Media Rights, Politics & Governance, Soccer, Europe

Opinion | Why the National League shows smaller rights holders need OTT more than ever

Rainer Geier, managing director of OTT and advertising solutions at Sportradar, on why the company is helping English soccer's semi-professional National League connect with its fans via a new digital solution.

by Rainer Geier
Opinion | Why the National League shows smaller rights holders need OTT more than ever

As with most sectors, the sports industry has felt the impact of Covid-19 from top to bottom, and the world of soccer is no different.

In the UK, while some clubs in the top-flight Premier League spoke of their own financial troubles as lockdown first started, the huge global TV demand for their games to return meant, safety permitting, things were always likely to get back on track.

Yet lower down the English pyramid, where very little soccer has been played below the second tier, it is not so simple for the respective clubs, leagues and bodies who do not have the same global reach and TV revenues to fall back on. For these smaller clubs in particular, the matchday experience has always been the key to connecting with supporters and generating income.

This problem is not unique to English soccer's landscape. It is a concern for leagues and clubs that sit outside of Europe’s top leagues in England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

The limited matches that are taking place are being played behind closed doors, so it is more important than ever to secure broadcast rights deals that help these clubs reconnect with their fans and deliver some much needed incomes.

This is the approach that Sportradar took with its new relationship with the Vanarama National League. In partnership, we launched an over-the-top (OTT) subscription streaming platform providing live and exclusive coverage from all ten playoff matches currently being played in the semi-professional National League North and South regional sixth tier.

With fans unable to attend matches in person, the National League required an additional platform to reach its target audience. Those loyal supporters were in danger of being overlooked given the volume of elite soccer that has been played out across the UK’s traditional broadcast networks recently.

OTT provides rights holders, such as the National League, with the tools needed to control their content, enabling them to create personalised and targeted programming to engage their specific audience. It also provides them with a platform to connect directly with their fans – domestically or globally – and, in this case, through live video content they would not otherwise have been able to access.

From a commercial point of view, OTT enables rights holders to monetise their rights and creates multiple opportunities in the form of advertising, subscription, retail and sponsorship. Additionally, OTT provides a deeper understanding of their fanbase, particularly their online habits. This insight is valuable as clubs seek to drive further commercial opportunities.

The OTT subscription costs compared to what fans typically pay when they go to a match are to the advantage of the fan wallet. The platform can be accessed on multiple devices, providing fans with the flexibility of how to watch their team in action, while they can access more than one game at once and so can see all the action unfold in real-time.

Covid-19 restrictions have changed how fans experience live sport, for the time being at least, and leagues and governing bodies are looking at how to connect with their fans throughout lockdown and beyond.

In Australia, Sportradar launched an OTT service in March dedicated to the country’s second-tier National Premier Leagues in New South Wales and Queensland. The platform went live as planned but was hit by the pandemic and the ensuing cancellation of live sport. But through our OTT platform, the National Premier Leagues was able to upload archive games and a series of podcasts to maintain and enhance engagement with its fans during lockdown.

Since the National Premier Leagues recently resumed its campaigns two weeks ago, Sportradar has seen positive increases in viewership for streams of both the men’s and women’s competitions.

At a time when top-tier competition is being widely played out across traditional and mainstream broadcast media, particularly in the UK, OTT has a pivotal role to play in the future of long tail sport. It is about empowering these leagues and clubs so they are able to control their own content and engage with supporters, while ensuring they have the commercial opportunities available to monetise their rights.