Chris Celletti
Marketing Matters
Hoop Streams: Sports In The Digital Age

Live sports are often seen as the final frontier. While content has shifted away from television and towards digital, more people are cutting the cord and exclusively streaming everything from the morning news to the latest episode of Game of Thrones. It has taken sports a bit more time to move exclusively to streaming platforms, and remains one of pay cable’s only true behemoths.

This week at the All that Matters conference in Singapore, a panel of sports, technology and content experts gathered for a discussion on the future of sports content in the digital age. As of now, most major sports leagues are not going directly over the top, directly to consumers. This is mostly for economic reasons—sports leagues are able to sell exorbitant rights fees to television networks and other platforms for the privilege to air the games, and would be severely limiting their potential revenue by doing so.  But over the years technology platforms and social networks have become the go to place for all sports content adjacent to the major events. The future of sports will involve everyone from leagues to providers like ESPN to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Weibo.

“You have to go where the fans are,” says Sam Li, Head of Content Acquisition and Strategic Partnerships for Sina Sports. “Thirty years ago that may have been in a bar, home, or the living room, but now it’s increasingly mobile and social.” For sports leagues and networks like ESPN and Fox Sports, that necessitates having a constant social presence, providing everything from short form content to highlights. This has seen leagues themselves go directly to platforms like Weibo, striking deals to provide near-live content when a sporting event is going on.

“Seconds after that basket has been scored, you’re seeing it everywhere,” Li said, noting that fans on social platforms are the ones who have driven this quick turnaround type of content by virtue of demanding it. That they do so on the platforms directly gives Weibo an advantage in knowing which technologies to pursue to best serve the end user, Li notes.

Although sports broadcasting is a team effort, competition remains between the stakeholders. A global empire like ESPN knows it needs to work with social platforms to amplify its content, and in most cases media companies share a league’s rights with their closest rivals.

“Sports has always been incredibly competitive, says Kelly Cooke, Managing Director, North Asia at ESPN. “The social platforms play a role where hopefully companies like Fox and ESPN can be smart about ways to collaborate with those platforms. But at the end of the day sports is a small component of what they do. Sports is ESPN’s DNA.” But Cooke also understands where the world is heading, and that’s away from cable. ESPN, Fox and other media companies are surely laying the groundwork to be streaming destinations for sports, but Cooke is keenly aware that the likes of Amazon, Twitter and Facebook—not to mention potentially Apple and Google—are going to get even further involved in live sports broadcasting rights, and they have the advantage of being places that people already go to to discuss sports and watch event-adjacent content.

“The competitive landscape has always been fierce and varied,” Cooke says. “I actually think there’s enough room for everybody to sort of serve fans in different ways, and we continue to try and create the best-looking content we can to attract fans.”

However, there’s one thing constantly on the minds of all involved, especially those at leagues and media companies: piracy. Just last month, the boxing match between Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Conor McGregor was reportedly watched on illegal streams by 2.9 million people. Of course, this was a bit of a special instance, a once in a lifetime type of event that cost upwards of $100 to purchase on pay-per-view, but that is still a lot of eyes finding their way to an event without many of the stakeholders involved seeing any benefit. Mike Rich, EVP of Advertising Sales and Content Partnerships for Fox Networks Group Asia tries to see piracy in a positive light.

“If piracy is there, that means the customer is underserved,” Rich says. “It doesn’t mean you make the content free in that market, but perhaps there’s another way to engage that consumer. We use social media to clip key moments of a game, and we find tremendous engagement with that consumer.”

Whether it’s fighting piracy or bringing the world’s best sporting events to as many people across the globe as seamlessly as possible, the future of sports in an all digital world will require collaboration and innovation from leagues, media companies, and tech giants. It’s easy to envision a future where the English Premier League or NBA will bypass networks altogether and build their own subscription-based over the top service—much like the WWE Network has done. But ESPN and Fox won’t go quietly. How these pieces fit together over the next few years will be fascinating to watch.

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