Live sports properties are attractive precisely because they have an existing and (hopefully) loyal audience that they’ll bring with them, but the reality of migrating that audience to a new viewing experience is full of challenges for both audience and rights holder.
It’s one thing to have an online destination which grows or creates its own content, and thus builds its own audience from scratch. YouTube, Netflix and Twitch have all effectively done this (alongside content acquisition strategies), and as a result they each have audiences who are familiar and comfortable with their broadcast platform and the ways it can be consumed: on desktop web, mobile web, native app and, crucially, Smart TV. All bases covered, and traditional domestic broadcasters like the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 all do the same.
It’s quite different to take an existing sports product and move it to a new home, though. It was hard enough when this just meant moving English soccer's Match of The Day highlights programme to ITV as The Premiership with ostensibly the same content and presenters, or moving the Uefa Champions League from ITV to BT Sport even with top-level talent presenting and a genuinely excellent digital app experience. Those instances weren’t even platform migrations, they were just ‘TV’ to ‘different TV’.
The main problem, of course, is people. Bloody people, with their habits and their preconceived ideas about how they like to watch sport. People who don’t understand that this is the future buddy, it’s progress and you should like what we’re offering you because without someone investing this sort of money in acquiring the rights you might not be watching at all.
The replies to Eleven Sports’ pricing announcement – UK£5.99 per month including La Liga, Serie A, the PGA Championship and more – were extremely illustrative of this. That’s a good price for good content, but at the moment the only way to watch Eleven is via their website or native iOS/ Android app. No carrier deals or Chromecast function (yet) mean no satisfactory way of making the sport appear on your TV – and this cropped up regularly in the responses along with questions about precisely how Eleven's upcoming European soccer content would match what fans were used to from Sky or BT Sport.
This was all summed up during last weekend's PGA Championship, when England’s Harry Maguire ‘took to Twitter’ to decry the absence of the golf on TV…
Eleven did pick up a Leeds United player as a subscriber at the same time, but the perception that the tournament “wasn’t on” speaks volumes for the challenge of explaining that “actually it is on, but you have to go here and do this and then watch on a computer”.
Elsewhere there were widely covered problems in July for World Surf League (WSL) on its first weekend of broadcasting exclusively on Facebook. WSL’s apology to fans referenced “broadcast issues” but the remedy – making the live stream available on the WSL website in a non-Facebook player – sounded a lot like the real problems were simply fan pushback against having to use Facebook at all.
Esports organisations have had similar community pushback when transitioning events from Twitch to Facebook. ESL moved its CS:GO Pro League and ESL One circuit to Facebook back in January 2018, but early events saw significantly higher viewership for unofficial Twitch streams than for the official Facebook broadcast.
This is partly because audiences simply don’t like being told to change their habits, and partly because there are genuine product differentiators. Twitch’s chat function is core to the viewing experience, and is more advanced and attuned to the needs of a gaming audience than Facebook’s is right now.
Eleven Sports was faced with various complaints during its UK coverage of the PGA Championship, including the stream cutting out for some viewers during Brooks Koepka's winning putt.
Rights holder challenges
Even if you’re a rights holder who’s confident you’re moving to a platform the audience will soon grow to love, the transition holds further hurdles.
Measuring consumption will almost certainly look different to your traditional key performance indicators (KPIs), to the point where it’s impossible to make an apples-to-apples comparison. The concept of concurrent viewers on Facebook or Twitch – that’s the number of people watching the stream right now – is very different to the broadcast standard of ‘average viewers’, which typically refers to the average number of people watching the whole show.
Facebook has so many super-short views (content is primarily discovered through the newsfeed, and includes a lot of wastage from users who aren’t interested in a long viewing experience) that the average watch time figure skews extremely low even for multi-hour broadcasts; a 30s average is still considered ‘high’.
Marketing the new home of your product will also rely on the analytics capabilities of the platform, in order to know which channels are successfully driving users into the service. YouTube’s analytics are the best in the business. Twitch are somewhat hit and miss. Facebook have a wealth of data on in-platform activity, but nothing at all on external referral sources.
Acquisition of new audience may primarily be the platform’s problem, but if numbers are low it quickly becomes a concern for the rights holder when sponsors aren’t achieving the reach they thought they’d paid for. The Champions League on BT Sport is one example of this, having moved from the free-to-air ITV – hence the move to stream the final for free on YouTube.
Back to Eleven Sports as the new home of La Liga and Serie A, this from soccer writer Daniel Storey resonated with a lot UK-based fans of the leagues. It’s an issue for any platform that isn’t yet a global or national brand.
For me it wasn't ever about watching any of those leagues religiously, but having a spare hour and realising there was a game on to idly take in. Online-only streaming inevitably reduces the casual spectatorship.— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) August 7, 2018
None of the above will be news to any of the new players in OTT.
Sublicensing content to traditional TV carriers is an obvious way to solve the casual viewer issue, and help Harry Maguire out. DAZN has NFL carriage deals in Canada, and Eleven Sports has stated that it's working on deals with Sky, BT and Virgin for its UK content. It’s questionable how much this solves the long-term brand-building issue for the platform, though.
Free content sampling is another route, and Eleven will be showing at least one La Liga and Serie A game per week on Facebook, for free. Converting freemium users to paying subscribers is no mean feat, but the sampling approach has worked well for challenger sports brands in the past – the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) broadcast some of its undercard on Facebook for free in its early days online and it’s widely held to have helped build the organisation's audience.
And… is it too much to expect that rightsholders would consult with their audience before making a switch? The commercial realities of the way deals come together mean the answer is very likely ‘yes’ – but unless you have a top-tier product, failing to do this will almost certainly mean a short-term drop in audience.
None of this is to say that live sport can’t be ported to OTT platforms successfully; the 2018 Uefa Champions League final live on YouTube via BT Sport was a great user experience.
The final challenge may come when platforms actually reach the mass audience levels that they want: delivering a stable stream in multiple regions. Regular TV almost never crashes, but outside of Hotstar with the IPL, few OTT providers have cracked the technical challenge of regular mass live concurrency for sport.