Sports had been described as the last holdout on cord cutting. The draw of watching sports live on television is the last thread holding some customers to their cable contracts. But as the internet continues to demolish traditional barriers to distribution, the technological forces that have disrupted the media industry are finally catching up with how sports are viewed and consumed. Fans still want access to live sporting events – perhaps now more than ever – and broadcasters and rights holders know they must quickly mobilize to incorporate technologies viewers have come to expect.
The Rio Rundown
This summer’s coverage of the Rio Olympics is a prime example of the changing viewing habits of sports watchers. As during previous Olympic Games, broadcasters packaged many of the events on tape delay – a strategy that had been successful even up to the 2012 London Olympics – based on consumer research which had pointed to this as a popular way to view the games, and also account for differences in time zones. This year, however, U.S. ratings fell from the previous Games, and dropped a full quarter with 18-40 year olds. On the other hand, Olympic events was also made available via an online app, a strategy which allowed viewers to watch the games on alternative platforms and resulted in a record-breaking 2.71 billion streaming minutes for the Games. That is more than London and Sochi combined, and a full one billion minutes more than all prior Olympics combined since streaming technology was developed.
The Rio Olympics are not the only events that are feeling this shift in viewer preferences. To wit, this year’s NCAA March Madness tournament saw more than one million hours of video consumption on its on Demand platform, an all-time high for streaming, despite experiencing a decline in viewership. Streaming of SuperBowl 50 also increased nearly 50% from the previous year while still achieving the third highest ratings of any TV event in U.S. history (trailing only the 2014 and 2016 SuperBowls).
Historically, sports obliged the needs of broadcasters, and network television and rights holders worked in relative harmony. Games were scheduled to maximize viewership, held at specific times and days of the week, and entire channels were developed around the established cadence of sporting events. At the same time, content providers consistently upped offerings to viewers by adopting new technology. For example, better cameras were developed and new methods to help analyze play were adopted.
But the world moves faster now. Sports are becoming global, which means that US primetime hours become harder to accommodate. “Over-the-top” (OTT) services like Netflix, Hulu, and proprietary streaming apps mean that fewer people have a need for cable. Millennials are showing a strong preference towards streaming, spending 54% of their viewing time streaming and only 25% viewing live TV, and use social media to instantly access the latest news, including minute to minute scoring updates. On top of all that, there are now as many smartphones as televisions. All this adds up to the fact that consumers, busier than ever, have access to myriad and more convenient ways to plug into their programming – including watching sporting events on phones and tablets at a time and location of their choosing.
New Tech on the Block
The Rio ratings are a perfect microcosm of what sports content providers can expect in the future – consumer demand to access any sport, anywhere, as it happens. Consumer freedom is at its highest ever, and content providers are racing to adopt new technology to meet savvier consumers where they are.
One of the terrific benefits of the Rio Olympics coverage was that streams of all events were made available via an online app, which allowed viewers more flexibility to tune into the ones that were important to them, whenever, wherever, and however they wanted. This belies a recent trend: content providers have begun investing in IP or streaming, via network or separate apps. As OTT and Internet Protocol (IP) become more popular, investments in streaming technology will become more valuable, paying dividends down the road.
This year, Twitter has announced live video streaming partnerships, Facebook Live has come into prominence and Snapchat is dominating the millennial mindset. Social networks are playing a larger role in how people get breaking news, and in an age of instant access, watching a game after you already know how it turned out is not a tempting proposition. Content providers must look for ways to work with social media or cultivate their own digital prowess, in order to capture viewers who are increasingly reaching for their mobile devices.
Second- and Multi-screen
In addition to wanting instant access to content, viewers increasingly want more content as well as more personalized access to content. This means being able to choose from a wider range of content and also being able to access multiple events or games simultaneously. Take for example the NCAA tournament: providing a way to watch multiple games at a time, whether that be via a combination of streaming and cable services, or some other innovation, will become the new de facto way to watch.
Sports have the unique ability to aggregate large, passionate audiences and hold them for long periods of time. But in today’s brave new world, you simply can’t be a meaningful sports property unless you’re meeting your fans on multiple platforms. Adopting the latest technology that is currently available implies existing sports content formats will evolve in larger ways than ever before. New technologies provide new and unique ways to engage passionate fan bases.