Chris Hassel and Jenny Dell on CBS Sports HQ. CBS Sports HQ Pictured (L-R): Chris Hassel and Jenny Dell. Photo: Mary Kouw/CBS ©2022 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

One of the more unconventional programming strategies we’ve seen from a major U.S. network is with CBS Sports’ emphasis on FAST (free advertising-supported streaming television). In an era where the pay-TV bundle continues to drop subscribers due to cord-cutting, FAST networks can be an interesting alternative, and they’re one that’s picking up some momentum. CBS launched CBS Sports HQ along those lines in 2018, then launched soccer-focused channel CBS Sports Golazo Network earlier this year. Both of those networks have found significant success.

CBS Sports HQ is in its fifth year, and is seeing more than 50 percent year-over-year growth in impressions. The network recorded its biggest Saturday ever on Sept. 23 and biggest non-Super Bowl day ever on Sept. 24. Meanwhile, CBS Sports Golazo saw records in viewers and streaming numbers in August, and grew nearly 50 percent following the U.S. Open Cup semifinals. And it’s boosted CBS on the social side as well, with content from CBS Sports Golazo Network on the @CBSSportsGolazo Twitter account recording 34 million video views in August.

On a pair of recent conference calls, CBS Sports executives discussed those networks and their importance to the overall CBS strategy. First, CBS Sports chair Sean McManus (who’s set to retire from that role next April) said on a NFL call that HQ has been tremendous for them.

“It’s been an unmitigated success,” he said. “The traffic is up way, way over what it was last year. The product is terrific. They are producing some content now for CBS Sports Network. It’s been a success from every single aspect.”

CBS Sports HQ has seen great growth this football season, with the first NFL Sunday (Sept. 10) setting a non-Super Bowl record and Sept. 16 setting a Saturday record before this past weekend passed both. McManus said the NFL’s a big focus for them, and the HQ group is well-integrated with CBS Sports’ overall approach.

“Obviously the NFL drives an enormous amount of consumption on CBS Sports HQ, they’ll be involved in fully covering the Super Bowl. They are totally engrained now with CBS Sports, so there’s not a separate group doing CBS Sports HQ and doing our broadcasts, it’s all one group. I think you’re going to see more and more integration as we go forward and more and more coverage of big events by CBS Sports HQ.”

And he said they’ll be an important part of CBS’ Super Bowl broadcasting strategy this season.

“You’ll see CBS Sports HQ all over this year’s Super Bowl, they’re going to have a major presence. And we’re going to assist them, whether it’s our talent appearing on HQ or whether it’s inside access that we have or features, we’re going to feed off HQ and HQ is going to feed off of us.”

McManus said he’s also thrilled with what the Golazo Network has done so far, and he thinks  it validates the overall Paramount Global approach to FAST channels.

“Many people feel that the best area of growth is with these FAST channels. We just launched CBS Sports Golazo Network and we’ve been lucky enough to have Lionel Messi on our air, what will be a couple of times. That is a very much underserved audience. 24 hours a day event and studio coverage of soccer, that’s exceeding all of our expectations right now also. The studio programming is remarkably high-end and the reception has been universally positive. So those two FAST channels are terrific growth engines for us.”

On a later call about CBS’ soccer coverage, Jeff Gerttula (executive vice president, digital, CBS Sports and CBS News and Station) said the Golazo Network is an important part of CBS’ wider soccer strategy.

“Building on the success we’ve had with Champions League and our coverage, we’re also still in the early stages of the broader vision, creating and delivering our content to the underserved needs of soccer fans in the U.S. by creating a 24/7 home for soccer fans with the launch of our CBS Sports Golazo Network. And the vision for that network is an always-on destination, available 24/7, and always delivering the latest news, highlights, analysis and mixing that in with really top-quality live matches. It will be a place that soccer fans can turn on and reliably get the soccer coverage that we know that they want.”

The Golazo Network launched in April with a variety of shows, including Morning Footy and Box to Box. In July, they expanded their women’s soccer podcast and social media brand Attacking Third into a thrice-weekly show on the network. Last month saw them launch weekly interview show Kickin’ It, hosted by Kate Abdo, and they added nightly highlights show Scoreline this month. Gerttula said they have high hopes for these new shows.

“We’re really excited for this additional programming to continue to advance the network and the service for soccer fans in the U.S.”

The cast of CBS Sports Golazo Network show "Kickin' It."
The cast of CBS Sports Golazo Network show Kickin’ It. (Will Cherry.)

He said the overall FAST approach they’re taking is part of that Paramount Global plan, which includes their ownership of Pluto TV.

“The FAST strategy is a Paramount Global strategy. Obviously Paramount Global has a major investment in Pluto TV, one of the premiere FAST channel aggregators in the space. And we believe at the corporate level that this is a space that’s not only important today, but it’s an important growth area for media consumption in the future. So we have a strong position on the growth of FAST channels in the U.S. market generally.”

Gerttula said CBS was early on this strategy in both sports and news, and they’re reaping the benefits.

“And that was the vision when we originally launched what was CBSN, it’s now CBS News Streaming, and CBS Sports HQ more than five years ago. It was all with this expectation that connected TVs and FAST channels were really a growth area. And that prediction five years ago has really paid off.”

And he thinks the audience there will continue to grow.

” We’re continuing to see year-over-year growth for CBS Sports HQ, and it’s now available not just on Pluto and our CBS Sports apps, but also on Samsung TV and The Roku Channel, and continues to be distributed broadly across the FAST channel ecosystem. And again we just see that that’s a place with more consumers as consumption habits shift, we’re seeing significant macrotrends there, and we’re just in a great position with CBS Sports HQ. And that’s also now where we’ve gone with Golazo; we like the dynamics of that as a space for growth.”

The cast of "Morning Footy" on CBS Sports Golazo Network.
The cast of “Morning Footy” on CBS Sports Golazo Network. (Paramount Press Express.)

Beyond the Golazo Network, CBS’ soccer strategy involves extensive UEFA, Serie A and NWSL matches streaming on Paramount+, some matches on cable on CBS Sports Network (including some from several European women’s soccer leagues), and a few on broadcast CBS (typically the final few matches of the UEFA Champions League, plus some NWSL matches, including one this coming Friday), plus coverage from prominent studio properties like UEFA Champions League Today. Another element of that is The Golazo! Show, the Champions League whiparound show they launched in 2020 on CBS Sports Network and later expanded to cover the Europa League as well.

For this season, that show is moving to Paramount+. Pete Radovich, the senior creative director and vice president of production, UEFA Champions League Today, said he’s really pleased with how it’s evolved.

“It’s been a massive success. I love it. I remember when we first started it, being in the control room in London and working with the English directors and the pace was just not there. And I was just sort of the typical American with zero patience.  …Finally, we found our sweet spot. And I think the biggest surprise was when we started Golazo! Show, it was originally just for our Champions League coverage on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and then Jeff and I got together and said ‘Can we try it on Thursdays?’ And it turned out that the show was great for Thursdays. …”From a production standpoint, we’re really happy with where we’ve landed after three years.”

Gerttula said the reception for that show has been terrific.

“We’ve seen tremendous growth in that property. As Pete mentioned, out of the gate we thought of it as a Champions League product, but it evolved into something where we could find a way to make Europa League feel bigger, especially for an American audience that may not have the attachment to a lot of the teams that are playing that day. Showing simultaneous games just created a tremendous product where we could make something that on its own is a bunch of games that the U.S. audience may not know how to navigate into a big event. I’m really, really happy with the growth of the product and how it’s evolved, and with how the audience has been attached to it.”

He said moving it to Paramount+ is part of CBS’ overall approach to premium content there, and also reflects how the show has evolved.

“We’re going to move the programming strategy with it to become a key piece of the Paramount+ premium product position. …The Golazo! Show, initially when we launched it, we didn’t know what we were getting into or what the audience reception would be. We thought it was a good idea or obviously we wouldn’t have done it, but over the course of the last three years, it’s exceeded our expectations in terms of the growth and the audience.”

“So it’s taken a bit of a different position for us within the portfolio as a key piece of our Paramount+ subscription strategy. When we first had it, it wasn’t developed enough, it wasn’t mature enough, the audience relationships weren’t there. But now we think it’s at a level where it’s a key piece of our premium strategy. …The way that we view The Golazo! Show within the portfolio, the business case for it, we see that now as an anchor for our Paramount+ subscription.”

Gerttula said despite the show moving from CBS Sports Network, they still see that network as an important piece of their soccer strategy.

“CBS Sports Network is obviously still a critical distribution point for us. We have so many great matches, we’ve just shifted that around. We’re going to release other high-quality matches on CBS Sports Network.”

And he said the overall approach is offering free content to as many people as possible on the Golazo Network, then using that to draw interest and drive subscriptions to Paramount+.

“The way that we look at that is it’s all one connected ecosystem. The whole Golazo Network strategy is as a broad base of consumption, where we use it not just to grow audience and build engagement, but to drive audience back into Paramount+. To get people to take out their wallets and buy soccer, people have to have an emotional attachment. We have to have a relationship.”

“This is a place where we can take soccer fans, and there’s such a high percentage of soccer fans that have been fans of the sport for less than five years, it’s a place where we can introduce to audiences storylines, the teams, the players, have them fall in love with a team. And then what do we have? We have the crown jewel property to market into.”

“So if you want to watch Barcelona, you want to watch Man U, you want to watch Liverpool, now’s the time to pay and go for Paramount+ and become a subscriber. So we look at it as a connected ecosystem, that free top funnel working hand in hand with Golazo. We’re not going to put the top-tier matches on Golazo, but we’ll put interesting matches on Golazo. But those top-tier matches need to drive the business, which is ultimately what Paramount+ is and what these investments all drive towards.”

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.