Facebook's sports partnership boss rules out ‘actively’ bidding for rights

Facebook's sports partnership boss rules out ‘actively’ bidding for rights.

Facebook has ruled out making a dash for media rights in its bid to successfully monetise its fast-growing live streaming audience.

Buying the rights to the world’s biggest sports would be an enormous shift for the social network. As a business it’s an advertising platform first and foremost but were it to buy the rights to Premier League matches or NBA games then it would become a media owner outright. And while many observers are quick to point out that Facebook is becoming just that, aggressively moving into live sports may be a step too far, too soon.

“I don’t see us actively bidding for rights,” explains head of sports partnerships Dan Reed, who seems aware that people aren’t necessarily ready to watch a whole football match on Facebook.

But that doesn’t mean the company won’t ever pay for sports rights. Rights holders and broadcasters have been “very interested” in using Facebook Live, the live-streaming feature it made widely available earlier this year. Indeed, Reed is quick to claim that the business is experimenting with a “wide variety of live video content types”, with it already opting out of snapping up the streaming rights to NFL games earlier this year.

If it’s not yet ready to commit to becoming the sports broadcaster of the future then how will Facebook look to monetise its 650 million users who follow a league, team or athlete? Given that its bulging business is being swelled by more than 8 billion daily video views it’s unsurprising that Facebook sees live-streaming as a way to tighten its grip on advertising revenues.

When discussing monetisation plans for Facebook Live, Reed cited its revamped ‘Branded Content Policy’ as one potential avenue. It’s now easier for verified Facebook Pages, which are increasingly owned by sporting brands, to share branded content, something previously banned under the previous policy.

“There are a number of potential solutions that could solve monetisation,” said Reed. “We’re in the midst of experimenting with a lot of different models but that’s our goal…There’s been a lot of interest in utilising this platform [Facebook live] given the reach, distribution and engagement that we’re seeing. Live videos generally give 10 times more comments than traditional VOD on Facebook. That’s of great interest for publishers and we’re really hitting upon formats that really work to help them grow their audience.”

Traditional broadcasters alone can’t satisfy the appetite of the modern sports fan and Facebook knows it. Rather than plough millions into battling for rights to flagship events, the social network seems content to bide its time and strike deals with broadcasters like Sky Sports as and when they arise. And rise they will; whether it’s Sky in the UK or ESPN in the US, broadcasters worldwide are wary that even as they break the bank to acquire rights to the world’s best sports, younger fans are dropping off massively onto to social networks the moment the live event on TV is over. It leaves Facebook in a strong position, one that rights holders like La Liga and NFL have already looked to exploit for their own expansion efforts.

Speaking to The Drum last month, Nacho Trujillo, managing director of innovation and global development at La Liga, said: “We are now trying to develop different approaches with social networks in order to do more real-time content with them….One of the most difficult things to understand for our future business model is that today people are enjoying what broadcasters decide but increasingly they’re the ones in control over what and when they watch. We need to look at how to create more ways to broadcaster and that’s why we’re focusing on different social networks and different devices.”

One area broadcasters will look to test Facebook’s resolve is in its willingness to share data in exchange for content. BT Sport and La Liga have already stressed its importance in turning what would effectively be them losing money on rights if they were to be streamed to the likes of Facebook and Google into a data buy. Like its peers, Facebook is reluctant to share rich data with partners for fear of user privacy, though anonymised data is factored into all deals with its partners.

“[On the data issue] we’ve been hearing that for a long time that it’s important for partners to understand who’s watching and what the patterns of engagement are so that they can learn and refine the approach. I expect that will be no different to online video,” admitted Reed.

Very few people just purely watch a sports event now, regardless of whether they’re at the event itself, on the sofa or at the pub. They’ll likely be on their phones looking at what’s going on in the world of social media. But this so called 'dual screening' has become much more than just someone sharing their opinions of the match and more focused on what behind-the-scenes and exclusive content can be seen.

“Understanding what resonates with your fans is key to building the unconditional emotional relationships desired,” said Sophie Mindell, senior social media manager at TMW Unlimited.

“We’re seeing this more and more with live Periscope Q&As, the use of Facebook live video and stories created on Snapchat. The content is unplanned & unedited and will evolve as the fans dictate and social media users appreciate – and at times, expect – that authenticity, particularly from the sporting world specifically.”

The culture of sport is as much a talking point for fans as the occasion itself. So as that starts manifest itself on social media, Facebook et all – no matter what it claim otherwise – find themselves emerging as the new guard to television. And that’s where the likes of Sky Sports and ESPN will struggle for relevance with younger fans.

“That’s the bigger challenge or broadcast because it’s an argument they can't win unless they buy into the social platform,” claimed Copa90 boss James Kirkham. “If I am an 18 year-old, who spends their time on Facebook Messenger or on YouTube, can get the sports content they love over those channels over time then why are they going to turn on the TV unless they want that collective viewing experience of going to the pub. There will always be a yearning for that but the moment Facebook starts streaming more of those live games to its Messenger Service or through WhatsApp event then they’re going to watch that The big advantage Facebook and Twitter have is that they’re already owning the conversation around sports.”

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