second ad spots and new innovative inventory offerings like virtual signage are creating fresh opportunities for advertisers. Apple primarily sells season-long ad packages (rather than individual ads during the games), ranging from $1.5 million to $4 million per season.
While MLS is not currently sharing its Apple TV ratings, it has shared that viewership has "exceeded the league's projections." With the youngest fan base of U.S. major sports — averaging 37 years of age — it's unsurprising that the transition to streaming-first distribution has succeeded. As MLS viewership and popularity continue to grow — further fueled by Lionel Messi joining the league this summer — Apple TV’s Season Pass is well positioned to become the global destination for soccer fans and brands alike.
How streaming is changing the game for advertisers
The seismic shift towards streaming has changed how advertisers engage with viewers. Brands that couldn’t previously compete with the giants that dominate live sports advertising can now go after valuable live TV inventory in a strategic, targeted manner — without blowing millions on a single spot.
The digital-first approach enables more detailed audience targeting, allowing brands to tailor messages to specific audience segments. Many platforms also offer interactive ad placements, empowering viewers to interact with a call-to-action on their TV screen without leaving the broadcast.
The viewers found on streaming are typically more engaged, younger, and have more disposable income, making them hugely valuable in driving growth. Here at BCG X, we recently tested a digital-first media mix with a large physical and e-commerce retailer — and saw a 2-3x higher ROMI (return on marketing investment) compared to traditional channels.
Beyond expanded inventory and audience quality, streaming allows for greater real-time reporting visibility. Brands can learn more about their audiences and understand their shopping journey, which can be used to inform real-time strategic decisions. While historically used as a broad awareness play, advertising alongside live sports on streaming can now be executed to drive and measure full-funnel results.
A new arena for brands to engage with consumers
Given the early results of sports streaming, it’s no surprise that other streaming providers are looking to capitalize on the shift to streaming live sports.
Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD) introduced on October 5 its Bleacher Report (B/R) Sports Add-On tier to Max. This will offer WBD's full slate of live sports programming — including NFL, NBA, college basketball, and popular studio programs like "Inside the NBA” — all on one platform. The NCAA Pac-12 conference is also in talks to transition to a streaming-exclusive distribution deal with Apple TV for the 2024 season when its long-standing ESPN partnership expires, potentially making it the first major collegiate conference to make the leap.
The success of these exclusive streaming deals underscores the growing influence of digital platforms in reshaping how we consume live sports. With live sports streaming still in its relative infancy, a brand-new playing field is taking shape — and the big winners will be the brands that tackle the opportunity with an innovative approach.
Additional contributions by Annabel Gordon, Growth Architect, and Liam Nash, Growth Architect