The sports broadcasting landscape is changing.
Amazon Prime became the first streaming service to show live Premier League football, while Sky Sports began sharing its coveted broadcast rights with YouTube, and Disney launched its flagship sports service ESPN+.
These digital-based deals are just a few examples of a clear shift that’s taking place, with traditional broadcast channels given equal or lesser priority.
But what’s behind this transformation, and are the changes a precursor for what’s to come?
Why is YouTube becoming ‘the home of highlights’?
Social media has made some headway towards becoming a sports viewing hub, with watching or following sports events emerging as a main reason for many going on social media.
Globally, 1 in 5 sports fans now look for sports content on social media, a 46% increase in the last three years alone.
This figure rises in markets outside of Europe, where sports fans are more likely to be searching for ways to watch those games that are broadcast overseas in different time zones.
Facebook and YouTube are already at the center of spectator commentary surrounding sports.
Broadcasters and leagues have had to acknowledge the increase in consumers wanting more sports content and commentary on social media, especially for international supporters who want to follow games as they’re broadcast, but due to their location, can’t.
At the start of the 2019-20 Premier League season, Sky Sports made the decision to make game highlights available on YouTube shortly after matches ended. In a three-minute video format, this was a surprise play by the pay-TV provider.
Aside from revenue opportunities from pre-roll ads, the tactic allows Sky Sports to connect with new audiences worldwide, and push them to its own properties – whether through signposts or retarget ads.
The move could be in a bid to compete with BT Sports, who are well-known for their high-speed uploads of game highlights.
Sky Sports isn’t the first to enter into partnership with YouTube, but with the rights to broadcast some of the biggest sporting competitions in the world, the social platform is certainly on its way to becoming “the home of sports highlights”.
Facebook has also bet big on this rising sports trend. At first, the MLB secured an exclusive broadcast agreement with Facebook to produce 26 live games online for $30m. The initiative was a success, with games receiving 123m views.
It was enough to convince Facebook to make a deal saying it would live stream La Liga games in India for free over the next three seasons.
These partnerships to produce online content aren’t intended to replace longer-form broadcast highlights and commentary though, or at least not yet.
Right now, it’s about social media giants, sports broadcasters and rights holders finding ways to maximise the commercial opportunity.
A tug of war between broadcast and online?
There’s no doubt TV behaviors have changed and are continuing to change; time spent watching online TV continues to increase – especially among the youngest generation of consumers – while traditional/linear TV has an increasingly ageing user base.
But for the viewing of sports competitions/leagues, broadcast TV continues to reign. European digital consumers still watch twice as many sports on TV as they do online.
The 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan sits right at the center of this broadcast-online battle.
Unless you’re a fan in the country’s time zone or not far off, kickoff times won’t be disrupting your schedule too much.
For the competition’s other fans, however, like the 1 in 3 internet users in Ireland and 1 in 5 in the UK, online services will be key to staying in the loop.
The English Premier League is a good example of a competition with huge global appeal, unlike other competitions that are more market-specific.
As a result, the distribution of broadcasting rights across the world is exceptionally fragmented. The English Premier League’s long list of broadcasting partners extends the competition to reach those in markets with the biggest fanbases.
TrueVisions Group has exclusive broadcasting rights in Thailand, for example, where it has a huge opportunity to captivate local Premier League fans.
Facebook itself was previously in talks for these rights and if the deal had eventuated, it would’ve gone down as one of the social media giant’s first moves towards live sports coverage.
Interestingly, although engagement with the Premier League differs across the world, the pattern of viewership among fans is very similar.
Almost half of the global fan base is tuning into matches on broadcast television, and a third are watching via online channels.
But with only 2 in 10 watching only via TV, and just 1 in 10 exclusively via online channels, it’s clear cross-channel engagement is very common.
And with the viewing landscape being so splinted, how far are fans prepared to go or spend to access the content they want?
Among internet users in the UK and U.S. who currently pay for a film or TV streaming service, around a third of consumers say they wouldn’t be prepared to pay for another, but 1 in 5 said they would if it gave them access to content they were interested in.
The appetite for broadcast games is still substantial, as is the fanbase who prefer more bite-sized content, and the fans who see the value in both.
Subscription video on demand (SVOD) platforms dedicated to sports are still few and far between, but could really shake up the scene. TV and online broadcasters may exist in harmony for now, but the question is, for how long?
How splintered can distribution rights become before consumers simply can’t keep up?
What might the future hold?
Arguably, it’s social media that could pose the greatest threat, and the greatest opportunity, for sports broadcasters and rightsholders alike.
For the foreseeable future, the role of social media is to complement rather than compete.
And while there’s no denying the pulling power of televised sport, the signs of threat are already there from online channels. Rightsholders, for example, may soon have to rely less on the guarantee of millions of consumers paying to watch.
Sports fans now span a variety of devices, platforms and timezones, and it’s in the sports industry’s interest to continue to find a balance between entertaining every fan – regardless of location.
Broadcasters alone can no longer satisfy the appetite of the modern sports fan, so it’s important that opportunities in the digital sphere are seized as they arise.