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Live streaming – the ticking time bomb for sports broadcasters

Facebook, Yahoo and Twitter are all eyeing sports media rights as a way to swell engagement on their platforms, but as social video starts to look more like TV, how will the broadcasters react?

Wariness, rather than outright fear, seems to be the initial response from the likes of Sky and the BBC as they recognise the commercial opportunities around social video as highlighted by the Twitter/NFL deal last week. The deal happened in the same week Yahoo announced it will stream a daily basketball game and Facebook teased its plans for streaming live sports, showing just how far social video has moved on from short clips to live streaming of major events and rights properties.

But for the foreseeable future, social media’s role will probably be to complement rather than replace traditional broadcasters, with many mindful of the power those platforms have to push content to viewers at scale. Indeed, broadcasters are craving partnerships to make them look innovative but more importantly that can solve why they pay eye-bulging sums for events and then see a drop off in viewers as soon they end. From exclusive interviews to behind-the-scenes posts, both Sky and the BBC are already using Facebook and Twitter to complement their own coverage, a union that suits both types of media owner (for now).

That uneasy tension between broadcaster and online platform will take time to waver, given that the latter are unlikely to start paying large rights fees, instead preferring an advertising revenue share model that plays to their strengths. Having said that, both parties know the platform with the best content will attract the most users so the online platforms will inevitably up the stakes as time goes on.

Social video is becoming more like TV

Yahoo is “riding that shift,” according to Adam Cahan, senior vice-president of video, as shown by its newly strung ties to the MLB (Major League Baseball). For many years, marketers have talked about Yahoo et al as the ‘second screen’ for sports fans. Now, they’re just platforms and screens. As well as the daily baseball game it will show, the online giant has existing deals to stream basketball, ice hockey and golf.

“The question for us is creating a repeatable habit around the sports content we’re showing,” Cahan added. “We view what we’re doing as complementary offer right now rather than a full replacement… but interestingly when we’ve done things that are more exclusive and act as a replacement [to traditional broadcasters] we do see that scale.”

It’s a realisation some are already reacting to; Sky, which has a formal partnership with Facebook, believes the platform can work for it rather than replace it. More than 100,000 people watched Sky’s cricket commentator and former player Michael Atherton’s exclusive interview with Freddie Flintoff and Kumar Sangakkara at the T20 World Cup after it was streamed on Facebook Live earlier this month. A “great deal of content” is planned for the social network’s streaming service, according to digital director Lucien Bowater as the broadcaster looks to bolster a proposition that’s under threat from BT’s aggressive rights sweep. In a blog post, Bowater wrote that Sky will give a “unique behind the scenes look” at a number of major sporting events and breaking news stories by streaming on Facebook.

“One thing is certain, live-streaming on social platforms is here to stay,” said Gareth Capon, chief executive of social video production business Grabyo. “Social video is evolving, fast. Major rights holders recognise that they need to deliver content to fans in the most convenient way possible - increasingly this means video on social platforms.”

Historically, many sports bodies viewed social media platforms as a nuisance due to the ease with which they allow pirated content to be published and shared. This has changed in recent times as the benefits of publishing ancillary content around live events online have become clear. Nearly 50 per cent of all Twitter TV conversation is focused on sports, according to Nielsen, while 15 million people live streamed Yahoo’s first NFL game last year – the next generation of sports fans are online and on their mobiles.

Consequently, rights owners will be delighted if the “big beasts” of digital now become a regular feature of “future rights sales processes” and their role will evolve over time, claimed Jody MacDonald, senior associate of sports law firm Couchmans LLP. “If a sports body, such as the NFL in this instance, can keep its lucrative traditional broadcast deals in key territories whilst also doing something innovative with social media to increase reach and profile in new territories and with younger audiences, it will do,” he added.

The future of sports broadcasting

Media rights are tipped to surpass ticket sales in 2018 as the North American sport’s industry’s largest revenue stream ($19.9bn, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers). Part of the increase is derived from fans opting for an improved media experience at home or at a pub rather than seeing a game in person, the researchers noted.

It’s why Twitter’s $10m union with the NFL to show Thursday night football games had many media experts heralding the paradigm shift of social video starting to look more like TV. Some even suggested that something similar could happen with the Premier League.

Look no further back than last December, when the league inked a deal with Hong Kong streaming company LeTV to have its games accessible from a model that’s not too far from Netflix. While there’s unlikely to be a glut of similar deals due to league officials being near the end of securing international deals for the next three seasons, the fact that they are selling rights on a platform neutral basis leaves the Premier League room in prime position should the likes of Twitter or Netflix register an interest. For now, the best approach appears to be rely on the expertise of broadcasters like Sky – that are fast becoming digital content companies in their own right - to get their content in front of as many people as possible.

“The [NFL and Twitter] agreement points to an increasing trend of sports rights being diversified and how people can view this content across platforms, especially in America,” said Dror Ginzberg, co-founder and chief executive of video creation platform Wochit. “The big question is not if European sports will follow suit, but when. The Premier League will be looking enviously at the NFL’s deal and seeking to follow this example, especially as adults in the UK watch more than five hours of video per day, making video the single most popular media activity online.”

Broadcasters alone can’t satisfy the appetite for the modern football fan. That’s not to say people will turn away from their droves from watching contests on the TV. But the likes of Twitter and Facebook already own the additional commentary that happens around sports now and so if it were the place where people are able to screen and view those events then that’s a difficult thing for broadcaster to replicate.

“This is all about the convergence of media,” said Antony Marcou, chief executive of sports media and digital marketing agency Sports Revolution. “More people are consuming sport on their mobiles and tablets. However, the opportunity is only in markets where Wi-Fi is broadly available. The point being that as Wi-Fi and broadband become global, the opportunity grows for the global new media/social players to amortise costs across multiple markets – (for example, BT Sport is only in the UK, whereas Twitter is global). For traditional broadcasters this is a ticking time bomb.”

Seb Joseph

Hi, I'm the news editor at The Drum. Give me a shout if you have any questions about our news coverage or would like to pitch in a story.

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