With the Premier League the latest of Europe’s top-flight soccer leagues to lift its coronavirus-enforced suspension, the decision to restart several of the continent’s domestic competitions behind closed doors is sure to offer fans some light relief, despite being shut out from venues.
Keeping this in mind, as broadcasters roll out contingency plans in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, and adapt the production and delivery of live events to meet strict social-distancing protocols, many are also considering ways to help fans watching games from home to feel closer to the action.
By way of an example, Amazon Prime Video announced on 18th June that it plans to simulcast four of the Premier League’s remaining 2019/20 fixtures via the company’s gaming-focused Twitch streaming platform, as part of an extension to the technology giant’s existing UK rights deal.
In a move that marks a first for the Premier League, live matches will be co-streamed by several of the platform’s esports personalities, while viewers will also be able to interact with one another via the platform’s dedicated chat function, which has long been a popular feature within the online gaming community.
This coincides with similar innovations being adopted by the Premier League’s domestic pay-TV broadcast partners, Sky Sports and BT Sport, both of whom have incorporated “watch together” features within their own digital platforms as part of the league’s restart.
Speaking during an edition of SportsPro’s virtual Insider Series earlier this month, Sky Sports’ director of group content and advertising products, David Gibbs, said that the broadcaster’s new Sky Sport Fanzone social-viewing experience is an example of an innovation he believes will exist long after fans are eventually allowed back into Premier League venues.
“I think it’s customer behaviour that will stick and I think there’s the opportunity for us to make it work,” he said. “We won’t get it right away – a lot of it comes down to tone and the type of conversation. I still feel you need to mix what the group is seeing with what they’re seeing on screen, [and] to be able to influence that in some way.”
Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Nuno Espirito Santo speaks to Sky Sports during the Premier League's resumption
As consumer confidence in over-the-top (OTT) platforms strengthens and second-screen viewing experiences become increasingly popular, such activations demonstrate how rights holders are attempting to capture digital audiences during live events by leveraging the user’s appetite for mobile content.
The same can also be said for the PGA Tour’s recent resumption, which drew substantial viewership during the Charles Schwab Challenge on the back of a new fan engagement drive in collaboration with Twitter. Similar to other social media ventures in recent months, the tour’s Twitter partnership saw several sports personalities provide their own live commentary via alternative feeds that were multicast as part of broadcast coverage.
“With no spectators on site, we want to work harder than ever to connect our fans to the event, across numerous platforms and devices in addition to the PGA Tour Live, Golf Channel and CBS broadcasts,” said Rick Anderson, the PGA Tour’s chief media officer. “Working with Twitter on this all-new fan engagement initiative is a nod to how important fans are to the tour and our players.”
Other social media platforms have also seen the opportunity to align with rights holders in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this month, Nascar became the first sports partner to adopt Facebook’s new Venue app, which enables users to engage with commentators during coverage.
That particular innovation has been positioned as a rival to Twitter. However, instead of being an open platform where anyone can share in the conversation, it has been built to engage fans within a more focused and exclusive forum, centred around conversation topics tailored to key moments in the action.
With the Nascar season back up and running for several weeks now, Facebook’s Venue platform is another example of how the Covid-19 shutdown has inspired collaboration between sports and technology providers. It is also illustrative of the growing competition between social media platforms and digital media companies who are pushing to be part of an apparent gold rush in fan engagement tools.
For its Twitter multicast, the PGA Tour turned to the US-based video streaming startup Kiswe Mobile, having already adopted its CloudCast technology to create content during the absence of live action, including remote interviews with the winners of PGA tournaments from the 2019 season.
Khee Lee, chief monetisation officer at Kiswe, whose software is also behind the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) alternative commentary feeds, says the collaboration with Twitter offered up a “unique and really ambitious” opportunity to use the technology to engage golf fans in a more dynamic way.
“The obvious challenge was how do you create nine different streams with over 20 commentators,” Lee notes. “But what we were able to demonstrate with the PGA Tour and Twitter is that you can create as many alternate OTT streams without the expense of flying in talent and utilising studios. We've entered into the era of producing shows and events remotely via the cloud.”
According to Lee, the pandemic has “accelerated a lot of thinking around remote production and digital platform adoption” and has presented an opportunity for rights holders to engage younger and more casual audiences.
In April, Kiswe’s production of the first ever virtual instalment of the Tour de Flanders cycling event was distributed internationally via IMG and the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Lee also points to Kiswe’s recent partnership with RCS Sport, organisers of the Giro d’Italia, around the Challenge of the Stars virtual series as another example of how its cloud-based productions have offered rights holders “new ways to interact and engage with their fans at home”.
Offering new content that resonates with targeted demographics will only increase opportunities with advertisers and also increase subs.
Khee Lee, Kiswe Mobile's chief monetisation officer
“Before the pandemic, the most common challenge that we often heard from leagues and broadcasters was how can they reach the younger demographic,” he expands. “The younger demographic is on all of these social platforms that do one thing extremely well: engage audiences.
“We're helping sports leagues by using our technology to efficiently create new content from their OTT streams and distribute to platforms where key demographics can stir up conversation. You can't get viewership or new subscribers unless your content interests them.
“Offering new content that resonates with their targeted demographics will only increase opportunities with advertisers and also increase subs. With digital, you're easily able to super serve different demos and audience segments.”
By no means is this a revolutionary step within fan engagement. For more than a decade, social media and mobile technology have presented powerful communication tools for sports teams and athletes to connect with fans, and have also proven to be pivotal around the activation of brand partnerships. But the movement towards digital is accelerating.
Last year, Disney’s Indian streaming service Hotstar credited its interactive viewing experience for subscriber growth on its official app, which surpassed 400 million downloads in December. That included the launch of Hotstar’s dedicated Koi Yaar Nahi Far social platform ahead of the 2019 Indian Premier League (IPL) T20 cricket season. Much like recent innovations by Sky and BT, the platform allows users to engage with friends while watching live matches.
In recent months, as broadcasters have relied more heavily on archival content and virtual events to keep viewers engaged, there has also been a marked rise in the number of social-viewing activations of this kind, with some sports teams putting the fan at the centre of the conversation in a more deliberate fashion.
For example, the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks launched their own digital content hub called BucksPlay, which invites users to take part in interactive basketball challenges, including “driveway drills” led by team coaches, and offers a range of non-live content.
While the pandemic has given teams no choice but to adapt their digital strategy in the absence of live games, Spencer Nolan, managing director of Nielsen Sports in the UK and Ireland, insists that an “acceleration” towards fan engagement tools – both “during lockdown and as we see a resumption” – could also have a lasting impact on how rights holders distribute and monetise content.
“The [alternative] fan view and the different way for them to listen to content has been around for years,” Nolan says. “It isn’t new, but what Covid-19 has created is more people who are willing to try it.
“The Houseparty [social video calling] app is perhaps another example that’s stormed up the charts and I guess, as an example within sport, we are seeing some of those rights holders looking to utilise that Houseparty [model] to make their content more engaging for the fan.
“Facebook Venue is an example that is attempting to create more opportunities for rights holders to create more ‘moments’ that a brand can get more involved in and own the conversation in a more authentic way. We’ve seen this trend already, and it has certainly been more prevalent with millennials.
“However, I do think that has been accelerated [among] a mass audience, including those people aged 30-50 who are watching a significant amount of linear footage, and will be more tempted to try some of these apps and the social [element] in and around the content.”
As a sense of normality eventually returns, Nolan says that live rights, and specifically those sold to pay-TV networks, will continue to garner the most revenue for sports properties in the next five years. But he also believes that digital offerings will develop even further.
“While Amazon and Sky are showing some games for free and the fact that [the Premier League] is going to be on more free-to-air (FTA) channels, including the BBC, more rivals and more exposure is only good for the brands and the sponsors that are invested in the Premier League, and potentially for more fans to see Premier League content,” Nolan continues.
“The question is: what will happen next? After this period, will we see more content going to FTA? Will we see Sky and BT show more of their games, or snippets, on a less exclusive basis? Overall, having an increase in the potential pie of viewership is beneficial and they will still have to move [back] to that exclusive window to ultimately gain some monetisation.
“This idea of whether you are ‘following’ or ‘watching’ a sport, and whether people are getting more from following it than they do from the 90 minutes; that’s not going to change. In terms of the overall value created in the exposure and engagement, live viewership is still king.”
Resumptions to major competitions like the Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga have come as a welcome boost for broadcasters, with all three leagues attracting bumper viewership during their return to play.
While rights holders have sought out live-chat features to enhance the home viewing experience in the absence of in-venue spectators, streaming and tech providers have also been called upon to build fan engagement tools around the implementation of artificial crowd noise for live matches.
For example, the organisers of the J.League have partnered with technology company Yamaha to trial a new mobile app that will allow users to submit pre-recorded messages to be transmitted inside empty stadia when Japan’s top-flight soccer league returns behind closed doors from 4th July. Similarly in the US, domestic OTT platform FloSports is currently trialling a new social streaming feature that generates artificial atmosphere as part of its production, and will be based on users’ real-time interactions via the service’s official app.
If we can create a 'sticky' product that is continuously improved with features that connect fans while they watch, we believe that will drive meaningful increases in both subscriptions and ad revenue.
Justin Hoyman, FloSports’ product director for mobile apps
Justin Hoyman, FloSports’ product director for mobile apps, said that the company has been examining different ways in which social media-style “watch parties” can be incorporated into the FloSports digital platforms, as well as exploring its potential to open up alternate revenue streams around live broadcasts.
“Our vision is to give underserved fans a simple, easy-to-use way to immerse themselves in the sport they love,” Hoyman says. “In many cases, it never existed before, and does not exist anywhere else. This is an opportunity to try to incorporate social elements of being at a live event into the digital streaming experience.
“Now broadcasters and streamers have an opportunity to try some new things that were difficult to justify under normal circumstances. There's experiments around digital engagement happening across the industry and the smart companies will be focusing on experiences that have staying power whether there's a lockdown or not.
“We definitely believe this is a long-term evolution in how fans engage with their favourite sports, teams and athletes, but also with each other. If we can create a 'sticky' product that is continuously improved with features that connect fans while they watch, we believe that will drive meaningful increases in both subscriptions and ad revenue.”
As part of its project, FloSports has partnered with OTT sports technology company LiveLike, which specialises in building streaming solutions that integrate social-viewing experiences for live sports broadcasts. Miheer Walavalkar, LiveLike’s chief executive, believes that fan interactivity in live sports viewing “is a permanent change in behaviour”.
“We have built a platform that is extremely flexible and allows our partners a lot of room for experimentation,” he expands, “whether that's chat in watch parties with friends, active fan engagement, meaningful experiences with athletes, [or] social media integration. We're just scratching the surface, too.”