Being a sports fan can be demanding. Many times I’ve hunted the web to find out who will broadcast a match I want to see, but the search has ended in vain. “I’m sorry, this content is not available in your region” – it’s a phrase I’d read aloud as a joke as the web page loaded, only to see those exact words displayed in front of me.

From a must-see women’s volleyball tournament in Thailand to the World Aquatics Championship, to multiple track and field events throughout the year, I now make a note of all the on-demand platforms and social media apps where I can watch my favourite athletes – much like an elephant memorising water holes.

As I edited and worked on WARC Media’s latest Global Ad Trends report on Sports media in the era of fragmentation, interviewing industry experts, I noticed that my own viewing experience is a microcosm of the issues facing the sports media landscape more broadly.

Live sports content has stood out primarily as a provider of widespread audience reach: according to the IOC, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony was the most-watched TV broadcast for over 10 years in Japan, and TV coverage of the Games attracted more than 91% of the Japanese population.

Yet a dilemma arises. Due to fragmentation and dwindling linear TV viewership, rights owners, properties, broadcasters, media owners, and advertisers find it difficult to grasp the whole sports scene and effectively connect with their audiences. Even sports fans and consumers struggle to keep up: an NFL fan would have to pay for cable TV, at least five streaming platforms and one mobile app to catch up with all games. This begs the question, will the mass viewing moments become scarcer?

Sport has gone through incredible growth over the past few years: the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup was an unprecedented success and 2024 is set to be a bumper year for sports media. An average of 123.4 million viewers watched Kansas City Chiefs defeat San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl. The Summer Olympics and Paralympics arrive in Paris, the first Games in a US-friendly time zone since Rio 2016. Men’s international soccer tournaments will take place in Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America, while the T20 Cricket World Cup arrives in the US for the first time.

Passion for sports continues to run high, while niche (and often underinvested sports) are on the rise. Investment in global sports rights is estimated to reach $61bn this year. But, to make the most of this opportunity, brands must first understand how sports media consumption is evolving – and that it extends beyond broadcast TV.

Social media: fluid sports fandom with multi-channel engagement

An Ampere study showed that 93% of those ages 18–24 engage with sport on social media at least weekly. GWI data reveals that the fastest-growing type of social content is sport highlights among US consumers.

Consumption patterns on social media are both broad and deep: instead of following one match or team, Gen Z fans follow athletes; rather than following only official sports bodies, they welcome influencers and creators who publish around sports and provide engaging content.

Ahead of the upcoming Paris Olympics and Paralympics, TikTok announced it will become the official partner of Team GB and ParalympicsGB and bring athlete and sport content to its platform. Taking inspiration from the Tokyo Olympics, where behind-the-scenes videos went viral, TikTok hopes the new partnership will further engage new audiences, build fanbases for athletes, and “champion change for disabled people” in ParalymipcGB’s case.

Sport intersects with other content genres on digital platforms, particularly around popular culture such as fashion, music, and entertainment, according to Kahlen Macaulay at Snap.

Social media provides opportunities to build interest in and engagement with sport: many only follow the NFL to see Taylor Swift attending Chief’s matches, while others enjoy creating content with AI stickers or filters built for the upcoming match. Casual viewers are therefore exposed to sports moments. For rights owners with a strong presence on social channels, this is a long-term investment in fostering future audience relationships.

Gen Z fandom is fluid and flows in all directions, often guided by social media algorithms. This can help to cultivate the rise of new sports, creating new communities for brands to connect with. “We never know where the next viral sporting trend or cultural moment will come from,” says TikTok’s Sanjit Sarkar. Niche content has the opportunity to grow rapidly, and underserved sports communities will get a chance to be served with content they love.

Streaming: live is important; so is adjacent content

Many major tech companies and streaming platforms have dedicated lengthy paragraphs in earnings reports documenting the success and ambition of hosting sports content. Aside from being a viewership-boosting opportunity, sports moments can drive new sign-ups for platforms particularly from hard-to-reach and cord-cutting fans.

Amazon shared in its latest earnings that it recorded double-digit growth among 18- to 34-year-olds thanks to its Thursday Night Football NFL rights. The 2024 Super Bowl is estimated to provide over $650M in TV ad revenues to Paramount, across both broadcast TV and its Paramount+ streaming platform.

However, the pivot to OTT can be tricky: ESPN+, with 25 million subscribers, recently experienced its first paid user decline. To survive in the sports streaming war, players are diversifying.

Relevant content such as documentaries are increasingly used to build potential sports fans in off-seasons: the number of sports documentary titles on Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, Apple TV+, and Discovery+ has increased by 61% in five years. A survey among online sports fans showed that Netflix is the most popular OTT platform for watching sports content – a study undertaken before Netflix announced its acquisition of live WWE rights.

The end goal is to keep consumers engaged, so platforms are working to avoid creating any dead-end – usually the immediate churn after a sports event – in the funnel. The most recent news of Disney, Fox, and Warner Bros Discovery creating a DTC sports bundle service is a clear message that the players are aware that the market is fragmented, and they also see it as a huge asset.

WARC Media’s latest Global Ad Trends report explores sports media in the era of fragmentation through interviews, data, and analysis. Interview contributors include Adrian Sutherland at Publicis Sport, Charlotte Oaten and Silvia Marinescu at OMD EMEA, Jérôme Parmentier at the International Olympic Committee, Kahlen Macaulay at Snap Inc. and Sanjit Sarkar at TikTok.

Non-subscribers can access a sample report here.