Media Rights, Video, Baseball, Basketball, Soccer, Global

Watch Together, House of Highlights and CourtVision: Cutting-edge content in an ever-changing world

Delivering the right content across the right platforms is key to grabbing and holding the attention of young, tech-savvy fans. As the consumption of sport evolves, so too must the manner in which it is distributed.

by Michael Long
Watch Together, House of Highlights and CourtVision: Cutting-edge content in an ever-changing world

It may be stating the obvious, but the way people consume media is changing. With the emergence of nascent platforms and products has come newfangled means of watching, sharing and interacting with all forms of content, ensuring that rights holders and content distributors are now confronted by a tangle of avenues through which to reach their target audiences.

In this new media ecosystem, the products that stand out tend to be those that capture and retain the attention of younger, mobile-first audiences. More often than not, appealing to the hearts and minds of future generations is all about providing the right content on the right platforms and devices, and doing so in an authentic and personalised way.

In sport as in other forms of entertainment, one clear trend is that the consumption of content is becoming more immediate, more on-demand and more interactive, with viewers able to personalise and curate virtually every aspect of their experience as they see fit. The unprecedented opportunities afforded by social media and over-the-top (OTT) platforms have yet to be fully realised, but they are already giving rise to novel ideas and technologies that provide users with new tools and vantage points through which to enjoy the action.

Shareable moments for the meme generation

Omar Raja (pictured, right) was still in his senior year of college when he founded what would later become House of Highlights. It was the summer of 2014 and basketball great LeBron James had just announced he would be leaving the Miami Heat to return to Cleveland. Shocked by the news of his hero’s departure, Raja, a die-hard Heat fanatic, quickly began reminiscing with friends about memorable on and off-court moments that had happened during James’ time with the team.

“There are just these really funny moments, that aren’t always about the dunks or the assists or the traditional highlight plays, that I cared about and my friends cared about,” recalls the 24-year-old. “And the problem was that when I would think about these, I would try to find them on the internet. I would go on YouTube, I’d go on Twitter, I’d go everywhere and I couldn’t find it.”

Unable to locate the type of content he was looking for, Raja took it upon himself to create it. Monitoring multiple live games at once on screens in his university bedroom, the eagle-eyed student would use his phone to capture snippets of the action - and the happenings around the main event, such as courtside camaraderie and press conferences - before immediately posting them on Instagram.

“I always try to think of how every frame in video can be usable – whether that’s a funny caption, whether it’s pointing out something in the background, it’s always about making moments stand out,” he says.

Raja’s account quickly gained traction, and what started as a passion project soon became a legitimate, monetisable business. Within just a few months, his account had amassed more than 100,000 followers, prompting Turner Sports-owned Bleacher Report to acquire the venture in late 2015. Fast forward to today, House of Highlights boasts well over 11 million followers and counting, including numerous high-profile athletes and celebrities.

“I would say that there’s still a white space for it and people need to continue to do it because there’s not enough of us,” insists Raja. “Listen, if the page has 11 million followers then more people should be doing it.”

Why would you take these videos down if they’re making your sport more popular

Omar Raja, House of Highlights founder

With a voice and tone that is both relatable and authentic, House of Highlights specialises in delivering highly shareable video clips to a content-hungry Gen-Z audience - the kind of fans who readily disseminate memes, who seek out sports highlights on social media, and who consume much of their sports content through fan-focused platforms like Barstool Sports or Copa90. Just over half of its audience is under the age of 24 - a decidedly hard-to-reach demographic for conventional media - and many hail from outside the United States.

Much of its content is still shot on smartphones, particularly anything that is posted to Instagram Stories, which has become a popular place for unpolished, unfiltered videos. Since its acquisition by Bleacher Report, however, House of Highlights has been able to professionalise its output by accessing officially licensed content from the National Basketball Association (NBA), which has always employed a laissez-faire attitude to the sharing of its content on social media.

Now, other leagues that previously shut down user-generated highlights channels for copyright reasons are beginning to see the upside of embracing platforms like House of Highlights.

“That’s going to be the biggest change, I would say, in the next four years, because a lot of sports leagues have understood that highlights are honestly just marketing,” says Raja. “Why would you take these videos down if they’re making your sport more popular, especially with younger fans?”

Social sharing for younger viewers

Another service that has built its business on engaging younger, mobile-first generations is Snapchat, the eight-year-old content sharing and messaging app. With an emphasis on immediacy - and the timed disappearance of messages - Snapchat’s platform is all about communicating, socialising and sharing photos and videos with friends. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the device camera sits at the very heart of the platform.

“We want to think of Snapchat as the fastest way to share a moment: take a photo, take a video, send it to your friends,” explains Juan David Borrero, the company’s partnerships manager. “That’s the cornerstone of what the app is and the value proposition that we have, which is very unique and differentiated from a lot of different platforms.”

With a core daily audience of 186 million users, who spend an average of 30 minutes a day on the platform, it is no secret that Snapchat targets a youthful demographic. In the US, it is more popular with teenagers than its arch rival Instagram; in the UK, where it has 12 million daily users, it was predicted by eMarketer in August that it would eclipse Facebook’s popularity among 18 to 24-year-olds by the turn of the year.

Snapchat’s unique selling point is the ability for users to manipulate photos and video, through filters and augmented reality (AR) plug-ins. Geo-filtered functions allow users to automatically insert their location, team information and even scores and weather in their Snaps, while linking to related public posts. The platform also boasts a function whereby users are able to swipe up to access add-ons such as longer-form content or links to external ecommerce sites.

We have a big audience that’s engaging with sports. I think the ability to bring in a lot of quick, hyper-visual content – mostly around highlights – is a big opportunity

Juan David Borrero, Snapchat partnerships manager

For Snapchat, building partnerships in sport is rising as a priority. With a developing sports content strategy, it has formalised partnerships with a host of major sports organisations and publishers, including Sky Sports and Copa90. Those partnerships have enabled the company to incorporate curated, localised content that is optimised for mobile viewing into its offering - during last year’s PyeongChang Winter Olympics, for example, Snapchat trialled live streaming for the first time, while match highlights are also part of the overall mix.

“On sports, we always talk about creating the new generation of fans,” says Borrero. “You don’t necessarily have to buy a jersey or go to a match. In fact, most fans never get to go to their professional team’s match but they’ve managed to experience them on Snapchat by watching the content or they’re able to decorate their Snaps by using these filters and lenses and then communicate with their friends and express their fandom.”

When it comes to content, Snapchat does not employ a one-size-fits-all approach; in fact, the platform houses several different formats. Within its Discover service, which launched in 2015, content is split across four distinct strands: ‘Our Stories’, where Snaps from a range of users are collated around a given event; ‘Official Stories’, which are produced by accredited accounts; ‘Publisher Stories’, the more sophisticated and multi-faceted deep-dives created by media organisations and partners; and the most recent addition, ‘Shows’, which are short-form video series of between three and seven minutes long.

“Shows is a very interesting content format that we have because we really want to reimagine mobile television,” Borrero continues. “That’s the goal that we’ve set out to do. The ability to bring this lean-back experience to a phone and for it to be vertical is really interesting and a big challenge. It’s something that we’re really excited about.

“We know we have a big audience that’s engaging with sports, not only on the creative tools side but also on the content side. I think the ability to bring in a lot of quick, hyper-visual content – mostly around highlights – is a big opportunity.

“The idea of quick content that can also be entertaining and is also relevant is really, really exciting for us. Because it’s not just a question of putting up three goals and a red card, that’s it: there’s a narrative that is associated with it. It’s very important to us that we have that narrative component.”

Communalising video streams

Snapchat is not the only platform that has taken note of how younger audiences are consuming live video streams. Even as the media landscape grows ever more fragmented and individualised, many organisations are now seeking to bring the highly socialised, communal nature of traditional sports consumption into the digital realm.

Services like Facebook Watch Party function or Eleven Sports’ new Skype-style ‘Watch Together’ feature attempt to make watching sport more like following video game streams on Twitch. Both services allow users to watch content together as a group - in the same online space at the same time. Eleven’s product, which was designed by tech startup Reactoo, allows as many as five viewers to see, hear and talk to each other while watching the live broadcast as if they were together in a living room.

“Watch Together will help to drive engagement in the live event by encouraging active, as opposed to passive viewing habits,” says Tom Middleditch, Eleven’s global head of digital. “Currently fans debate talking points on text or social media while watching a match or fight passively, but our inventive new product will enable in-person interaction while remaining fully immersed in the action.”

In the virtual sphere, products like Facebook’s Oculus Venues go one step further, giving users the opportunity to experience live events alongside avatars of friends and other fans using virtual reality (VR) headsets. And it might not be long before viewers find themselves gathering around holographic, 360-degree virtual playing fields beamed into their homes by the likes of Intel’s True View technology, which captures the action from every angle using volumetric cameras.

Eleven Sports' new 'Watch Together' feature enables in-person interaction during live streams

Gamifying the viewing experience

Created in 2015 by French entrepreneurs Romain Violleau and Rémi Chasles, On Rewind aims to bring elements of video gaming to the experience of viewing live sports on mobile devices. Part of Euro Media Group, the company’s video player app turns smartphones and tablets into interactive controllers that enable users to rewind real-time streams and access highlights and statistics.

Born of the ‘second-screening’ phenomenon, On Rewind’s multi-cam system facilitates the viewing of matches in sports like soccer from multiple camera angles. A patented gaming timeline also highlights key moments in the match such as goals, free-kicks and substitutions, while content is easily shareable both within the app and via direct links to social media and external messenger apps.

“We created this company because we were looking for something more enriched to bring to the user - something more gamified, more interactive,” says Violleau. “With this new video player, we would like to bring gaming to sports because now esports is getting bigger and bigger and everyone is looking for this type of product. When you are on the Twitch platform, for example, you notice that people are very loyal and addicted to the content. We would like to bring this retention and fidelity of gamers to the sports industry.”

On Rewind’s aim is to keep viewers engaged throughout the entirety of the action. That is one of the main advantages for rights holders and content owners, says Violleau. Thanks to backend analytics capabilities, they are able to monitor which clips have been watched, favourited and shared by users, while they can also monetise the app through branded graphic overlays and other sponsored content.

On Rewind's gaming-inspired video player app turns handheld devices into interactive controllers

Pre-paid cards for live sports content

Part of the New York-based Swissclear Global network, TAPPP offers both virtual and printed pre-paid cards for accessing live sports content. Available at over 5,000 retailers and online merchants, including Walmart and Gamestop, the cards provide the ability to watch sport on any consumer device with no contractual commitment.

With the goal of serving untapped or overlooked viewers content owners might not otherwise reach, TAPPP aims to provide access to premium sports for those who are unable or unwilling to acquire credit cards, as well as a generation of youngsters who are opting for smarter payment options.

The company, which raised a US$5 million Series A funding round last autumn, has forged partnerships with Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM), the National Football League (NFL) and the NBA, providing access to their respective subscription streaming services.

“We intend to build a next generation platform that gives fans more access and control to their favourite sport, teams, and players,” Sandy Agarwal, the Mumbai-born entrepreneur who founded TAPPP, told the Economic Times.

Customisable graphics and stats overlays

Rolled out by the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team for the first time last year, analytics firm Second Spectrum’s CourtVision AR solution gives viewers the ability to customise the live broadcast experience with a variety of visual effects beyond on-screen graphics.

With the help of machine learning and data visualisation, the mobile streaming platform initially comes equipped with three alternative overlays. The ‘Mascot’ mode inserts light-hearted animations when a slam dunk or a three-pointer is scored; the ‘Player’ function projects stats over a player’s head indicating the probability of a successful shot based on their position on the court; and the ‘Coach’ view maps out specific plays as they develop via an on-screen diagram.

“We think everyone will watch sports this way,” Second Spectrum chief executive Rajiv Maheswaran said at the time of CourtVision’s release. “There will be a day when you look back and say, ‘I can’t imagine we all used to watch the same thing at the same time. That seems silly.’”