OTT is all about customization and engagements, but online video sports platforms keep pushing the bar in ways to keep viewers glued to their screens.
For decades, the only way for sports fans to watch big games and follow competitions was through TV – either traditional stations, satellite pay-TV or cable operators. Large companies such as Canal Plus and beIN in France, Sky Sports in the UK, ESPN and Fox Sports in the US, would pay the Champions League, the NBA or the NFL for the right to broadcast their games and would offer this content to their viewers as part of their cable or satellite subscription.
OTT has been changing all that, turning a market where content was pushed one way from the broadcaster to a passive audience, into an on-demand market where each and every sports viewer can select the type of games they want to watch, the type of camera angle with which they want to watch this game, the time at which they want to watch it, and the device on which to watch it.
That’s not to say that the sports broadcast industry is in upheaval yet. Rather, its existing actors are evolving fast to address this fragmentation of the old model into a myriad of new options.
SAME PLAYERS, NEW GAME
Whereas the likes of Netflix and Amazon Video are seriously challenging traditional TV players, sports broadcast is different, for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, the media rights to tier-one sports – such as the English League, the Champions League, the NFL, and the NBA – are so expensive that they can only be bought by well-established players.
Secondly, unlike a TV show or a movie that viewers can watch at any time they choose, sports events happen live: everybody who really wants to follow the action has to tune in and watch the game right when it happens. In a world where everything has moved to on-demand, only live sports and live news remain driven by events themselves.
(Image Credits – BeiN Sports)
On a technical level, this means that, unlike other digital entertainment providers that have constant and well-distributed traffic, sports digital broadcasters need to be equipped to accommodate a large influx of viewers surging all at once. Their digital infrastructure and content delivery network have to be able to sustain the load and to scale up and down according to those spikes.
These two requirements necessarily limits the number of players able to enter this arena. However, for those who manage to carve for themselves a piece of the sports digital broadcast pie, the prospects are mouthwatering, if only because sports fans are uniquely matched for the kind of content that they can provide.
In the OTT realm in general, engagement is key. But sports happens to be a category that offers a wealth of possibilities on that front. Unlike the broad and diversified audience of movies or TV shows, the core sports fan base is, by nature, very engaged and receptive. Aficionados are already deeply immersed in their passion, following a team religiously and with a level of engagement that goes through the roof.
Besides, and whereas traditional satellite providers have very limited ways to enrich the experience, sports OTT platforms have pioneered technologies to enrich content with overlays added on top of the stream and with which the viewer can interact while watching the game: a ribbon showing the statistics of the players, superimposed screens showing highlights of another game and on which the viewer can press to switch, etc.
The NBA probably offers the most-advanced experience, giving viewers the option to either watch the game as a traditional broadcast (with no engagement whatsoever) or with a choice of augmented reality layers: one can add in real-time Snapchat-like filters and animations every time a player gives a pass or scores a point. Another focuses more on tactics and culture, visually illustrating the players’ strategies, again in real-time.
And because sports fans are extremely attached emotionally not only to the game and the players, but to everything around that, digital sports broadcasting can create a range of options to offer viewers the ultimate customization, like picking a neutral game commentator or a fan of their own team who’s going to share their excitement.
Hardcore sports fans not only watch a game for two hours in a week but engage in a whole ecosystem: conversations on social media with friends and fellow fans; analyses and reviews of the match; reports and statistics; and then again, more of all that before the next game. This gives service providers the opportunity to come up with content to populate this ecosystem and keep viewers hooked constantly.
ENTER THE DIGITAL PLAYERS
This all means that traditional players have to reinvent themselves. Streaming services can no longer be seen as a supplement for linear viewing, but now are a necessary part of how fans experience sports. Some, like Sky Sports or beIN, started off with an app that was complimentary, forcing viewers to first subscribe to their cable offering in order to enjoy the content on digital – and viewers didn’t like that.
Today, they’re all offering digital sports as a standalone subscription, with various strategies: beIN and Sky Sports now offer the same content both on cable and on their app; ESPN broadcasts only exclusive premium sports while ESPN Plus, its sports OTT service, has a much lower value of sports content.
Things are also starting to change for the rights to broadcast, especially for tier-one sports. A PwC 2017 report indicates that “For now, TV networks are willing to pony up much more money to air live sports, but digital players have shown that they’re eager to get into the game to potentially drive user growth and ad revenues, connect with younger fans and boost engagement beyond the traditional linear viewing experience by combining viewing, gaming and real-time commentary on a single, streamlined platform.” For example, the English Premier League sold the rights for satellite broadcast in England to both BT Telecom and Sky Sports but sold digital rights separately to Amazon Prime Video for a three-year deal that will allow subscribers to watch 20 matches per season at no extra cost. Amazon also paid $50 million-plus a reported extra $30 million in free marketing and promotions – to the NFL in 2017 for the rights to stream ten football games. That same year, the NFL announced a five-year, $2.5 billion deal with telco provider Verizon, to stream some games on mobile phones and other devices.
Going even further, in September 2018, NBA Digital announced that fans would be able to purchase the fourth quarter of live NBA regular-season games for $1.99 through its NBA League Pass, its digital streaming package. In the future, it expects that fans will be able to purchase any portion of a game at a defined price.
Meanwhile, social media is becoming another important component of this ever-expanding landscape. The NFL has experimented with broadcasting games on Twitter and for the 2018 season, Major League Baseball teamed up with Facebook to produce one afternoon game per week on its Facebook Watch platform. La Liga, the top league in Spain, has signed a deal with Facebook that will see all 380 matches broadcast live on eight central Asian countries. And the UEFA made the biggest move of all, broadcasting the Champions League Final for free on YouTube.
This all goes to show how sports organizations are well aware of the need to move away from siloed, limited broadcasting models. Yet, so far, due to the high price tag of the rights, no aggregated platform has been financially able to bring everything together. In short, a Netflix for sports is not around the corner.
THE ESPORTS TRAILBLAZERS
All around the world, more and more people aged 25 and below are moving towards e-sports, participating in and/ or following online competitive gaming, keeping up with the news, and being extremely passionate about it all.
Most importantly, these youngsters are moving away from traditional sports that were well entrenched with the older generation. Today, males below the age of 20-25 watch e-sports more than traditional sports. What’s more, this segment is not in the workplace and doesn’t have the financial resources to spend much on their passion yet. Once they do, they’ll be likely to spend their money on e-sports subscriptions rather than on traditional sports ones.
(Image Credits – Reuters)
This drop-in viewership is going to impact the value of the media rights for traditional sports. Currently, at an all-time high, they are expected to gradually go down in the coming 15 years.
Aware of this growing threat, broadcasters are already trying to integrate e-sports into their offering, getting the exclusive media rights from large videogame companies like Riot Games or Blizzard to feature their tournaments. BeIN launched a number of e-sports propositions on their satellite and broadcast in France, while Turner Media and BT are doing the same in the US and the UK respectively. In Korea, telecom operator SK Telecom created a complete ecosystem around this industry, setting up its own e-sports team.
On top of on-ground tournaments, another important aspect of e-sports is the streaming community– people watching other people play on a day-to-day basis. An in that regard, e-sports is much more advanced in terms of creativity and engagement, including options such as live donations to streamers, customized backgrounds,
The gaming community also has its own world of influencers, over which platforms fight constantly. Microsoft’s new Mixer platform dealt a massive blow to Twitch when it stole away Ninja, Fortnite’s most famous streamer, along with its millions of followers. Just like OTT video platforms such as Netflix fight over major shows like Friends or The Office, gaming platforms will battle over influencer’s exclusivity. and environments, co-streaming options, etc.
Sporting events are cherished by cable and broadcast networks as one of the last bastions for destination viewing. However, in order to keep future generations of viewers interested and engaged, sports broadcasters need to evolve fast and deliver premium, immersive experiences – possibly learning from e-sports streaming platforms that are already way ahead.
This article is published in Communicate’s December edition.