Tom Buffolano, head of business development at Tata Communications, sees FAST unlocking new audiences for smaller sports organisations

Rakuten TV Sports

The viewing behaviour of sports fans continues to evolve rapidly as they broaden their consumption of live content with the emergence of FAST channels. FAST has given fans more options across more devices and platforms than ever. For lower-tier leagues and niche sports, this relatively new streaming-based distribution model represents an opportunity to develop and reach wider audiences.

While major broadcasters and subscription streaming services have traditionally dominated the sports scene, FAST channels are quickly gaining traction and transforming sports distribution strategies as barriers to entry previously faced by smaller organisations disappear. The FAST model has seen strong growth over the past two years, particularly in the US and Canada, and is now firmly taking root in the UK and Europe. FAST offers smaller sport organisations a huge opportunity to broaden their engagement with existing fans, develop new ones, establish fresh revenue streams, and level the sport TV playing field.

Connecting with content curation

By providing an alternative to the big sports broadcast powers for free through an ad-funded model, FAST channels can connect leagues, teams, niche sports and other smaller sports organisations with both existing, dedicated fan bases and new viewers – many of whom might not have previously been able to access their live events and related content for free, if at all.

The time for sport content owners and creators to launch in this burgeoning market is now, with consumers beginning to become comfortable with FAST channels – switching seamlessly between them, subscription streaming services and traditional linear TV. What’s more, to make the most of the FAST opportunity, they must ensure their technology investment and services support give them the flexibility and ability to quickly scale up required for FAST success.

At the core of FAST channels is content curation and an ability to tap into the passions of a group of viewers following a specific sport, league or team – whether that’s lower league football or basketball, cold water surfing, or hurling. For sports organisations providing their own streaming service, having a FAST channel might involve creating a vibrant selection of live-streamed events and on-demand programming that all together amount to a distinctive content offering.

Lower-tier and niche organisations with limited resources are able to take advantage of the vast potential FAST offers without blowing up their budgets. The growth of this model in Europe is promising, with FAST platform viewership rising by 30% in the UK in 2023, 25% in Germany, 20% in France and 15% in Spain, according to Digital TV Research. A recent IBM survey across these markets and others shows that nearly (23%) of sports viewers already watch live sporting events on free streaming services.

FAST offers a way to deliver to fans content that is very specific to their favourite sports or teams. For lower and niche leagues, this can mean producing a vibrant mix of livestreamed games and on-demand features such as pre-game shows, behind-the-scenes looks at their unique elements, team press conferences, player profiles, and post-show reviews. By offering a variety of customised live and related programs for fans of a particular team, league or sport, FAST channels can appeal to the right viewers – building a dedicated and highly targeted fanbase.

Value proposition

By creating a means for fans to watch a sport without paying fees, FAST platforms enable content owners, leagues and teams to reach a wider audience, appealing to those who find the cost of traditional cable packages and other types of subscriptions prohibitive – especially when it often involves adding new costs for specific teams or sports. Additionally, the ad-supported model opens the door for new sponsors and advertisers eager to reach specific or localised demographics.

Another significant benefit of FAST lies in its rapid deployment and ability to enable quick adjustments. Unlike traditional broadcasting systems, which demand substantial investment in equipment and infrastructure, FAST platforms can be quickly and economically deployed using the the cloud.

The flexibility of the cloud allows niche leagues and teams to swiftly adjust to changing market conditions and scale up their operations to accommodate increased viewer demand. Whether it involves streaming live games, creating highlight reels, or offering exclusive content, FAST platforms enable sports streaming services to elevate their operations and deliver a unique experience to fans. Plus, cloud production and delivery tools make it possible for organisations with limited resources to crate broadcast quality content.

The advantages of playing catch-up

Streaming operators in Europe face the challenge of being much earlier in the development cycle for FAST channels than the US. Nonetheless, research shows FAST growing at pace in Western Europe with the UK and Germany leading the way. Another hurdle is that, with lower barriers to entry, there could be an overwhelming influx of content as FAST takes off – but it also means that sports organisations with their own specific fanbases can launch quickly and easily, provided they find partners with the technology and experience they need.

In Europe, it’s clear that FAST channels offer sports broadcasters, streaming services, leagues, teams, tournament operators and others an opportunity to significantly extend their reach and boost revenues. The fact the FAST market is still developing slowly in Europe means content owners – especially sport organisations that cater to specific audiences – can hit the ground running and get ahead of competitors with less compelling content.

FAST services represent the next streaming frontier in live sports, and the success of ad-funded streaming models for US college sports demonstrates the opportunities it presents for lower tier clubs and teams on the other side of the Atlantic. By tapping the right partners, leveraging the power of the cloud, and leaning on expert service providers, sports organisations across the IUK and Europe can FAST and offer their growing fanbases a broadcast quality viewing experience that compares favourably with the biggest of leagues.

Tom Buffalano The Switch

Tom Buffolano is head of business development at Tata Communications