Sport on TV - terminal decline or fighting fit?

Global trends across sport are showing that younger viewers prefer to watch short-form highlights over whole matches, while viewing figures across the board are declining. Nevertheless, broadcasters continue to splash vast amounts of cash on TV rights, not just increasing expenditure but widening the range of sports on offer. Amory B. Schwartz, executive vice president of global sales and commercial development at the QYOU, an online video curation and production company, examines the state of play in sports broadcasting.

Sport on TV - terminal decline or fighting fit?

2017's Super Bowl LI attracted record low viewing figures for Fox Sports, despite the thrilling New England Patriots comback inspired by Tom Brady (pictured)

While hit dramas come and go, sport remains a big draw for TV audiences. HBO pays UK£70 million (US$85 million) for each season of Game of Thrones, but this figure is dwarfed by the UK£5 billion (US$6 billion) that UK broadcaster Sky paid for three years of Premier League soccer. Yet the era where sport was a guaranteed goldmine for viewership is under threat, as digital technology shifts consumers’ viewing habits online.

Both in Europe and the US, the broadcasters of major sporting leagues –  from ESPN to Sky and Fox Sports – have all reported a drop in average viewers over the last five years, as viewers forgo the “time sink” of a four-hour long NFL game. This was a fact most recently underlined by the viewing figures at the National Football League’s (NFL) Super Bowl in February, where Fox Sports attracted its smallest-ever audience for America’s sporting showpiece.

This decline in viewership is linked to a much larger cultural shift from traditional linear TV to digital-first and on-demand services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. Millennial audiences have been the first to go; they grew up immersed in online video and the rest of the digital world. More than a billion hours of video is consumed every day on YouTube but even this is only a fraction of the total online video universe: Vimeo, Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram are adding millions upon millions of videos every day. So while younger audiences may still enjoy watching sport, the ways in which they expect to access the genre has fractured with the rise of web-based video content.

While it can be exciting to watch a full game, it’s becoming increasingly common among younger audiences to just watch the best bits online. Along with comedy, the sports and action genres are the most viewed and shared videos online. Roundups of the best goals from the latest match are joined by a whole host of other sports-related content that has found massive reach online.  Feats of incredible athleticism (parkour, free running, wake boarding) or skill (snooker shots, soccer tricks) and daring (base jumping, para gliding) are generating millions of views. The best of these can literally blow our minds and distract millennials to the point where they’re tuning out the big game because they can always watch the best of the action later. Such content offers huge potential for broadcasters to re-capture audiences with a wider range of content served in different ways, through different devices.

The main focus for TV broadcasters and service providers in recent years has been to expand their audience reach to increase advertising and sponsorship revenues. Now, online video has enabled those in control of the rights to expand revenues further still through value-added services and new digital business models. The opportunities from catch-up and video-on-demand services (and especially from fantasy) also mean that it is now possible to use online video as leverage to engage the superfan so they spend more time and more money watching and interacting with their favorite teams, players and events.

Premier League viewing figures have also fallen in the 2016/17 season

The Sky Sports service in the UK, for example, has mixed its live offering with video apps that deliver multiple simultaneous viewpoints, ranging from the drivers’ cockpit, to the pit lanes as well as continually available instant replay. These shots build engagement through in-the-action snapshots that capture the attention of viewers. From a business perspective, this also drives more customers towards new online platforms and experiences that also offer additional revenue for broadcasters through advertising or paid services. For the superfan, this level of immersion complements and transforms their viewing experience.

The internet has also fueled a greater interest in, and access to, niche sports. Until the arrival of online video, niche sports were considered by many broadcasters as not profitable enough to be shown on TV. Now it’s possible as well as economical to target smaller, highly-engaged audiences who are watching free running, wake surfing, snooker tricks, or anything in-between.

The best of online video is now being successfully curated and packaged for television in markets around the world. The QYOU, a curation and production company focused on the culture of online video, has already partnered with TV providers like Ziggo Sport in the Netherlands, Fox Sports in Europe and many other services to create custom programs featuring the most watched sports online, such as biking, base-jumping, motocross, parkour, snowboarding and, of course, skateboarding. This is helping broadcasters to re-engage digital-first viewers and bring them back to television with content they normally could only discover online.

This evolution has led to the emergence of “eSports”, a category which takes gaming and turns it into a more cinematic TV experience. Interest in eSports has spurred on platforms like Twitch, a social video platform for video gamers boasting 9.7 million daily active users, to fuel this trend further. The eSports League championships in Cologne last year went on to generate over 27 million unique viewers on Twitch, an audience many broadcasters can only dream of attaining through the TV set. It’s even entering the mainstream broadcast world. This month, BT Sport announced that it had won the rights to broadcast the remaining four Electronic Arts Fifa video game majors, enabling fans to watch virtual football for the first time, live on UK TV.

So, is sports TV on the decline or is it actually fighting fit, but in a different format? In my opinion, we’re simply in a period of dynamic change. The demands from viewer have changed and they now have greater access to live sports than ever before.This is by no means bad news for broadcasters and TV providers, as the demand for sports is still growing. This opens up a huge opportunity for broadcasters to engage younger TV audiences with action-packed short form content in the future.

Amory B Schwartz is executive vice president of global sales and commercial development at the QYOU.