Live sports have been the jewel in broadcast companies’ crowns for decades. The allure of a live and hugely engaged audience has proved to be an effective draw for brand advertisers, particularly those with high-value consumer goods to hawk. That allure hasn’t lost its luster.
Sports broadcast rights remain competitive, expensive, and increasingly fragmented. But what has changed is how audiences choose to interact with sports content. The rise of social media and streaming platforms has changed the game, as their inherent interactivity enhance the appeal of live sport.
Combine this with the investment other media companies have placed in their subscription- and advertising-based streaming platforms, and the growing cost of sports content, and you have a space ripe for disruption. And while the details of exactly how disruption is taking place varies by platform, sport and country, it ultimately has the same cause as the tumult across the media world: tech turning passive audiences into active participants.
At Twitter’s recent Newfronts appeal to advertisers, the company announced the rolling over of the platform’s partnership with the WNBA. This marks the sixth year of the partnership which grants Twitter the broadcast license for live games. It is no coincidence this is designed to further engage a predominantly women-led audience at a time when bringing in new audiences is key. Following its 2022 regular season, the WNBA announced that the league “set records for engagement with 186 million video views (+36% vs 2021)” across its social media platforms.
Twitter’s rationale for that partnership is its ability to offer real-time reaction to every basket and foul on. The real-time interplay between tech platform and sports content is part and parcel of how many media companies are selling their sports streaming to advertisers.
Theo Luke, senior director of global content partnerships at Twitter, tells me, “A fundamental to the live sport experience is talking about it. Increasingly broadcasters are actively including social media rights in their deal renewals with leagues because they see the value of highlighting clips alongside the live streaming experience to capture larger audiences and other revenue streams.”
“For example, through our recent Twitter Amplify partnerships with ITV and Formula 1, we offer a number of real-time highlights and the opportunity to engage with the moments that matter directly on people’s timelines,” Luke continues. “From an advertiser’s perspective, this not only allows you to align with premium video content, but also position yourself at the heart of the action and fanbases. When sport happens on Twitter, you don’t have a passive viewership, but an engaged, attentive and connected audience.”
Live community interaction has also been Twitch’s core appeal from even before it was Twitch. Since its acquisition by Amazon, the livestreaming platform has been inching ever closer to a destination for premier sports content. That’s been accelerated by Amazon’s investment in the broadcast rights for sports, and the deeper integration of its advertising tech with the Twitch platform.
In 2020, only two years after Amazon acquired some of the rights for Premier League matches, it was already streaming those high-value matches for free on Twitch, as well as NBA content. At the time, Twitch’s content acquisition lead, Eric Brunner, said, “They’re very open to exploring new ways to engage their community, like co-streaming USA Basketball on Twitch.”
Effectively, then, the new streaming platforms are hoping the pre-existing live interaction that formed their core appeal will supercharge interaction around sports coverage. That creates huge opportunities for potential advertising partners, both in terms of activating those audiences in the moment and by providing analytics around the interaction.
Sports clubs reap the benefits of streaming
The transition to sports streaming on new platforms is also being driven by the sports leagues and clubs themselves. Andreas Jung, chief marketing officer for FC Bayern Munich, told me the club’s engagement windows have widened beyond match day: “This is the expectation that the fans have and they want to participate in everything. This means that they consume content everywhere and anytime… 24/7.”
Fans can pay a yearly fee to be club members, and Jung says members, “have the expectation to get more information, to get to be closer with a club and therefore we have to bring them more information, we have to bring them more services and so on and so on.” As a result, Bayern is betting on its multi-year partnership with Adobe to boost its streaming content for users – and to deliver greater advertising revenue.
Opportunities for smaller leagues and networks
And while platforms and the bigger legacy leagues take advantage of the new advertising opportunities afforded by live streaming, smaller clubs and platforms are effectively launching as alternatives. Unbound by the limited amount of airtime on linear channels, new wrestling leagues are vaulting over the lower bar to entry to replicate some of the new opportunities – albeit at a smaller scale.
Guildford Town FC is a regional soccer team in the UK, far removed from the glittering heights of the Premier League. Speaking about the club’s partnership with dedicated sports streaming platform Joymo, its manager Paul Barnes echoed the comments from larger clubs: “I believe this is where the world is going. We’ve talked about the benefits from a playing perspective and staying connected with our fans, but this is also a way for us to make revenues that can help the ongoing development of the club.”
In the U.S., too, smaller leagues are using streaming to grow audiences and revenue. Overtime, a sports media company aimed at Millennials, recently raised over $80 million in a Class C funding round. Much of the confidence around the investment is predicated on Overtime’s strong social media and streaming offering, which includes 65 million followers across all of its 80 social media channels
The strategy was pioneered by esports leagues, which grew from grassroots to huge events through judicious use of live streaming platforms like Twitch. What is especially interesting for wider media companies, though, is that even traditional broadcasters, such as BBC and BT Sport, are now adding esports coverage to their linear offerings.
New audiences, new approaches
“Twitter works alongside broadcasters and rights holders to help make live sporting events even bigger,” explains Luke. “Our platform connects people directly to what’s happening around live events and that conversation provides greater value to our partners.”
He continues, “Most recently, we saw this with the UEFA Women’s EURO 2022, which saw the number of tweets [triple] ahead of the final and nearly 900 million impressions in the UK throughout the tournament. Watching live sport in 2022 isn’t just about consumption, it’s also about engagement.”
James Hartnett, account director for sports-specialist marketing agency The Playbook, told me, “As the topics and ways they are discussed has also evolved, so too have the platforms sports fans turn to. The primary source of 39% of 18-24-year-old ‘social natives’ for sports news – including match highlights, unique moments and opinion commentary – is TikTok, Instagram and YouTube. The stats are much the same for 25-34-year-old, though they tend to prefer Facebook over TikTok.
Streaming has indelibly altered sports viewing. This creates new opportunities across the ecosystem, especially when it comes to engaging new, often younger, audiences – a challenge most publishers can relate to.