Ilda Jamison is managing director at Spotx Australia and New Zealand.
As countries tentatively reopen, the world of sports is leading the charge. Live sport delivers massive audiences and viewers haven’t let a lack of games stop them during lock down. U.S. sports fans watched the NRL on ESPN, and hungry football fans around the world watched the K League, the Korean football competition.
The round one AFL match immediately after lock down in Australia, between Carlton and Richmond notched up a 25% audience increase on Foxtel year on year to 338,849, and the average audience across the five main cities was up 8% on the Seven Network netting an audience of nearly 800,000.
Clearly people are still watching sports, although stadiums are welcoming fans in limited numbers, questions remain around how social distancing applies to the rough, tumble and celebration of competitive play. What does the future hold for a broadcast industry that was already undergoing a technological revolution before the pandemic hit and which curve balls should we pay attention to?
Like it or not, sports is a business. Ticket sales, broadcast deals and sponsorships are inextricably linked to performance as money buys better talent - on and off the pitch - which provides that edge.
Even with matches resuming, social distancing will keep fans away, and sponsors are actively reviewing their marketing budgets. Professional sports bodies are looking desperately to fill their revenue shortfalls as seen with cricket and rugby here in Australia.
True innovation is accelerating. The sports industry is rapidly embracing technology and new viewing behaviours to grow fan engagement and offer some light at the end of the revenue tunnel.
Data and diversified content
During lock down, broadcasters had to fill the live-sports void, and the use of digital-first channels like OTT (Over-The-Top) offered real-time data and analytics to understand what consumers were watching which helped guide future content output.
Their lock-down experience with OTT has provided rich insight into what ‘shoulder’ content can compliment the live games when matches resume, be that player Q&A's, game challenges (playing digital versions of their games), or fan generated content.
The success of Netflix’s Michael Jordan series The Last Dance has encouraged broadcasters to consider sports documentaries on OTT as a way to build audiences and attract new fans on platforms that traditionally offer movies and entertainment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has driven streaming video consumption through the roof. Those who have invested huge amounts in live sports rights deals may be relieved to have sports starting again, but mounting financial pressures will force them to innovate, and create new adjacent content to supplement live games, providing a lucrative source of potential ad revenue.
Out with the old in with the new
The stranglehold on sports content by traditional broadcasters is loosening. It's interesting to watch OTT and subscription streaming services like WWE Network or Spark in New Zealand move quickly to offer subscription holidays, lowered paywalls and free access to premium content to entice new customers with the hope that they’ll remain, and pay once play resumes.
Digital first channels are competing toe-to-toe with traditional broadcasters for consumer attention and this could be an inflection point for sports viewing. Twitch’s partnership with the Mexico F1 Grand Prix last year included interactive and live gaming elements and the NFL’s Coach Film (GamePass) feature allows fans to watch games from multiple camera angles. This offers a glimpse into the innovative future of sports streaming which attracts new audiences through greater customisation and a digitally native experience.
Monetising live streaming now
Looking into the near future should not distract from taking affirmative action in the present. The pandemic-induced recession has caused acute revenue pressures, and for sports content owners an opportunity exists to create and monetise new inventory at higher CPMs through the use of Server Side Ad Insertion (SSAI).
Live streaming via digital channels has traditionally been a “lost’ revenue opportunity.
Pre-roll ads are insufficient when people are viewing for hours at a time, there are challenges associated with inserting mid-rolls effectively, and ad breaks sold for games on TV would not generate revenue online.
SSAI allows broadcasters to create a TV-like ad break within the live stream by stitching ads dynamically into the content. The technology is capable of handling millions of concurrent users - common in live sports- and connecting that inventory to the programmatic ecosystem. This allows advertisers (via DSPs) to bid in real time for inventory based on audience groups segmented by location, device or platform, and user demographics data. SSAI delivers a seamless ad experience for users and the opportunity of data-led personalisation at scale that advertisers are willing to pay premium prices for.
Crises is the mother of invention and the future of sports is bright. Those broadcasters, rights holders, teams and indeed players that embrace new technology, distribution channels and adapt to new consumer behaviour will attract loyal fans and win.