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Roku’s March Madness Data Confirms Sports Streaming Shift

Jeff Kotuby

The writing is on the wall — sports are headed towards a streaming future. Roku released data that shows the recent NFL deal, which included billions upon billions of dollars for streaming rights, isn’t the only sport careening towards the digital age.

According to Roku data, streaming hours for the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament increased by 75.4% when compared to 2019. (There was no tournament in 2020 because of COVID-19.)

While linear TV numbers were down—about 14% versus 2019’s title game—the large boost in Roku users streaming the event is no doubt paralleled by other devices. That could indicate that the streaming future isn’t so far away after all. The March Madness Live app was among the most-downloaded apps during the tournament’s opening week and was even the most-downloaded sports app for a period of time.

“Nearly 6 out 10 traditional linear TV viewers did not return to watch this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament on traditional TV,” said Kristina Shepard, National Brand Team Lead, Roku. “This is the latest example of the transformation shift occurring in TV viewing behavior. What we’re seeing is reflective of a change taking place across all the major sports as they returned from a pandemic-induced pause.”

Shepard’s words ring true for many other sports, including the NFL, NHL, MLB, and NBA, who are collectively pursuing a future in streaming.

There’s the monster NFL media rights deal that will see Amazon Prime Video become the exclusive home of Thursday Night Football, with other games coming to streaming services like Paramount+, Peacock, ESPN+, and Tubi.

The NHL’s new deal with ESPN will see their dedicated streaming platform NHL.TV sunset in favor of capitalizing on ESPN+’s massive platform.

Even the MLB, long thought of as the most “traditional” of the four major sports leagues, announced a deal with Pluto TV to show highlights and classic content on a 24-hour loop.

The NBA has long been the farthest ahead of the curve, thanks to its forward-thinking commissioner Adam Silver and its more marketable stars (mostly because their faces aren’t obscured by helmets.) Long before studies showed more fans are only tuning into the end of games and even eschewing full games in favor of highlights, the NBA allowed League Pass subscribers to purchase only the fourth quarter of games for $1.99 — and that started back in 2018.

Regardless of how (or if) you watched the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament, these numbers are just another domino falling towards a full-on sports streaming blitz. The next set of rights deals for MLB and the NBA will no doubt feature some sort of expanded streaming agreement as we move into the next generation of television consumption.

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