OTT Providers Offer Free Access to Grow Subscribers for Sports’ Return

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  • NBC, WWE, and U.S. sports leagues among those making archived content on their OTT services free to fans.
  • Companies have seen spikes in viewership and subscriber totals thanks to promotions.

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Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Sports leagues and media partners have found early success in charging fans for live games and original programming not available on television. 

However, the coronavirus pandemic largely put a halt to that strategy.

Now, more over-the-top services, prompted by a lack of live events, have elected to drop subscription fees in a bid to hold on to current customers and attract new subscribers by having fans sample content for free.

PGA Tour Live on NBC Sports Gold normally costs consumers $64.99 per year. Its core purpose is to stream featured group coverage of top players before broadcasts air on linear networks. NBC Sports Gold has shown a regular spike in viewership right before live rounds begin, Chris Wandell, vice president of media business development at the PGA Tour, said. 

Without live rounds to lean on, PGA Tour Live is offering content for free until at least May 17, when the PGA Tour publicly estimates live golf will return.

“When a user is paying for a product, and we’re not providing all the value that we promised, then you have to think quickly about what’s best for the brand,” Wandell said. “We want to make sure that we keep as many users as we can, and the response has been very positive in the first couple of days.”

The PGA Tour is using the postponement of its season to promote hundreds of hours of original programming on PGA Tour Live, including the recent addition of archived footage from classic tournaments and player pairings like Ben Hogan and Sam Snead in 1965.

The organization is also brainstorming ideas for new content to entertain fans on PGA Tour Live. Specifics about the newly planned content were not disclosed. 

“I think this [lack of competitive golf] will benefit us in the long run because for those days of the week when we don’t have live programming, not only do we have more content in the system, but we’ll be able to work with NBC to surface it faster and easier to fans than before,” Wandell said. 

READ MORE: PGA Tour Live Is Coming to A Bar Or Restaurant Near You in 2020

The PGA Tour’s internal sales team and Golf Channel’s marketing team – within NBC and parent company Comcast – will handle conversions of new subscribers onto its paid service. Messaging will likely tap into golf fans’ need to watch as much golf as possible once the sport resumes, Wandell said. 

In addition to PGA Tour Live, NBC has paused monthly billing on nine other OTT packages on NBC Sports Gold due to the coronavirus pandemic, including NASCAR TrackPass, Premier League Pass, and Premier League Lacrosse. 

“We have had a tremendous response since we began offering free access last week,” an NBC company spokesperson said. 

At the league level, the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL have also made game replays available to fans for free. Each sport offers fans out-of-market games through either paid OTT or sports packages available through cable partners during the season.

MLB.TV, MLB’s OTT digital offering launched in 2002, has witnessed an 85% spike in minutes viewed for archived games since March 13, it said. The league formally announced free replays of regular-season games from the past two seasons on March 20. 

MLB would not comment on its acquisition strategy to convert new account users into paid subscribers once the 2020 season commences. 

“Right now, our focus is on serving our fans and subscribers while we wait for the 2020 season to begin,” the league said.

WWE, which has struggled to retain subscribers of its WWE Network streaming service in recent quarters, announced on March 23 that parts of its OTT offering would be available for free to consumers for a limited time. 

Marquee events, including this past weekend’s WrestleMania 36 pay-per-view, are not part of the promotion, and WWE has continued to produce events without fans present. But the company insists on providing another diversion for consumers during difficult times, Jayar Donlan, executive vice president of advanced media, said. 

“We’ve always been strategic about how we think about tiering,” Donlan said. “We’ve seen that sampling, in general, has helped attract new subs, and that’s always been true for us historically, whether it’s through our content tiering or through our one-month free trial, which we’ve done for years.”

Viewership on WWE Network in March was the most in the history of the platform outside of months when WrestleMania takes place – normally in April, according to the company. The final week of March also resulted in the most viewership ever for WWE on YouTube on a weekly basis.

READ MORE: WWE Draws Closer To Rolling Out A New Tiered Streaming Service

In addition to YouTube and free trials of WWE Network, the company depends on linear TV shows RAW, SmackDown, and NXT to draw fans to its OTT offering. 

“The tactics don’t change,” Donlan said. “I think it really goes back to content sampling and increasing fandom and having the world invested in our superstars and stories.” 

Subscribers of WWE Network who pay $9.99 per month still get access to WWE’s entire library, including replays of WrestleMania 36, which are not available as part of the free promotion.

WWE said there are no updates to share on the future of WWE Network at this time. CEO Vince McMahon announced on the company’s February 7 earnings call that WWE is looking to sell the pay-per-view rights to the service to increase profits. 

Revenue for WWE Network in 2019 fell 7% to $184.6 million, while the average number of paid subscribers declined to 1.42 million.