In 2022, sports was not only a key factor in boosting broadcast TV audiences and a major driver in the spread of newer technologies like 4K, HDR video. Sports also became a central battleground in the streaming wars, with Amazon Prime Video, Google, Apple TV+ and other streamers locked in bidding wars for sports rights once held by broadcasters and pay TV channels.
A notable example of how much is at stake in the battle for streaming and televised sports came at the end of the year at the 2022 FIFA World Cup. S&P Global Media Intelligence estimated that the World Cup will produce $6.5 billion in revenue. With FIFA estimating that the events would ultimately be viewed by 5 billion people, the early games produced record ratings around the world. Both Fox Sports and Telemundo were reporting record ratings in the U.S.
Even events that produced disappointing audiences highlighted the “must have” nature of sports for broadcasters in a period of declining audiences for linear TV. While NBCUniversal’s airing of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February of 2022 produced the worst ratings in history, NBCU in the U.S. and Discovery in Europe reported record traffic to their streaming platforms.
Likewise, most poorly rated Winter Olympics in history managed to boost NBCU’s overall ratings and advertising efforts. NBCU reported that the 2022 Beijing Olympics averaged 1 billion ad impressions per day, generating 96 billion ad impressions for Adults 18+ during the games and delivered 262% more ad impressions per unit than the other three broadcast networks combined. The Summer and Winter games also boosted the broadcaster’s overall audiences. In the 213 nights from the Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony on July 23, 2021, through the Beijing Olympics Closing Ceremony, NBC ranked #1 in primetime among broadcast networks 93 times (44% of the nights), 35 on Olympics nights.
The February airing of the Olympics and the Super Bowl LVI also boosted broadcast audiences. Broadcast TV had its highest share of TV viewing in the first week of February 2022 since October 2021, thanks to the Super Bowl LVI, which was watched by 112.3 million in the U.S., the most in five years. Sports programming viewership increased during the Winter Olympics, capturing 20% and 23% of total broadcast usage during the weeks of February 1 and February 14, respectively, according to Nielsen.
The success of sports on linear TV not surprisingly has attracted major streamers, who were facing their own coming of age crisis in 2022, thanks to high churn rates, slumping stock prices, increased competition and warnings from Wall Street that investors would no longer turn a blind eye to large losses. Many of the major streaming players expanded their sports offerings and some streamers who had traditionally only offered on demand content jumped into live sports streaming. In 2022 Apple TV+ launched live streams of Major League Baseball and Amazon Prime Video streamed Thursday Night Football, becoming the first streamer to have regular rights to high profile NFL games.
Overall, NFL viewership continued to hold up in the fall of 2022, with average viewing of 16.2 million per game through the first nine weeks, slightly down from 16.4 million in the 2021 season. While Amazon had warned advertisers that the move to streaming from broadcast would reduce audiences, viewing of Thursday Night Football has generally outperformed expectations.
Meanwhile, streaming services backed by broadcasters and more traditional media companies have been bulking up their sports offerings, with NBCU’s Peacock streaming a record amount of Olympics coverage as well as live NFL games and Spanish-language World Cup action. Paramount Global reported that sports, particularly NFL games, are attracting new subs to Paramount+ and regional sports networks, such as NESN and Sinclair’s Bally Sports launched their first direct-to-consumer streaming services.
The rush to expand sports programming also continues to fuel eye-watering, record breaking sports deals. In the fall of 2022, the Big Ten inked a record $7 billion TV rights deal with CBS, Fox, NBC and Peacock. In addition to the NFL’s 11-year, $100 billion media rights deal that features a deeper commitment to streaming announced in 2021, PwC is estimating companies have inked deals for NBA media rights worth $2.6 billion through 2025, MLB rights worth 1.8 billion through 2028, and NHL rights worth through 2028.
More big deals are certainly on the way, with streamers trying to gobble up even more rights. Apple TV+ had originally been tipped as the frontrunner to capture the NFL Sunday Ticket rights long monopolized by DirecTV. But Google has also jumped into the bidding, delaying an announcement for the deal which some analysts think could top $2 billion to $3 billion a year, much higher than the $1.5 billion paid by DirecTV.
That could prove to be a major threat to linear TV players and broadcast networks. “In the U.S. in the closing months of 2022, streaming providers have claimed virtually all the most watched TV programs other than live sports, which is still dominated by linear networks and cable channels,” GroupM reported in its December 2022 annual year end advertising forecast. “But as Apple, Amazon and other non-traditional players enter the market for sports rights even this last passion of linear viewership won’t be guaranteed. Sports along certainly haven’t been enough to stem the losses of video customers from cable and satellite providers.”
With so much money in play, sports continued to be a major driver of tech innovation in 2022 both among broadcasters and streamers. Fox upgraded its 2022 World Cup coverage with extensive 4K, HDR match coverage . Likewise, for the first time, NBC provided live prime time 4K, HDR feeds of the Winter Olympics in select markets. Parent company Comcast provided 180 hours of 4K, HDR feeds to its X1 pay TV subscribers.
Behind the scenes, the need to improve production values while controlling costs continued to encourage broadcasters and streamers to shift towards remote and cloud-based production technologies, which played a major role in the production of the Olympics and World Cup for U.S. audiences.
All of which is likely to make the competition for sports an even bigger part of the game plan for both broadcasters and streamers in 2023.