Digital and Social Media Dominate Sportel Rio

New ways to use digital and social media to engage fans and commercialize content was one of the topics of the day at Sportel Rio, the sports-media industry fair in Rio de Janeiro, on Tuesday when the Sports Video Group and leaders in the field took to the stage to discuss what many see as the future of the industry.

Media executives discuss expanding digital and social media at this week’s sports-media industry fair in Brazil.

“It’s all about eyeballs and getting as many people watching an event as possible,” said Steve Ayles, director of commercial for Tennis Australia, who oversees revenue streams for the Australian Open and other tennis events in Australia. “We’ve got to be able to deliver rights that recognize that [need to drive viewers] and enable rightsholders to achieve that.”

In January, the Australian Open demonstrated how social media can help drive fan awareness and engagement. An Australian Open channel on YouTube gave fans a chance to not only watch the action but also interact with other fans.

“There would be 20,000 fans each day making comments on Facebook,” Ayles said. “It is an area you have to embrace and use as a marketing tool to engage the fans even more.”

He pointed out that 51% of Australian Open fans engaged in the event using something other than traditional TV broadcasts. And the YouTube channel had 11.8 million views that totaled more than 2.7 million hours.

“The issue is if you sell off the rights and someone warehouses them,” he added. “You can carve them up into different areas [for broadcast, cable, Internet, and mobile], but the rightsholder must use them.”

Rhys Beer, commercial director for Perform, a company that supports sports-content rightsholders and leagues in their digital-media initiatives by helping them structure products and rights deals and deliver content, added that one of the biggest strengths of social media is that it brings fans closer to the athletes and teams than traditional media ever did.

“At first, broadcasters saw it as a competitive platform,” he said, “but now they are embracing Twitter to make for better broadcasts. Twitter feeds related to a specific match or event while it is actually occurring, for example, can give producers and show creators an idea of what topics would be of most interest for fans during halftime breaks and postgame coverage.”

Social media may be a boon for those looking to connect with fans, but the panelists don’t see any real opportunities for social media to drive new forms of rights deals. Steve Byrd, EVP, STATS, said that sharing sports data, such as scores and player information, is an important part of the social-media experience but “I don’t see social media having rights built around it.”

The power of social media and services like Twitter were on display during the Daytona 500. During a long delay, driver Brad Keselowski tweeted from the track and managed to add 130,000 followers.

“That was in the span of an hour as Fox Sports picked up the tweets, and then it just escalated,” Byrd explained.

And tweets like those from Keselowski are only a small portion of the type of sports-related data that is in an unparalleled growth phase.

“Stats, scores, related content, and analytics have exploded, and, with player-tracking systems like SportVu [taking off], we are now talking about millions of bits of information being sliced and diced,” Byrd said. “The challenge is figuring out what matters and what doesn’t; what is important to the coach may not be important to the fan. So how do you present it in a way that is compelling?”

Mauricio Portela, EVP, Esporte Interactivo, pointed out an underlying challenge in attempts to build rights around services like Facebook and other social-media sites in Brazil. Esporte Interactivo has Brazilian rights for such events as the Champions League, Bundesliga, and Brazilian Volleyball Championships.

“And it’s not just free to air but also to the Web and even broadcast through Facebook and a linear signal live to the iPad and iPhone,” he added. “We believe new media gives us a big differentiator versus other sports channels, as we can reach fans in new ways and create new revenues.”

But fair-use laws in Brazil, for example, allow fans and Websites to stream clips from an event for free as long as they do not constitute more than 3% of the event. That limits the potential rights built around highlights after an event has ended.

“For live rights, there is good competition,” Portela added, “and now rightsholders are trying to have a simple process and are putting the digital rights together with the free-to-air rights and the pay-TV rights.”

But, while there is good competition for the rights for larger sports, Beer said, smaller sports that rely 100% on advertising and sponsorship don’t command the rights fees they desire.

“We encourage them to be in new media as they have less of an opportunity to get a presence in a [broadcast] schedule,” he explained. “They can no longer rely on getting a half hour per week on a linear channel, so they need to be more proactive.”

The big question facing everyone, from the rightsholders to the content distributors and even fans, is what new technology or Website could change the market? The good news, Beer said, is that, whatever new technology is developed, it is a boon for the sports industry because sports programming will need to be part of the content offering.

“[For] a developer of products and apps,” he added, “it is a challenge to keep up with the new technology.”

And making sure long-term contracts keep up is a challenge as well.

“We just did a 10-year contract, and we know there are things that we don’t even know about today that will come up and change things,” said Ayles. “So we have clauses in our contracts that recognize that [so we can change the contract as needed.]”