Formula One, Multiple sports, Soccer, Global, Video

At Large: why original storytelling is giving sport a route to Netflix, Apple and Amazon

SportsPro’s editor-at-large reflects on a week at the OTT Summit Asia which brought home the role time-shifted and original content will play in connecting global digital audiences.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large: why original storytelling is giving sport a route to Netflix, Apple and Amazon

It shouldn’t take two 14-hour flights in a week for anyone to twig that the world is a big place, but that is a helpful reminder.

In recent days, I’ve been in Singapore hosting the first SportsPro OTT Summit Asia and the experience has been more instructive than even the expansive insight above might suggest.

The top-line interests for folk in the digital broadcast business hold pretty firm everywhere. Asian media is diversifying at a ready clip, but judging the rate of transition from established methods of getting people watching things to newer ones is not straightforward. New forms of distribution offer exciting creative and commercial opportunities but tried and true viewing experiences can’t be left behind altogether. Technological change brings long-term efficiencies with short-term costs. Piracy is an expensive headache. All that kind of stuff is universal, even if the balances and the brand names are different from other regions.

But what Asia suggests in a way that the established sports business markets of North America and Europe don’t is scale – from its economic and cultural diversity to, you know, its sheer size. And for entrants from those aforementioned western territories, these and other completely self-evident factors have practicalities that only crystalise on the ground.

For example, it’s a completely different time of day in south-east Asia and Europe – always, I’ve checked – and if your primary asset is access to live sports coverage, an audience who are likely to be asleep when that sport is happening are ultimately of limited value. Rights holders can address this by changing when and where events take place but if your horizons are wide enough to take in a couple of continents or so, the most effective step is going to making a little more out of non-live entertainment.

There is a growing appetite among sports fans for non-live entertainment

Several of the speakers at the Pan Pacific this week were wrestling, at least in part, with the challenges that timezone-shifted viewing presents. DFL Digital Sports chief executive Andrea Hayden must also deal with the restrictions German soccer’s Bundesliga places on itself in terms of scheduling, with supporter interests and domestic broadcast strategies precluding the staggered kick-off times favoured by other leagues.

One approach he favours is building options for faraway fans around how they receive information about games. For example, some followers of individual clubs might prefer not to receive any notifications of scorelines on the morning after their team has played overnight, allowing them to catch up with the action as live. This comes alongside another minor trend – the digital revival of the highlights package, in forms ranging from the brief social media wrap to the commute-friendly game digests offered on a growing number of OTT services. Australian newcomer Kayo Sport has a ‘spoiler-free’ feature for fans watching after an event has begun.

With the demand for video still growing, that has left a growing gap to be filled by original content.

The pressures on the primacy of live content, of course, are coming from everywhere and are not limited to long-range viewing. And even where the live game is being watched, the window around it is getting narrower and narrower. The potential audience for hours-long pre and post-event coverage on conventional channels is getting smaller. With the demand for video still growing, that has left a growing gap to be filled by original content – from official interviews and features to more creatively ambitious fare.

There is a clear appetite among filmmakers for producing series and documentaries about sports teams and events, with their ready-made narratives, arresting imagery and rich yet accessible themes. But as City Football Group senior vice president of partnerships Damien Willoughby noted during a discussion of Amazon Prime Video series Manchester City: All Or Nothing at the Pan Pacific this week, there are cultural barriers to commissioning this kind of work, particularly if there is some marketing-based motivation behind it. Access and authenticity are related concerns.    

Yet as Willoughby himself added, there are plenty of other reasons why this has become such an appealing trend among rights holders. There is a flourishing marketplace for it just now, between Amazon and Netflix and their regional equivalents, Facebook Watch, sports-focused VOD and OTT platforms and, as of this week, the new Apple TV+ subscription service. Many of these are in growth phases with hefty budgets to burn through, and a need to differentiate – creating a “competitive tension” that City sought to exploit in the development of their project.

It’s a useful compromise for platforms eager to harness the loyal fervour that sport inspires, but not so eager that they will upend their entire working models to justify spending billions on live rights. In City’s case, it also took the group deep into the darkened Amazon ecosystem of data and e-commerce, while also having a product to redistribute with other networks in territories like China outside the company’s reach. And while All or Nothing focused on the club’s title-winning 2017/18 Premier League season, the potential of archival video in building these shows is also obvious. Tall tales have long tails.

Many of the sports teams and bodies who are best set up to maximise those kind of benefits are operating at the elite end, like City, Formula One and the US major leagues. Yet there is also a democratising potential to good storytelling. One of Netflix’s most acclaimed recent series is Losers, which recounts episodes like the frustrated potential of brilliant French figure skater Surya Bonaly, the 1980s rivalries in Canadian curling’s Brier that changed the sport forever, and Jean van de Velde’s meltdown at The Open.

Four new sports will be joining the Olympic Games in 2024 and none of them, with respect, are likely to make that much traction with the unconverted before then through major live events. Then again, surfing, skateboarding, sport climbing and breakdancing are lifestyle-led sports, often taking place in unusual or spectacular settings. It all has the makings of enlightening, potentially compelling programming, which could well serve the filmmaking economy the Olympic Channel was partly designed to bring about.

On-demand programmes will always be secondary to the live spectacle that makes sport so vivid, but they provide a keystone in a bridge to another age in media. If nothing else, they’re something to watch on a long flight home.