August has seen three subtle but potentially seismic shifts in UK sports broadcasting.
The PGA Championship became the first of golf’s majors to be shown exclusively through an online-only provider. Next came the UK rollout of the English Football League’s (EFL) iFollow service, allowing fans to pay to stream individual matches outside bank holidays and the 3pm Saturday kick-off. The US Open completed the triumvirate, becoming the first tennis Grand Slam to stream through an over-the-top (OTT) media service.
Antipathy to Eleven Sports’ coverage of the PGA Championship was widely reported, but the reaction was perhaps disproportionate. According to SMS INC RADAR, a digital listening tool that provides event analysis, the net positivity online towards the broadcaster was less than three per cent from 1st to 22nd August.
Concerns were raised about the difficulty of streaming the service through a TV – fans would have had to Chromecast or watch through a smart TV browser to use their television – as well as some teething problems in the coverage itself, and the need to give credit card details to access the free trial.
Certainly, a browse of the online comments suggests that Eleven Sports may want to consider upgrading its studio and analysis technology, as well as potentially reconsider its tone in interviews. However, there were also a number of positive comments. In particular, these focused on the fact that the tournament could be accessed for free as long as users cancelled their subscription.
Flexibility was also at the core of the perceived advantages of iFollow, which earned a net positive rating of five per cent during the first UK streams on 21st August. Negative feedback focused on some faulty streams and suggestions that UK£10 per match was overvaluing the product and not affordable to some core fans.
Eleven Sports received mixed reviews of its exclusive live coverage of the PGA Championship
Amazon Prime's streaming of the US Open has certainly not gone unnoticed, with early comments expressing concern surrounding the broadcast shift. Specifically, the ease at which consumers have been able to stream matches through their television sets has triggered a number of complaints - in particular around the picture and sound quality, as well as not being able watch replays through the catch up service. That being said, Amazon have started to address the last issue and the service did generate some positive feedback, with fans warming to the commentary team of former professional players Jim Courier, Daniela Hantchukova, and Greg Rusedski.
Running through the negativity towards these disruptive services, the common theme is that it tends to originate from an older tranche of the population, compared to the wider audience commenting on the sports themselves.
73 per cent of all commentary about Eleven Sports’ broadcasting as a whole came from over 35s, consistent with 74 per cent of comments regarding Amazon Prime’s tennis coverage and 76 per cent of commentary on the EFL’s iFollow. For context, just 56 per cent of all comments about the PGA Championship itself and 66 per cent of comments on EFL matches were from over 35s.
Younger sports viewers, who are more used to streaming content (legally or otherwise), seem relatively unflustered by the increasingly competitive market for sports rights. In part, this is because of how they get their information in the first place.
Millennials and Generation Z are used to looking to social media to find sports streams, and so many had a head start in subscribing to Eleven Sports’ trial, ahead of Sky viewers tuning in on Thursday and expecting to find the golf coverage on the usual channel.
EFL’s iFollow takes the concept of hyper-customised content even further
Clearly, Eleven Sports are managing to disrupt the broadcasting status quo, but is this really brand new? In a sense, they are doing to Sky and BT Sport what BT themselves did to Sky several years ago. If anything, the recent publicity proves just how quickly BT Sport has become part of the sports rights holding establishment, whilst the internet giant’s success as a sports broadcaster goes to show exactly why the same path is now appealing to new operators.
Whether this is a boon or a burden for sports fans is another matter. In the short term, it is hard to see prices reducing for consumers. More bidders for sports rights is likely to drive prices up rather than down, with winning broadcasters needing to recoup that cost from subscribers.
The challenge for rights holders is to open up new kinds of content whilst also avoiding pricing out the hardcore fans who want to watch all of a particular sport.
Also, rights buying is often accompanied by expenditure on promotion, including ambassador fees. Sports streaming service DAZN has recently partnered with Cristiano Ronaldo to promote its coverage of Serie A, tapping into the footballer’s unparalleled international marketing appeal.
There is some merit to the logic that new subscribers are going to have to adopt some level of free access, as Eleven Sports and DAZN both do, in order to build awareness and trust in the service. In that sense, even negative coverage in an individual event such as the PGA Championship could actually benefit a streaming service, by potentially driving awareness towards its other sports and events coverage.
Equally, there is an argument that a broader choice from more suppliers makes it easier for viewers to watch some sport – even at a paid level. If you happen to be specifically a fan of Serie A or La Liga for example, a single sport subscription is going to prove substantially cheaper than a year’s worth of a full sports package.
The challenge for rights holders is to open up new kinds of content whilst also avoiding pricing out the hardcore fans who want to watch all of a particular sport
Writing of the events of a very different revolution, that of 1789, the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that ‘in a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end’. The challenge for rights holders is to open up new kinds of content whilst also avoiding pricing out the hardcore fans who want to watch all of a particular sport. One of the criticisms of Sky that SMS INC. RADAR picked up was the repeated refrain of wondering how the channel could claim to be the ‘home of golf’ without showing one of the four majors.
Thinking further down the line, one possible end-game is one of hyper-customised content. Sky have already started down this road with options to subscribe to individual sports channels. Now TV’s individual passes make it easy for the very occasional fan to tune in. The EFL’s iFollow takes this one stage further.
With brands like the PGA Tour experimenting with new automated journalism technologies such as Quill to offer content on every player’s individual rounds, will we eventually see viewers given the option to subscribe to individual players?
However you look at it, the immediate future looks expensive for those wanting to ensure that they never miss a shot.
SPORTS MARKETING SURVEYS INC. have experience working on global research projects with the likes of The Wimbledon Championships, The R&A, European Tour and with major sports equipment brands including Nike and Adidas.
Analysis and insight provided by SMS INC. RADAR - SMS INC. RADAR is a human intelligence and social insights tool produced by SPORTS MARKETING SURVEYS INC., the UK research company with more than 30 years’ experience in sports data analysis.