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Can digital distribution save sport's slimming viewing figures?

October 23, 2017 | 7 min read

Sporting audiences are dying. Both literally and figuratively. But they’re not being replaced. The youth aren’t gravitating to the same passion points as the generation before.

Melbourne Cup

Events like Melbourne Cup are increasingly looking at Snap and Twitter to find new audiences

Recent downtrends of TV ratings for the NFL (down 7.5%) and EPL (down 18%), show traditional broadcast has lost its pole position with audiences. This mass decline in viewers has forced the NFL to throw a hail-mary pass to digital distribution, first giving TNF to Twitter and now tech giant Amazon (which is paying $50 million a year for the privilege). But it’s across all sports.

It’s why Australia’s Victorian Racing Club last week announced its ‘Our Stories’ partnership with social media monster Snap Inc and this week confirmed Twitter on board for the second year, to live-stream the event (2016’s deal with VRC represented the first outside of Twitter’s native US). All of this is presumably to aid in both the acquisition of wider audiences for the event and hopes of increased engagement on the day.

Even the Olympics is not safe. Tony Estanguet, co-President of the Paris bid committee commented that by 2024, we could see esports as the next medal event to hit the Olympic Games. All in a bid to appeal to younger audiences.

While not a distribution channel itself, the majority of content for esports runs through Twitch, a digital platform which attracts 120 million users every month to watch others play computer games. Amazon owned tech giant embraces the value of fun with millennials as they game for cash, live streaming their channels to the greater audience.

Traditional broadcast channels including FOX Sports, Eurosport and Sky Racing, are falling behind. While Netflix and Amazon Prime offer 4K, these laggards offer simple HD. It will be broadcast-darwinism.

Facebook recently bid $600m for the rights to IPL, as other sports rights are still under contract. It didn’t win, but the offer itself confirmed suspicions of interest in this area. Tech giants with the audiences, are now seeking the gold standard in content - while sports with falling relevance look to target a fragmented and harder to reach generation. Both clambering to maximise their ad revenue.

Combining both the technological experiences, mastered by a social platform, with compelling content such as the NFL, NBA, Racing and The Olympics, creates a digital environment primed for targeting the younger generation and penetrating into their daily habits.

As the sports industry relies further on these bridging partnerships to reach the ever-growing younger generation, it’s extended beyond the borders of their own nation and social platforms allow them to reach audiences on an international scale.

Where the NBA was once a humble American sport, in 2015 the NBA and Chinese tech-giant Tencent (800 million unique subscribers as the mother-company of WeChat) announced their 5-year digital partnership, reportedly worth $700 million, opening the gates to 10-20 million active viewers to each marquee matchup out of the 3000 live games over the 5-year partnership.

Thanks to the sophisticated technology behind mobile development, the NBA and Tencent dominate engagement of the younger generation who are required to wake up in the early hours of the morning to stream a live game, in the convenient palm of their hands. Enabling youth to access games with just a few simple clicks.

As these partnerships continue to develop, marketers turn to the social advertising industry, targeting the well-funded generation of millennials. Adopting addictive traits of the gaming industry including pull-down to refresh content, horizontal progression bars and multi-sensory rewards for continuation of engagement. Marketers are aligning closer than ever with the user experience of Social Application and the content itself.

Snapchat is the 3rd most popular social platform amongst 18-29 year olds in Australia, a staggering 70% of Snapchat users are millennials.

But is this the right move for “The Race That Stops A Nation”?

While Australia’s beloved Melbourne Cup embodies the spirit of competition, alongside that lives the greater influencers including Tom Waterhouse, William Hill, Cormac Barry of Sportsbet Australia and Joshi Hermann, editor-in-chief of TAB. Which begets the bigger question of how this partnership will affect the lives of the younger generation.

In traditional broadcast, there are distinct rules for TV advertising in each governing state and country. Earlier in 2017, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had laid down tighter restrictions on gambling advertisements on broadcast channels, with stricter policies taking place after companies such as Tom Waterhouse apologising to the Australian public back in 2013 for their exorbitant advertising angered the public.

However, with digital channels that remain relatively unregulated in the advertising space, do these newly formed partnerships, that are creating an entirely new viewing experience, need an international committee to form in order to facilitate ethical advertising and marketing practices online when chasing the millennial millions?

Ratings, reach and regulation remain as the existing challenge as the relationship between fans and sports evolve with new mediums and viewing experiences. The ability to swipe between sports as content, with the additional connectivity of social networks, will open the doors to a deeper fragmentation between sports, as viewers have the ultimate say in an ever-growing variety of content at the click of a button.

Marcus W K Wong is the head of partnerships and marketing of the Warrior Forum. He can be found tweeting @marcuswkwong.

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