Feeding College Sports Fans’ Hunger for Content Offers Opportunities

The college marketplace is enjoying a content boom. Be it large rights fees for new linear networks or an athletic department’s free YouTube channel, fans’ appetite for content is a monster that can be a challenge to feed.

The race to landing a lucrative rights deal for a conference has sparked realignment chaos across the country, and the full-court press to get as much content as possible online is turning athletic departments into full-fledged broadcasting operations.

The key for athletic directors, presidents, and department stakeholders, obviously, is finding a way to monetize all this content and all these clicks and views. In the eyes of numerous industry professionals, colleges are making a solid connection on radio and television, but digital remains a landscape largely untamed.

“I would say, in general, colleges do pretty well [connecting their fans with their content]. Who wouldn’t want $3 billion for a series of networks?” says Frank Golding, director, pro, college, high school sports and channels, Google/YouTube, at the IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum presented by SportsBusiness Daily/Global/Journal. “Where we see a bit of a disconnect is the sense that there is a competition between what’s happening in cable and what’s happening online. Every Division I school in the nation has a YouTube channel. Not every single one of them is actually using their YouTube channel or using it particularly effectively, and that’s either because they don’t believe it’s an effective use of their time or resources or — and this is what we think — they just haven’t figured out how YouTube or an entity like YouTube can be helpful to your overall sports programming.”

Joe Ferreira, Learfield Sports’ new chief content officer, agrees and acknowledged that his company, which has traditionally served its clients through radio and television packages, is looking to exploit the online market.

“In traditional media, [colleges] are doing a great job,” he says. “On the digital side, there’s some room for improvement. That’s one of the areas we’re really investing in and spending a lot of time [on]. The connection that the fan has now to their favorite team or favorite sport is through many, many devices. That’s a real area of growth for us.”

For many athletic departments, the sprint to establish a digital presence is a result of the nature of keeping up with one’s rivals.

“The competition is getting out there in a broader way,” says Mark Harlan, senior associate athletic director, external relations, at UCLA. “Just developing that original content to get out to our fans is so important. If we do something behind the scenes, even if it’s as simple as something like filming the team getting off the bus on a Friday in Tempe, AZ, the kind of hits we get, it’s almost double some of the other things we do, like press conferences and such. The problem we run into is, where are we allowed to put that material? From the university standpoint, we don’t really own any of that stuff, but our fans want it. The conference-network deal is a fabulous deal, but we’re navigating it.”

Navigating one’s rights is perhaps the most difficult part of content distribution. Once it’s settled, however, such companies as NeuLion are helping schools maximize the value of the content that remains in-house.

“What I have seen over the past four years is that, [with] the amount of content that athletic departments are creating, there really is some payback in the cost of production,” says Chris Wagner, co-founder/EVP at Neulion. “The cost of producing content is getting cheaper; the cost of distributing content is getting cheaper. Fans are on more smartphones and tablets than ever before. The purchase of those devices is going up very fast. You’re looking at 30- to 45-minute engagement time in some cases on live programming, which really translates well for opportunities to sell something whether it’s e-commerce or ads or other stuff like that. But content definitely drives that, and there’s an appetite for content like never before because it’s just so easy now to access it.”

In response to the effective reach traditional media has with college sports fans, various colleges and networks are looking to use their linear products to help drive eyes to digital offerings.

Fox Sports regional networks have made news over the past few months signing various third-tier rights deals with such colleges as Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and TCU.

“Now that we have this content, we know those fans want a deeper experience, so one of the things we’re going to look to continue to exploit is, how do we use our linear network to create snippets and promote things that are going to be on the digital side?” says Jon Heidtke, SVP/GM, Fox Sports Southwest/Oklahoma/New Orleans. “We want to get to the point where we can drive them to that experience so they can get that kind of content.”