Where once sports broadcasting was limited to the handful of channels on terrestrial television, the proliferation of platforms now means that users have endless options. Between the various different sports broadcasters vying for the rights to competitions and the illegal but easily accessible online streaming options, fans are very rarely without the means to watch their favorite teams every week. The incredible sums paid by broadcasters to host live sports are also indications of just how lucrative a market it is for those that can afford it.
However, the next major development in the industry is not being pioneered by the key players. Established incumbents like Fox and NBC have long had control over the US sports broadcasting market, and they have actually adapted to the changing digital landscape well. But despite their best efforts, there are threats from the world of tech that make it difficult to predict with any certainty what the landscape will look like in the coming years. The likes of Twitter and Facebook have dipped their toes into sports broadcasting, with a number of platforms appearing and looking to provide the content for the social media giants to host.
Twitter, in particular, is a medium that is banking on live sports to play a big part in its salvation. The company has seen its user acquisition slow and its market valuation fall to less than most tech unicorns. The platform is still immensely popular among its user base, though, and it actually suits sports streaming well as explained by its global head of sports partnerships, Laura Froelich. 'We learned that we have the ability to curate a conversation that is incredibly powerful that complements the live content, so our hypothesis was proven true,' she told SportTechie. 'The power of Twitter, the fact that people are coming to our platform to experience games in the moment and that conversation around them at the same time, that really, truly is Twitter’s value proposition and it is exemplified in what we’re able to do with live (sports).'
The social network is a potentially brilliant place to consume sports content for the reasons Froelich notes - it is already a place for conversation about sports and many users will have Twitter open as a second screen while they watch broadcasted games. If users could watch the games on the same platform as their discussions about it, the whole process would be streamlined.
The marriage of the two would be enormously beneficial for Twitter, too. 'What you find as you get closer to a live game is our usage spikes as people want to interact with the live experience,' Theo Luke, Twitter's sports partnership director for Europe and the Middle East, said. 'The space we operate in and pound for pound where we are doing really well in is the live environment and that is why live clips and live videos make so much sense to us.'
Twitter did, though, recently take a blow at the hands of the infinitely more powerful Amazon. The e-commerce giant snatched Twitter's headline-making Thursday Night Football, robbing it of its box-office sports product. Even so, it still broadcasts regular NHL, MLB, and National League Lacrosse games across its platform, and sports is clearly a large part of its strategy going forward. The way that sports streaming is set up is a little more complicated than Twitter simply owning the rights to different games, but the more live sport it can host on its platform the brighter its future may look.
In this new wave of digital-first live sport streaming services, there are a few companies making waves. One is Stadium, a network built for the digital age. In the summer, the company partnered with Facebook to broadcast college football games on the site, shortly before agreeing a deal with Twitter. The network, which runs on demand games, original programming, classic games etc., is available 24 hours a day on Twitter, as well as on its own website and on Pluto TV. The deal benefits Twitter because it provides it with yet more exclusive content, and for Stadium it drives traffic back to its own linear network WatchStadium.com.
Stadium's ultimate goal is to sell subscription access to its channel, which will broadcast some 500 exclusive games. At $4.99 a month, it's easy to see the inspiration from the likes of Netflix in Stadium's quest to bring sports broadcasting up to speed. 'We stand alone in our ability and enthusiasm for taking the concept of a television style 24/7 network into a new digital marketplace and aligning our distribution with current fan behaviors and next generation platforms,' said Stadium CEO Jason Coyle. The sheer cost involved in owning the rights to live sports will be a major hurdle for companies like Stadium to overcome, but with the product both benefitting the likes of Twitter and being very much in line with consumer behavior in other areas, it may have found a recipe for success.
The future of sports broadcasting is difficult to predict. It seems almost inevitable that there will be further fragmentation of rights to different sports and games as the platforms become digital-first, and the major incumbents will meet competition from technologically innovative younger companies. It's in the interest of social media companies to promote companies willing to stream live, for free, on their platforms - whether the established giants will drown out plucky upstarts with their own wealth of content remains to be seen.