The term ‘TV’ is pretty hard to define these days. It used to mean programming coming via antenna or cable that ended up on that big screen in family rooms and sports bars around the world. But now individuals either watch a ton of TV or none at all, depending on one’s definition. Today, there is OTT, there is social media, there are more streaming apps and services than anyone could have ever imagined decades ago.
All that programming today is simply ‘content’ and it doesn’t matter which screen it’s consumed on or how the content is delivered. Networks are now extensive ecosystems that seek to reach and engage users everywhere they’re spending their time and giving their attention.
This theme underlied much of the discussion at the 2019 Endeavor Sports Media and Streaming Technology Conference, put on November 12-13 by Sports Business Journal, at which leaders from throughout the sports media world came together to discuss where things are and where they’re going in sports content, and its delivery and consumption.
Greenfly was excited to attend and we were proud to have had several customers represented at the conference as we continue to help push the industry forward by scaling content distribution and creation across a number of the biggest entities in the world in sports, entertainment, media, and more.
Here are six key themes from the conference, as sports leagues and rights holders seek to slice, dice, and deliver content for the ever-evolving paradigm of sports media and content.
1) How Content Conglomerates and their Ecosystems Can Cultivate Fan Bases
Think about the biggest rights holders in sports - NBC Sports, which is part of the NBCU universe, FOX Sports, with all of the FOX tentacles, CBS Sports, part of the CBS/Viacom conglomerate, ESPN, which of course falls under ABC/Disney’s empire, and even the growing Turner Broadcasting regime and their Turner Sports brand. There are sports properties, but the properties are all part of bigger, far more extensive families of programming [even more now as each develops their own DTC offering] that is able to command consumer attention. And as sports continues to defy the rest of its ‘TV’ counterparts as the only reliable programming that can consistently drive enormous audiences at scale, the networks - the media federations whose sports arms pay billions for rights - are bringing to life the latent synergies that can power all of their properties.
NBC Sports Group President Pete Bevacqua understands the value of the sports rights his group holds. They certainly pay a pretty penny for it! But NBCU has a lot of siblings that can all benefit from strategically working together, even co-creating content that can drive viewers across platforms and networks.
“Let’s talk about how we take golf content and put it on USA, Bravo. How can we work it into the environment, the ether that NBC Universal touches?” said Bevacqua, who was previously at PGA of America before taking on his current role last year. “And it has a great ability to influence Americana. We can start putting in our sports content, our sports messaging to get to a wider audience I think…because of the power of sports, it’s going to be good for the overall Peacock platform.” [NOTE: ‘Peacock’ is NBC’s forthcoming streaming platform launching in April 2020]
Networks like NBC aren’t just thinking about trying to move fans around the various channels they own on the old boob tube (look it up, Gen Z), but also reaching fans across platforms: digital, linear, OTT, DTC, which leads to the next topic…
2) Digital and Linear as Complements
It wasn’t that long ago that digital and social was seen as secondary to the programming that went on the larger linear channels. But, again, the synergy of digital and linear working together, of networks driving a cross-platform ecosystem to engage its viewers, is leading ‘TV’ companies to put more resources into digital and more thought into how the content on each delivery system can work together. Steve Raab, President of Sports New York (SNY), offered good insight into how his network is viewing their digital and linear content, noting how much resources put into digital have grown in recent years.
“We’re really excited by a lot of digital content that we’re creating. Our first digital series and how that complements what we’re doing on the linear side…how the linear and the digital content we’re creating complement each other,” said Raab, whose SNY network is the flagship station for the New York Mets. “Whereas probably two years ago, we probably had seven or eight working on everything related to digital, we probably have 20 people now at the business who are dedicated to the digital platforms and the content that we’re creating and how we’re distributing it. Everybody feels that charge of multi-platform.”
Even generalizing with the term ‘digital’ can be divisive if not downright dangerous. Content for an OTT app meant to watch on a bigger screen is different from IGTV is different from Snapchat, Twitch, Facebook Watch, and Twitter. And with more live sports starting to appear on social media, it leads one to think more about…
3) Sports Broadcasts on Social Media
Putting a game on Facebook or Twitter was a novelty at first. But more and more live sports events are ending up on social platforms and it’s starting to evolve away from simply reproducing the linear broadcast. Because it’s not a linear broadcast and there are so many more possibilities for engagement, interaction, and personalization. It’s easier to get content on the social platforms - from sources all over - and the fans watching need not be just passive viewers, they can participate in real time. Facebook’s Head of Global Sports Media and League Partnerships Rob Shaw discussed the evolution of Facebook Live at the conference, and how better integrations took live content on Facebook from a smartphone-driven production to one as sophisticated as any that one would see on a linear channel. But where can it go from here?
“What ended up happening was technology continues and suddenly you have APIs that are being developed that allow you to go from traditional production sets and studios and trucks that feed directly into Facebook,” said Shaw, who has been at Facebook since 2014. “When I first started talking to [DTC sports content company] Stadium….it was about how do we incorporate your talents using these products? And then lo and behold…suddenly Stadium put a college baseball game live on Facebook. And that opened our minds…let’s not try to recreate television. Is there something unique and special about having a live sports event on a social platform?”
It’s not just about how the game is presented, either, these social platform-hosted events also present a challenge and an opportunity for sponsor activation. There is a lot of innovation to come in how partners activate within sports programs on social and parties on both sides are still experimenting and learning. Stadium, the digital-first sports media network Shaw referenced in his quote above, has been among the early movers putting sports on Facebook Live, and their CEO Jason Coyle noted the evolving space of live sports sponsorship activation on social.
“The way that you can highlight a sponsor - it’s not traditional in that it’s not just a 30-second ad because there aren’t ad breaks on Facebook, there aren’t the regular commercials, so we have to get creative with it,” said Coyle. “And do it with sponsored content, do it within the chat…along with our announcers and our graphics and things we do within a broadcast. But it’s all about making it engaging and it’s a unique opportunity for the sponsor outside of a traditional television format.”
Scrutinization of content by sponsors and stakeholders is also becoming more savvy, with more attention paid to the what, why, and so what of content. That leads to the next topic...
4) Data to Drive Strategy and Results
There is an incredible amount of content being created every day -- any sports media entity, team, and league are now churning out tons of content on tons of platforms from many sources, in many forms, and with many strategic objectives in mind. Data is making these content machines smarter and partners are demanding more proof of results for content they sponsor. A lot of speakers at the conference echoed the importance of delivering results backed by data, and infusing their strategies with data-based learnings.
“Our mantra internally is always being player and fan-focused but data driven,” said Paul Rabil, professional lacrosse player and Co-Founder of the Premier Lacrosse League, who was on a panel at the event. “(Data informs everything) from the use case to sophisticated sports investors to the consumer on the end side who we want to encourage to buy a ticket to come to an event, to how we’re conversing with our corporate sponsors and how we’re not only delivering value, but we’re accounting for that value is really important…”
Rabil’s sentiments were echoed further, particularly as it pertains to sponsors, by Zaileen Janmohame, Head of Partnership Development & Innovation at United States Olympic and Paralympic Properties. She has the unique challenge of engaging partners that understand the competitive (and pricy) market for partnerships with the Olympics, but are increasingly more cognizant of the tangible return they can see for their sponsorship.
“How much are those marketing assets worth (vs.) how much is this going to deliver back to my business, those are two different questions,” Janmohame said. “The questions now are about return - ‘If I buy this, how much will it impact the product and service that I’m going to sell?’ We’re not there yet…”
Meanwhile the NFL is looking closely at data on how fans are interacting with all their content across platforms; they’re learning from it and activating it. Every tap, view, click, and comment is a data point about every individual fan and, in aggregate, can allow the NFL to deliver personalized content and offerings in real time to end up with the best result for all sides.
“We’re getting a more holistic view of the user from everything that they’re doing…how they’re interacting with those platforms,” said David Marlo, Senior Director, Direct-to-Consumer Subscription Business for the NFL (a very 2019 job title). “In our world, when we have users that are interacting on more than one platform and interacting a certain amount of minutes, that leads to users more likely to be retained…They might not tell us that they are a Green Bay Packers fan, but if we are able to piece it together…then we can potentially think about content and messaging to make it more Packers-specific to keep them engaging with the platform longer…”
Personalized content and experiences is the name of the game today and tomorrow. But if there’s one industry-shaking idea to come out of the conference, from a lot of study of how fans are engaging with sports content, it’s that there’s more than one way to skin live sports. Learn more in the next section about...
5) Different Options for Fans to Consume Content
Kids these days don’t have the attention span to sit through a full game (said old man shouting at the clouds). It may be a cliche, but it’s true, and it’s not just the kids - many sports fans are consuming their content in bits and pieces: through Red Zone-like experiences, with highlights on Instagram and Twitter, and live content penetrating their social feeds and apps allowing fans to peek in when they get an alert, message, or tweet letting them know it’s crunch time in a big game and time to tune in. But fans are not consuming less sports content overall; quite the contrary, the viewing habits are just more diverse than ever.
Sports leagues and media companies know the value of live sports, but they also recognize the value of simply their ability to capture fan attention with content about the sports, teams, and athletes they love. Look no further than the NFL - the OG’s of turning a 16-game schedule into a 365/day content cycle. Marlo explained a bit of what the NFL does to keep their viewers watching more and watching content that goes beyond the live games.
“Especially in the United States, we provide a lot of content for Game Pass where it’s game content…but one of the things we’ve added in the past year or two is this idea we call film sessions,” said Marlo. “It allows us to interview players in the offseason walking through specific plays that are available on our platform, but allows fans to get a better understanding of the players and also understand mindsets of what’s going on in the games.”
FloSports, which holds the live sports rights for several more niche sports that have previously underserved fan bases, is also looking at how they deliver content for fans that transcend the live games. Their founder and CEO Mark Floreani talked about the ‘flywheel’ FloSports is trying to produce as they cultivate and engage the fans they bring into their ecosystem.
“We’ve continued to go deeper making sure that we have a year-long schedule, content in between the events and it’s working,” said Floreani, whose company hosts live content for EuroLeague Basketball, National Pro Fastpitch softball, and pro volleyball, among many others. “Our model is if we align with people’s passions, they’ll sign up at a premium price point and we can drive a high LTV, which allows us to invest back into the sport and get that flywheel going.”
If these companies continue to create more options to consume content - whether live sports or shoulder content - fans will engage more frequently and become more avid over time. The NBA is among the early innovators when it comes to facilitating bite-sized consumption for fans. They recognized that millions of their fans were catching clips on House of Highlights or waiting for a League Pass alert to put the game on. So, the NBA acted and introduced a menu of options, and the league continues to learn and experiment.
“[There is] a lot of work to do in terms of packaging,” said Melissa Brenner, Executive Vice President, Digital Media for the NBA. “So right now if you want to buy League Pass, you can buy all the games for one price, you can buy it monthly, you can buy a team pass - either all you can eat or have it as a monthly package. You can see it commercial-free...We also offer quarter by quarter pricing, single game quarter by quarter pricing and ten minute skews…”
Brenner continued, explaining the end goal is to give users the best option for them, based on all of the data the system is learning about them as a fan and fans like them.
“There is a lot of optionalities, it’s a lot of choice for consumers,” she said. “So a lot of the work we need to do is to figure out the right machine learning so you know, if I’m a Sixers fan, I live in Boston, I’ve gone to two Sixers games, I’ve watched five games so far, I’ve bought a Ben Simmons jersey - what packages do you present in front of me? So how do we understand a fan’s journey and are better able to offer more discreet options for our consumers rather than giving them all of this choice…”
Brenner also discussed the NBA’s continued experimentation with augmented reality, virtual reality, and mobile-view productions. There is no shortage of game delivery and game presentation tactics; sports media companies are becoming more clever and creative by the day. Which leads us to our final takeaway...
6) Competing for Fan Attention With Different Tactics
One of the relatively new, but rapidly growing sports media companies in the world is DAZN. And their Executive Vice President of North America, Joe Markowski was on hand and talked a lot about how DAZN executed around its recent KSI vs. Logan Paul II boxing match. They activated digital and social in a number of creative ways to get the word out to the most fans possible down to the minute that the free streaming pregame show shifted to the subscription-gated actual match. They knew the key to driving millions to want to watch the fight would be to leverage the enormous social following of the two fighters.
“These guys have got a collective social media reach of 80-90 million, they’ve got the biggest channels on YouTube that are delivering tens of millions of views weekly on their channels…” said Markwoski, talking about the two fighters - KSI and Logan Paul, who first squared off lin August 2018 before their rematch this past November. “We threw the full DAZN promotional fight machine at it and tried a load of new tactics that generated significant buzz for us, crucially in a demographic that aren’t necessarily sports fans, they aren’t necessarily boxing fans for sure…
“Looking at the metrics, it was a fantastic success…25 million viewership on a countdown show globally for a four hour broadcast show…We were using their mates in the dressing room to go and see backstage access…we had the promoters involved, we had the DAZN black carpet…It was a hell of an event…”
Markowski also made a salient point about social media and all the activity happening behind closed walls. All of the content being consumed and shared on so-called ‘dark social’ channels.
“This generation just does not (post publicly)…They’re doing that behind the wall, so it’s a weird blend of visual social media sharing on their stories,” he said. “So the engagement, how you stitch your brand into those dark social channels; for example, with the influencer stuff we ran this weekend, we sent out VIP invite boxes that were sort of interactive - you could punch through this screen to get your VIP tickets to the fight; all of the social numbers we’re seeing early from those guys are coming back with of course some posting publicly that has generated a load of engagement, but a load of stuff happened behind the sort of privacy wall on these social platforms, which is really interesting (and) requires a sort of different strategic thinking around social, I think.”
With sports held up as the last bastion of live content that can be counted on to deliver audiences, it represents a beacon of innovation to try out new ways for fans to consume and follow content in all its forms. While the games themselves may evolve, sports and games will continue in some form for decades and centuries to come, and it’ll be a fun and fascinating ride to watch the space evolve, to see how the fans of tomorrow will watch their games.
Shoutout to SBJ and Endeavor for hosting a great event. Visit the Sports Business Journal website for more information and check out hashtag #SBJSMT on Twitter for more content shared from the conference.
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