Six Takeaways From Variety – Sports Illustrated Sports & Entertainment Summit

Industry powerhouses address the future of fan and viewer engagement

The lines between sports, entertainment, and media have so blurred that it’s all becoming one in the endless effort to engage fans and viewers. At last week’s Variety – Sports Illustrated Sports & Entertainment Summit, power players from around the sports business and the media industry converged to share insights on the captivating and rapidly evolving world of sports.

Screen Shot 2016-07-19 at 3.35.09 PMMany conversations turned back to video and the production, distribution, and consumption of live sports content. Is the sports-rights bubble in danger of bursting? How are stadiums leveraging technology to give fans an experience as comfortable as the one they would get in front of their televisions (or mobile devices)? How are creators building more “authentic” content to engage with millennials?

Those questions and many more were addressed on stage, and here are six takeways for the sports-video community.

1. The Always Looming Sports Bubble Won’t Burst, Just Deflate a Little
It’s impossible to take part in any sports-business conversation and not eventually get to the topic of live-sports rights and whether there is, in fact, a rights bubble ready to burst and massively disrupt the industry.

For better or worse, there seemed to be little fear during the Summit of a bottoming out of the massive deals that have been struck for the rights to distribute live sports content. If anything, the largest sports properties may be protected, and more-niche sports may struggle to see rights agreements continue to climb.

“Some of the reports about a huge bubble bursting are probably over-reported,” said Matt Hong, EVP/GM, Turner Sports, acknowledging that that fact works for a basic-cable company. “My personal opinion is that the money that we have paid the NBA and the NCAA is proof that sports rights are continuing to increase. My guess is, there is potential impact on non–top-tier sports. The NFL, NBA, March Madness are going to continue to benefit from increased sports rights. There may be a bit of a correction, but, even then, I don’t think it’s going to be a massive one.”

2. The Shift of Live-Game Viewing to Mobile Continues To Climb
Much of the viewership conversations focused on the mobile device’s increasingly becoming the primary method of consumption of sports content, be it on-demand or live. In fact, at one point during the conference, the television set was described as a painting on the wall of millennials’ homes: hung for show but never turned on.

“What you see across the board is, the demand in the consumer market just picks up year over year in mobile and over-the-top,” said Brian Angiolet, SVP, Consumer Product Portfolio, Verizon, whose company has become involved in the sports-rights game through its cellular network and content-distribution network. “We had a 30% lift on OTT streaming during the NBA Finals. We were also an early entrant on the wireless side in the deal we did with NFL Mobile, and, when we did that, folks thought no one would watch a full sporting event on their mobile device. Year over year over year, we are seeing 50% increases in viewership. It’s been like clockwork. For things like live soccer that we are streaming through our go90 application, we are seeing 58-minute average viewing times. All trends are moving in that direction.”

3. The Largest Sports Are Still a Lean-Back Experience
Technology may continue to attempt to drive sweeping change in the way live sports content is consumed, but, at the highest level, the luxury of watching sports is a lean-back experience.

“I still very much believe that people enjoy a relatively passive storytelling experience,” said Jordan Levin, chief content officer, NFL Media. “I think there’s going to be a lot of technology that can facilitate your controlling how you experience a game, but, at the end of the day, the professionals who produce these games do such an amazing job that the experience of leaning back and watch the Fred Gaudellis of the world do Sunday Night Football is just so great that I believe watching them, whether it’s on a mobile device or a big screen, is going to have intangibly high value. Now, there’s going to be a lot of effort made to not only be able to offer that content on whatever terms that you want it but, at the same time, to create a much deeper community and connectivity so that you can experience that virtually with family and friends no matter where you are. I think we will continue to see greater intimacy and access facilitated by new technologies that allow you to cover the game more and by a new generation of players and athletes and owners of teams that recognize that, today, fans want to be more squarely in the center of the action that extends beyond just game play.”

4. The In-Venue Experience Will Center on Your Phone, But It May Not Include Replays
Industry-wide, there’s an increasing effort for sports franchises and venues to make the experience of attending a sports event as good as, if not better than, watching that game on TV. Stadiums and arenas battle the comforts of home from a concession, connectivity, and broadcast perspective, and that has led teams to leverage technology to find ways to better replicate all those offerings in-venue.

“The way we look at technology is that the devices that you use on an everyday basis are the devices you are going to leverage when you get into our building,” said Sean Kundu, VP, new ventures, San Francisco 49ers. “Why have paper tickets? Let’s get them on your phone or your device, so that, when you are there, you are already using the thing that you’re always using to get in. Four years from now, whatever device you are using is going to be the primary access point in-venue.”

One of the popular ways some venues have looked at trying to entertain fans at the game is offering video features on a mobile application, including instant replays and alternative viewing angles. According to Kundu’s personal experience, he doesn’t see those offerings sticking around for the foreseeable future.

“We have the mindset that we will implement something and try it out and, if it’s not working, we’ll pull it pretty quickly,” he explained. “I’ll be happy to say that we have had failures but we learn from those failures. Before we opened our building, one of the biggest pain points for our fans was that they don’t get instant replays. They got something that was a little too late, while, at home, you get to really experience that. We spent a ton of time and energy making sure that, on a phone, you could get connectivity and, after every play, within four seconds you’d be able to able to pull up that play that just happened. About a thousand people in the building used that feature. We put a lot into that, and, after the first season at Levi’s [Stadium], we realized … not so much.”

5. Sports Is Now More Than Just a Game; It’s About Greater Access
The appetite for sports content is now so great that the game itself simply isn’t enough. That has led to the explosion of league-led events — such as drafts, free agency, and trade deadlines — and media-driven reality content, such as Hard Knocks.

“Increasingly, the game is the anchor for a broader experience,” said Jordan Levin, chief content officer, NFL Media. “That broader experience is what happens before, at, and after the game and who are you communicating with. It’s no longer a top-down model; it’s much more about engagement, relationship, and community that gets extended across the different functionality of these various platforms and what the product can facilitate in terms of that deeper engagement.”

6. The Days of Fans as On-Air Talent Are Coming
Social-media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and even YouTube give every sports fan the power to voice an opinion and offer analysis. Today’s sports-media landscape has already been infiltrated by on-air personalities emerging from the digital space, organically building their own viewership bases. However, could that trend extend to fans — with little to no media training — becoming analysts? ESPN personality Hannah Storm believes so.

“At some point, it’s inevitable that we are going to see fans as talent,” she said. “I think that’s an area that we haven’t reached yet, but, with all of the technologies developing, that’s possible. To me, it would really be the next step of how to watch a game. It’s taking that global sports-bar experience to the next level. Someone is going to figure out a way to put that together.”