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How Facebook Live is turning the social network into the sports broadcaster of the future

From real-time conversations to live updates, Facebook has slowly made inroads into sports broadcasting over the years and now is set to quicken that push with a more pronounced live offering.

Live sports remains one of the last bastions of TV to remain relatively unscathed from the advent of digital but the inherent social experience of watching those events has brought a new dimension to how people use the world’s biggest social network. That was given even further depth when Facebook Live launched late last year and made real-time broadcasting available to all users, accelerating its shift from just hosting user-generated content to actually becoming a media owner.

The inclusion of live video has been a huge draw for broadcasters, especially given Facebook’s claims that the average viewing duration of video on its platform is three times longer when it’s live. It stands to reason then that sports broadcasters would be keen to tap into this potential and somehow yield this new social media opportunity as a tool to increase engagement with viewers in a way that would also benefit their televised content.

Speaking to The Drum, Facebook’s head of global sports partnerships, Dan Reed, described the early signs of success as “extraordinarily encouraging“ and said he expected more sports broadcasters to follow suit. The additional Wrestlemania 32 content shown on Facebook Live yesterday (3 April) is testament to that demand, while reports that the online platform has withdrawn its bid to stream NFL games reinforce its measured approach to navigating the complex world of sports rights.

“It’s not a hard sell once they use it and see the results,” adds Reed. In the US Fox Sports and ESPN have begun using Live to supplement their sports coverage and Reed believes that when “other broadcasters see the size of audience that the Live generates then they’ll be on board".

“Live offers them huge engagement with their audiences than a more linear broadcast format like TV does and the more progressive broadcasters are seeing that they can use it to offer content that would be hard to squeeze into a traditional TV broadcast," he continues.

In the UK, the BBC and Sky have been among the first two sports broadcasters to embrace Live’s potential and both have enjoyed huge success with it so far. Rather than just mirroring their TV offerings, the broadcasters have used it to provide a behind the curtain look at what they couldn’t otherwise show on TV.

For example, the BBC’s first use of Facebook Live was on Match of the Day with Gary Lineker revealing the running order of that evening’s matches on the program, which generated over 1.3 million views. Another use of Live by the broadcaster showed Everton fans celebrating the team’s FA Cup quarter final victory over Chelsea and it was viewed over 400,000 times. Presenter Dan Walker regularly uses Live to offer audiences a “behind the scenes” look at Football Focus and the videos attract over 100,000 views.

BBC Sport’s digital development editor, Chris Hurst, says: “BBC Sport is always looking for new and inventive ways to reach younger audiences through social media, and Match of the Day, where 53 per cent of our Facebook fans are aged 24 or under, was the first brand page outside of the US to use Facebook Live last year.

“It has also formed part of the BBC’s extensive multi-platform football coverage, enabling presenters and journalists, including Dan Walker and Phil McNulty, to interact with audiences, explaining how our programmes are put together and providing behind-the-scenes access.”

Meanwhile, Sky has used Live to show exclusive content such as a discussion on the England squad with Soccer AM presenter Adam Smith and international footballer Alex Scott, which generated 150,000 views in an hour.

“Facebook Live has brought another dimension to the way we engage with our audience,” says Sky Sports’ digital director, Dave Gibbs. “It’s allowed us to connect with sports fans it in a variety of ways, from behind-the-scenes reporting on Transfer Deadline Day to previewing the weekend’s footballing action on our Soccer AM page.

“2016 is going to be another big year of sport for us, so we’re looking forward to seeing how we can continue to use Facebook Live to support this and bring new and exciting content to our audience"

Going forward Reed says Live will continue to evolve and it’s the broadcasters that will in large part shape how that happens.

“Our partners continue to surprise us with the creative approaches they’ve taken and we’re constantly talking to them and sharing ideas and data in real time,” he continues. “We’re heavily invested in Live and we’re open to a wide range of possibilities.”

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Tony Connelly

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