Fan engagement in D2C sports media

How leagues & broadcasters are adapting to master a challenging new world

BY VIJAY SAJJA | 3.25.2024

Sports media has undergone a seismic shift over the last decade with the rise of direct-to-consumer (D2C) services, redefining how content providers and sports brands engage with their audiences. Today, leagues, broadcasters and regional sports networks must take direct responsibility for something they never have done before: fan engagement.

The age-old model of granting exclusive broadcast rights to one of a handful of major networks is fading. Content exclusivity is transient, and consumers now have more choice than ever over how they watch sports content across various viewing platforms, making fan experience one of the primary differentiators for any sports streaming service.

With squeezed home budgets and an average of 2.8 video streaming subscriptions per person in the U.S., sports-streaming companies need to stand out in a crowded market through hyper-personalized, value-added experiences. That means delivering a frictionless, intuitive experience across every step of the subscriber life cycle while offering more optionality for users to tailor subscriptions to their preferences. Business leaders are rethinking how they engage, onboard, and manage each customer journey to master the art of fan engagement.

Powering experimentation in D2C fan engagement

D2C streaming provides a greenfield for experimentation in fan engagement and off-field monetization strategies for leagues, content providers and regional sports networks. Take the NBA, which last year relaunched its mobile application with a host of innovations around its NBA League Pass D2C streaming service. The service runs innovative promotional campaigns with seasonal passes, personalized offers and match-choice products for high-engagement sports events. It’s a prime example of a fan-centric D2C service -- users can tailor their subscription to their own preferences, with features like purchase upgrades, downgrades, self-cancel, pause, and resume capabilities. Last season alone, the NBA reported record-breaking engagement levels, including more than a 50% growth in active subscribers and a 48% increase in viewing time on its NBA League Pass service.

Meanwhile, regional sports networks such as New York-based YES Network are building new and exciting D2C options to capture success and engage audiences in an increasingly digital world. Launched last year, the YES App delivers a wide range of monthly and annual subscription options with dynamic, promotional pricing offers, as well as pioneering new rewards-based programs to incentivize user engagement and reward fans for doing what they love: supporting their team.

Fostering subscriber loyalty and lowering churn with flexible monetization

Subscription models are changing rapidly. Today, fans want to be in the driving seat and flexibility is paramount. Rigid subscription options that fail to place fans in control won’t cut it anymore. Viewers need value-added experiences that allow them to prioritize what is most important and adapt their subscriptions to changing viewing habits. That means the ability to access content flexibly for individual games, or even specific sections of a game to catch the must-see moments. To address seasonality and geographical limitations, fan-first services allow users to pause during the offseason and watch content from anywhere with couch rights while away from home. Adding in a range of exciting rewards, loyalty-based incentives and wallet structures fosters a deeper sense of fan community, powering a membership-style model that opens wider monetization streams around e-commerce, merchandising or in-stadium concessions.

For sports streaming companies looking to deliver more engaging D2C experiences, traditional customer service values such as frictionless, flexible access and a personalized approach are critical throughout the fan journey. Let’s start with onboarding: Our experience shows that overly complicated subscription tiers or presenting a user with too many options hurts sign-up and acquisition. At the same time, failure to support diverse global payment methods can lose you potential customers in certain markets. Streaming services need to take a data-driven approach based on real-world fan behavior and global insight to offer more curated products while eliminating sign-up barriers.

Similarly, improving the user experience and understanding the reasons behind potential cancellation enables more effective retention strategies, offering personalized incentives to stay. If a user lets you know they weren’t watching that often, why not offer a free upgrade to a premium tier to re-incentivize and drive a potential upsell? Or if a fan was affected by a poor video streaming experience, how about giving them 50% off next month’s bill?

Intuitive cancellation surveys and proactive, customized customer engagement strategies have already helped major services retain 20% of those who wished to cancel. Acknowledging customer needs and providing a seamless experience -- even in departure -- ultimately fosters trust and brand engagement.

Driving business outcomes with AI

Business leaders know that AI is meaningless without high-quality data. Underpinned by vast data sets based on millions of real-life fan interactions, AI is proven to drive improved revenues and higher retention rates. One of the most significant contributions of AI to fan engagement lies in its predictive analytics capabilities. By analyzing historical data, AI algorithms forecast subscriber behavior, predicting crucial metrics such as churn likelihood and presenting potential upsell opportunities. Armed with these insights, D2C services can proactively intervene, deploying targeted strategies to retain subscribers and optimize revenue streams. In the case of payment errors, AI-driven payment recovery engines mean providers can proactively anticipate failures, and then automatically determine and deploy the optimal recovery tactic in each case. Streaming businesses are already increasing payment recovery from the industry standard of 59% to 70% through these strategies. The common thread is that fan engagement moves from reactive to anticipatory, putting providers on the front foot while delivering a more personalized customer experience.

As sports organizations and content providers race to build and scale their D2C streaming strategies, business leaders are finding themselves tackling new and unknown challenges around audience engagement, subscriber management, and monetization. Fan engagement is one of the core business activities that D2C services need to get right to secure their long-term revenue objectives. Market pioneers who master this new world with a data-powered model are in pole position for success.

Original published article featured in Sports Business Journal

Vijay Sajja

Founder and CEO of Evergent.

A leader in customer management and monetization for global digital media, telecommunications and entertainment providers.