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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Facebook leads way as sports streaming looks to go mainstream

More direct partnerships between rights holders and the social media behemoth likely in the future

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 04:  Jerry Newman (R), Facebook Sport Partnership Lead, EMEA talks during day 1 of the Soccerex Global Convention at Manchester Central Convention Complex on September 4, 2017 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Lynne Cameron/Getty Images for Soccerex)
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 04: Jerry Newman (R), Facebook Sport Partnership Lead, EMEA talks during day 1 of the Soccerex Global Convention at Manchester Central Convention Complex on September 4, 2017 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Lynne Cameron/Getty Images for Soccerex)

Facebook’s recent forays into streaming sports rights are only the start of a concerted push by the social media juggernaut, which has hinted at an interest in the rights to minority sports in the future.

In February this year, the social media major agreed a deal to show 46 matches from Mexico’s top football competition, Liga MX, via Univision Deportes’ Facebook page and via Facebook’s video tab.

The firm followed this deal up with an agreement in May to show 20 Major League Baseball (MLB) deals on Friday nights and Jerry Newman, Facebook's sport partnership lead for Europe, the Middle East and Asia (EMEA), says: “We’ve not touched the surface with sport on Facebook.”

Speaking at the annual Soccerex Global Convention in Manchester, England, Mr Newman adds: “We need to learn and prepare for new surfaces, which is what we are doing with these [existing] deals. The feedback we are getting is good. They are leagues and going direct to consumers.

“There are also new sports coming through.”

Mr Newman cites the emerging sport of professional tag, which is a combination of free running parkour - a training discipline using movement that developed from military obstacle course training used with acrobatics and athletics - and three-versus-three basketball as growing minority sports.

Parkour has also proved popular in the UAE with groups forming in Dubai and Abu Dhabi over the past few years.

“These sports at the bottom have no legacy, they only have opportunity,” adds Mr Newman, who also suggests that more direct partnerships between rights holders and the social media behemoth would also feature more prominently in the future.

At the top end of professional sport, Facebook has launched a new platform for short documentaries called Watch, which the Spanish football heavyweight Real Madrid is using to stream a new behind-the-scenes documentary about life at the club.

For its Hala Madrid offering, the La LIga club teamed up with Go Pro and enlisted the Hollywood actor Orlando Bloom as a narrator.

The first two episodes are available on the show’s Facebook page and new episodes will appear from September 9.

Mr Newman says this type of branded, embedded content is only the start, as clubs and rights holders look to bypass traditional media and engage directly with both their existing and potential supporter base.

“Live sport will be partnering with a brand to go to market. [It will be] very much a case of the brand leading the way,” says Mr Newman, who was speaking at the Manchester event as part of a panel entitled How Do You Value Broadcasting Rights in a Disrupted Market?

Gordon Xie, the general manager for marketing and public relations at the Chinese streaming provider Tencent Sports, and who was on the same panel, says that the emergence of episodic sports content is helping to persuade viewers to stay on streaming services for live matches.

In 2016, Tencent began streaming live NBA basketball games and used short documentaries to bring in viewers with adverts trialilng the start of the match before the documentary finished.

“Last season, we distributed a lot of short videos and the audience stayed on to watch the live broadcast; they work well together,” says Mr Xie.

This is part of a strategy from Tencent, which in in August landed live streaming rights for the English FA Cup, the Scottish Premiership, Ligue 1 in France and Italy’s Serie A, in a bid to turn casual sports fans into committed consumers.

“For a lot of rights, the price is very high,” says Mr Xie, adding: “From our perspective, we are looking at a sustainable business model. Maybe we are willing to lose 10 per cent [initially] but we want to get our money back.

“We are identifying these consumers by their behaviour. We want to turn them from non-sports fans to casual fans and then hard-core sports fans.”

Using the data made available from this live streaming will be key to turning a profit, agreed the panel, but sports rights are still being bought as loss-leaders by streaming providers such as DAZN, which bought the streaming rights to last month’s showdown between the now retired boxing superstar Floyd Mayweather and UFC fighter Conor McGregor.

Subscribers could take out a one-month subscription and then resign after the fight but the DAZN chief executive James Rushton told Soccerex that the deal was worthwhile.

"The [viewing] numbers exceeded all our expectations. Viewers could have a month’s free trial and quit but we had hundreds of thousands of triallists for that event,” he says.

DAZN, which is owned by the British group Perform, made a splash in August 2016 by agreeing a 10-year deal valued at a reported US$2 billion for the rights to Japan’s top football competition, the J-League.

Mr Ashton also defends this deal, saying: “If you buy the rights to the J-League, you will get some viewers but what does it do to the China Super League or the Korean League? You can map that. It’s not about what the J-League will bring but the 'halo effect'.”

Mr Ashton claims this is boosting not just the J-League, where he says attendances are up 15 per cent in the past year, but the appetite for consumers to stream sports.

DAZN this year bought rights to stream the English Football League un Canada and a swathe of other rights, including darts. These decisions are all based on data harvested by DAZN. Mr Rushton adds: “Data is really important right at the start. Who and what we are trying to buy depends on what data we are getting.”

Mr Newman says the data that Facebook can provide is "incomparable” but that rights holders looking to sell rights who simply asked for all the information were asking the wrong question.

Perhaps shrewdly, he does not disclose what the right question is, but Facebook’s involvement in sports streaming seems certain to be part of the answer.

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