Special report: Sport in the age of social media

Social media has gone from being an online directory to become one of the most powerful methods ever conceived of distributing media. This special report looks at how it is now shaping sport.

Special report: Sport in the age of social media

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In the decade that has passed since the launch of Facebook, the influence of social media has snowballed like little before it. Today, as a range of networks become conduits for people to share the things they love, sport has become an integral part of their operations.


By Eoin Connolly


“We don’t even know what it is yet. We don’t know what it is. We don’t know what it can be, we don’t know what it will be, we know that it is cool.”

Those are the words of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Or, at least, they’re the words of ‘Mark Zuckerberg’, as portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in the 2010 film The Social Network. David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s gripping reimagining of the birth of a service that would grow from nothing to 1.55 billion users in a little under a decade is many things. At its base, it is a retelling of a story that most of us know, because it has affected the lives of people and companies and entire industries. In that respect, this is a story that is still unfolding.

Zuckerberg and his colleagues didn’t create the concept of the social network but they made one good enough – and sold it well enough, grasping the real world dynamics that would give it momentum – that it inspired a migration of millions, with users living their lives online in a way that had only been glimpsed before. The real Zuckerberg has since spoken of never wanting to create “just a company”, but “something that actually makes a really big change in the world”. It would be an understatement to say that he has achieved it, not just through Facebook but the other networks its success made palatable for mass consumption.

The age of Facebook is also one in which the modus operandi of social networks has changed. Such sites began as glorified directories – Facebook takes its own name from the ‘facebooks’ that American university students are presented with on matriculation, listing their peers and tutors. They then took on a documentary purpose. Now, though, they are among the most powerful means of sharing and distributing media ever conceived. And for an estimated 650 million users, at least, on Facebook alone, sport is at the heart of that.

In some ways, Facebook has defined this evolution through its own development. In others, it has responded through investment, making tech youngsters rich in the way its own founders got rich: spending US$1 billion on photo-sharing platform Instagram in 2012 and a remarkable US$19 billion on private mobile messaging service WhatsApp last October.

The biggest shift was prompted by its biggest rival: Twitter. Created in 2006 as a 140-character per post ‘micro-blogging’ site, Twitter lacked Facebook’s college campus hook and was a comparative slow burner. Since the start of this decade, though, it has surged from 30 million active users at the start of 2010 to 316 million today. Twitter’s emergence led to a gradual but marked change in how Facebook works, with the bigger site sloughing off the hallmarks of exclusivity that defined its rise to become more of an all-purpose source of news and media. In October Facebook launched universal search, making all of the two trillion posts on its servers available, privacy preferences allowing, to anyone trying to find out what people were saying about a given topic.

For all that, there is one thing Facebook does that Twitter would love to do: make money. Facebook recorded a real profit of US$896 million in the third quarter of 2015, partly justifying its US$300 billion valuation; Twitter made a US$132 million loss, to go with the US$136.66 million it lost over the previous three months. Co-founder Jack Dorsey is back as chief executive as the company still grapples with how to turn a compelling free service into a lucrative enterprise, and how to reinvigorate a user base that has grown tired of a culture undermined by repetitiveness and personal abuse.

Whatever the way forward for Twitter – and cosmetic tweaks, such as the replacement of the starred ‘favourite’ button with a heart-shaped ‘like’ icon, are already underway – its greatest strength is in getting to the core of live events.

“The only way that we can win in the content game is by the partnerships we forge,” said Danny Keens, Twitter’s head of sports partnerships, at November’s Web Summit in Dublin. Twitter’s immediacy makes it a natural complement to live sport – the 6.8 billion impressions of tweets made about the Rugby World Cup in September and October providing the most recent example of that – and its presentation has been updated periodically to give fans more reasons to get involved. The emoji icons that are appended to selected hashtags like #RWC2015 are one example of this, as are the instant polls that are now available to every user – features that Keens said are designed to “surprise and delight”.

There is plenty that can be achieved on social media through best practice and consistent, targeted engagement. Nevertheless, the effect of formal tie-ups with the major players is enough to make them worthwhile for the leading teams, federations and competitions.

“They’re ongoing relationships,” says Dan Reed, Keens’ counterpart at Facebook, of such deals. “They take three forms. One is we provide consulting resources: we seek to understand what it is that our partners are trying to accomplish from a business perspective, and that ranges from tune-in, to sponsor dollars, to driving ticket sales, to just growing your audience; growing and deepening your engagement with your audience. Those are the big four things that we hear. And then, based on those objectives, we help them to understand how to utilise Facebook and Instagram to accomplish their objectives, whatever they might be, and growing the latest best practices and products and strategies to do so. So that’s the primary element of our partnership and that is constantly ongoing, and we have a great frequency with all of our partners on those types of things.

“The second element is actual formal partnerships around major events. So in the US it’s the Super Bowl, it’s the Uefa Champions League, and so on and so forth. But we’ll work with everyone in the entire ecosystem – the leagues, teams, athletes, the rights holder, the media – to try to stimulate a massive conversation about major events or opportunities on Facebook. So for example, in the US for the Super Bowl we had 65 million people talking about it; 350 million interactions.”

At the Super Bowl, Facebook worked with the National Football League (NFL) and broadcaster NBC to ensure full integration with the event. “And the third aspect,” Reed adds, “is we’re constantly rolling out new products and services.”

In many cases, these partnerships are a matter of Facebook creating and sharing marketing collateral that teams can pass on to their fans, or facilitating a channel for communication and public relations – still the bedrock of most social media strategy. Steadily, however, it is building the means for brands to finally start monetising their social media presence.

“The [National Basketball Association champions] Golden State Warriors told us they had an 89xROI utilising the Facebook marketing tools, built on their great organic engagement,” Reed reveals. “For ticket sales they told us it was their number one paid marketing channel and their primary focus for fan engagement because they see clearly how it helps them drive business.”

The Golden State Warriors, the NBA champions, have used Facebook to drive their ticket sales.

Despite its global reach, much of Twitter’s work in developing sports industry relationships is grounded in local knowledge. It has 35 offices in locations including its San Francisco headquarters, London, Berlin, and Mumbai.

“It’s a uniquely collaborative group and we work on all major international sporting events together,” says Aneesh Madani, the head of sports partnerships for Twitter India. “Having said that, with Twitter being an interest-based network, our partnerships are informed by the unique interests of our users in each country. For instance, as per the Global Sports Media consumption report in 2014, fans in India spend more time per week watching sport than any other country in the world thanks primarily to their love for cricket and its duration.”

Madani cites Twitter’s own ‘Cricket Moments’ study, commissioned to coincide the start of the 2015 Cricket World Cup, which found that “nine out of ten Twitter users are fans of cricket and three-quarters of these cricket fans are under the age of 35”. Still, Twitter is also helping to foster the emergence of India’s new multi-sport culture through partnerships with the likes of soccer’s Indian Super League and the Pro Kabaddi League, both of which have created vibrant audience outreach campaigns on the service.

When it comes to building and entertaining an audience on Twitter, Mandani recommends that teams “build an environment of playfulness and trust with their players, owners, executives and fans”. He also warns against “stagnancy in content”.

“Twitter has evolved into a medium where 140 characters of text sit seamlessly with photos, GIFs, six-second looping Vine videos, 30-second Twitter videos and live video broadcast through Periscope,” he says. “Partners will do well to take advantage of these unique rich media options on the platform, along with a personality-driven voice on the platform that is endearing to fans.”

In recent years, video has become increasingly prominent within the social media sphere. This has not just been pertinent for those building a personal or corporate presence, but also for brands reaching out to consumers – particularly through advertising services such as Twitter Amplify, which launched in 2014, or Facebook’s native video platform.

“There’s some long-form video content that works well on Facebook,” says Reed. “But I agree for the most part [that short-form works better]. Short-form clips are working very well on news feeds – we have 1.5 billion people spending 40 minutes a day and checking their News Feed 14 times a day. And so if you have a minute and a half video clip, that’s something that could fit into that short burst of time that you’re consuming Facebook at that time.”

With mobile accounting for an ever greater share of digital consumption, the preference for briefer, breezier clips is to be expected, even if the specific dynamics on each platform are only now taking shape.

“There is no one size fits all to this debate,” says Gareth Capon, the chief executive of real-time video startup Grabyo. “What is clear is that on social platforms, shorter-form content works better: 30 to 45 seconds is probably the optimal content length, currently. But things are changing all the time: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, [disappearing message service] Snapchat, they’re updating the way that they support video – and native video in particular – very regularly.”

Grabyo provides video editing and delivery tools, as well as strategic advice, to “help broadcasters and rights holders distribute content in real time, seamlessly, across multiple social networks”. Capon has been chief executive since 2014, and notes that the sector itself has not been professionalised for much longer than that. “The market is very early,” he says. “Social video is a very early market. It’s two years old on Twitter; it’s less than two years old on Facebook; YouTube is a bit older and was probably the only real online and social video platform in the past. I think there’s a lot more to go in terms of maturity, testing, understanding, testing out different types of content in different markets on different devices.”

Social video’s newness and rapid development leave little room for convention to take root. For over a century, those shooting live images have gravitated towards a widescreen format, naturally following the human gaze. In the latest versions of its product, Capon reveals, Grabyo has taken to looking at things the other way round.

“Somewhere like Snapchat or Twitter’s new Moments product are actually prioritising and focusing on ‘vertical video’ in terms of consumption, and that’s because of the trends in human behaviour,” he says. “There are billions of smartphones on the planet and people hold their smartphones vertically, and not horizontally.”

Capon expects vertical video to be “an important video format from a mobile perspective over the course of the next three to five years”, but stresses the need to be aware of “unmet needs” in the marketplace today and tomorrow. “Release fast and iterate is the heart of the mentality,” he suggests. “We release updates to the platform very regularly. We iterate and enhance the platform very regularly, too, and you have to.”

Ultimately, the response of users is what determines how effective a product is in the social space. “If users don’t like what we’re doing, or Facebook is doing, or what any of our rights-owning clients are doing, then they won’t consume the content and they’ll vote with their feet,” Capon says. “And you’ll see it in the data. So, yes, it’s driven by technology, but I think it’s much more driven by behaviour.”

A moment that Capon is fond of seizing upon as an example of effective viral video content happened at this year’s Wimbledon Championships, when David Beckham caught a stray tennis ball while sitting in the Royal Box on Centre Court in July. It was a moment that Grabyo helped its partner, the All England Lawn Tennis Club, to give wings, but its appeal lay in its serendipity. Creating a moment that begs to be shared is an enticing concept for any brand, but it’s a difficult and dangerous thing to fake.

“Facebook is a people platform – it will always be a place for friends and family connecting – so you expect authentic interactions from everybody on Facebook, including entities and properties that you care about,” says Reed. “And so we routinely see that for video content, audio content, text content – when it’s authentic, it does really well and when it’s perceived as inauthentic, its reach of engagement plummets.”

Twitter encourages teams to develop “an environment of playfulness and trust” for their interactions.

Mandani concurs, and believes that any strategy for brands, teams or organisations on Twitter has to begin and end with the user. “Authenticity is important,” he says. “Twitter is an intimate medium and fans can immediately tell if a team or athlete that they care about aren’t being themselves.”

Given that tendency among users – particularly from a younger, ‘digital-native’ generation – to turn away from anything that registers as being somehow confected, it is perhaps inevitable that social platforms have given rise to their own breed of stars. The natural environment for this has long been YouTube, where purveyors of both raw, direct to camera entreaties and more skilfully edited material have been able to build large international audiences. Similar personalities have since emerged on Twitter – some using its Vine clips tool – and on Instagram.

Some of these figures bring their own baggage, but what many share is a deep, direct connection with their audience, one that has developed without the filter of a media third party. This has earned some of them the label of ‘influencer’, and leading brands, inevitably, have taken notice.

Billy Wingrove and Jeremy Lynch are freestyle soccer players who became a double act, the F2 Freestylers, in 2010. They have since regularly shared videos of their skills and routines on YouTube, amassing two million subscribers on that platform and 4.3 million across their various social channels. Their videos have seen them appear alongside the likes of Neymar, Eden Hazard, New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby union team and even Pelé – a cross-pollination of digital and mainstream reach which has taken total views of their online output past 400 million.

Commercial rewards have followed. Adidas has signed the pair to long-term deals, while they have also been used to promote Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer video game series and EE’s sponsorship of Wembley Stadium. 10Ten Talent, an agency which has Pelé and Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere on its books, confirmed their addition to its newly launched entertainment division in November.

For their representative, Louie Evans, “there are definitely things that successful key influencers and creators get right”. He believes that the assets that have helped to build a sizeable social media following in the first place – passion, creativity and technical savvy – can form the basis of a robust strategy. “We monitor and measure the F2 audience at all times and therefore we know the age, behaviours and profile of these people,” adds Evans. “Our partnerships are a mix of our existing relationships, brands who approach the F2 directly and brands who we would like to work with and believe we could add value to.”

Evans suggests that the “market really decides” how sponsors’ activities adapt to an online audience, but that with the right outlook it is “really easy” to work with them in a way that stays true to their original appeal. “YouTubers are incredibly authentic,” he says, “and will only post authentic content through their channels. Some brands understand this and some do not. However, the best campaigns are invariably where the creatives have come up with the content and the brand element is there but it is subtle in its approach.”

YouTube’s F2 Freestylers, Billy Wingrove and Jeremy Lynch, with Pelé.

Matt Wilson is the co-founder of Ball Street, “a multi-platform influencer network” with offices and studios in London and Liverpool. “We are a collection of influencers who work together to help each other grow; to support each other with skills, with experiences, maybe with kit and bits and pieces like that,” he says, speaking at the company’s London base in Victoria. “And we ultimately work together in order to do great things for brands as well.”

Ball Street is rooted in UK soccer supporter culture and its roster is comprised of the originators of Twitter accounts, blogs and Premier League fan TV channels. Among these are Redmen TV, a Liverpool network, 100% Chelsea, Everton’s Toffee TV, and Arsenal Fan TV – the latter, in particular, capturing the imagination of mainstream media with its lively output, not least in the wake of Arsenal defeats.

“There’s a lot of people who’ve got big followings because of who they are or what they’ve done, and they’ve risen to prominence, and probably these people might not have that much engagement around their page or their subject matter,” says Wilson. 

“And then you have people like Robbie [Lyle] from Arsenal Fan TV who’ve built a community over a period of time by being completely dedicated to that subject matter, by being true to the person that they are, and developing great integrity with that audience, and who over a period of time have created almost a movement around that subject matter whereby lots and lots more people join that conversation.”

Ball Street has worked to connect brands including Papa John’s, Carling and Virgin Media with soccer fans. Earlier this year, its #OneMoreGame promotion in partnership with Football Association (FA) sponsor Vauxhall gave members the chance to play at Wembley Stadium with Ian Wright – the former England striker is a Ball Street investor, who first came to national prominence scoring two goals at the venue in the 1990 FA Cup final.

Those who took part, Wilson recalls, were reminding Vauxhall of the experience when England played Switzerland at the stadium in September, drawing Wright and the brand’s social accounts into conversation. “This is six or seven months later, and what a brand’s now got is genuine friends that they’ve made through this experience,” says Wilson. “It’s all natural and it’s all very organic.”

It is that opportunity to build meaningful relationships at the grassroots that Wilson sees as fundamental to the value of sponsorship at this level, especially when a brand’s financial contribution can be vital to keeping a programme going. “This is where the whole space works really well,” he says, “when a brand is empowering a content producer and empowering a community to do something that it’s passionate about and that an audience is already interested in.” 

Of course, for brands more interested in the mass market reach of major properties, the numbers available on such platforms can look comparatively unremarkable, even allowing for the effects of aggregation that can expose millions more to a campaign. But according to Danny Weitzkorn, Ball Street’s commercial and marketing director, the “vanity” of seeking out telephone number follower counts has yielded to the “sanity” of tailored appeals to an audience.

“I think what’s happened over possibly the last 18 months,” he says, “is that brands are understanding how you can use social as a channel, knowing that it’s not necessarily going to translate in the short term to a monetary return, but they’re getting a little more robust in understanding: ‘We have this big number up here. What does that mean? Well, actually, 50 per cent of it means absolutely nothing because they never engage with us, and the other 50 per cent are split with 25 per cent who are really engaged and the other 25 per cent who are not so engaged.’

“So I think there are brands who understand what that number means, and they understand that it’s about sanity and not vanity.”

Ball Street supports the development of networks like Arsenal Fan TV.

The other factor is what Wilson describes as the “spectrum of fankind”. As he sees it, as they have grown, sports and media properties have also drifted further from their audience – their reach is broad, but it is distant. That, coupled with thoughtless profiteering and breaches of trust, has bred alienation.

“People don’t spend time with Sky Sports because they want to,” Wilson argues. “They do it because they have to, because Sky took football and they put it behind a paywall. They spend time with us here because they want to, because we’re credible, we’re honest, we’re consistent, and we’re not doing it for the money, we’re doing it for the love. Do you know what I mean? So this is how the power shift has happened. This is now what’s closer to the fan.”

Wilson’s aim is for Ball Street to continue to make natural progress, bringing in more brands but also extending a hand to more fan networks in need of resources and support. It is an idealistic outlook, self-consciously at odds with an era of apparent footballing greed, but also a pragmatic one: within the Ball Street fold, these channels can consolidate audiences, share equipment and funding, and be protected from IP theft and misrepresentation.

“This isn’t greedy,” Wilson says, “this is people helping each other out and working together. And that power, that love that creates fans and creates audience, brands are recognising that and wanting to get involved in that as well. It’s exciting.”

The perception of social networks, in sport as elsewhere, will always veer between the utopian and the dystopian. But it is difficult to envisage their influence waning in a world that is only becoming more connected.

The role of social networks is more open to speculation, and this is no different in the sports industry. Tech giants like Google and Apple are increasingly linked with moves into the sports broadcast rights sector, following the lead of their counterparts in China, and Facebook’s massive revenues and audience only further speculation that it might also be interested.

In July, Facebook hosted an international live stream of Bayern Munich’s Audi Cup pre-season soccer tournament but Reed insists: “We’re not in a position where we’re paying rights fees for that sort of content.”

What Facebook continues to invest in, with enthusiasm, is technology. It has ambitions far beyond the creeping adjustment of its own platform.

Through its Internet.org initiative, it is working with network operators to improve internet access in remote areas through the development of a platform that supports apps and services with low bandwidth needs.

Then there is Oculus. In March 2014, Facebook spent US$2 billion on the virtual reality pioneer, which found fame through a Kickstarter crowdfunding project. Its Oculus Rift headsets will go to retail in 2016, a year in which analysts are predicting VR’s long-delayed breakthrough.

On stage at the Web Summit, Oculus’ 23-year-old founder Palmer Luckey went further, predicting that the growth of VR would outpace smartphones in the not-too-distant future. The technology still had some way to go, he admitted, but it is already possible to create VR experiences that are “good enough” to allow people to “start to communicate digitally in a more human way”, helped along by the haptic technologies already found in smartphones and smartwatches. And he presented a video demonstration of its capabilities – one available to selected Facebook guests at the summit as a participation exercise – which showed two Oculus users interacting in an environment, talking, and playing games.

The potential for sport, whose very basis is shared experience, is clear. Maybe, even now, we still don’t know what this is yet, but we know we will be a part of it.


Another world: social media in China


In this teenaged century, social networks have changed the way billions of people communicate, work, and document their lives and their lunches. In the world’s biggest country, however, the experience of them is markedly different from anywhere else.


By Eoin Connolly


Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Google+ and Dailymotion are among the high-ranking social and sharing networks which take their place alongside some of the world’s foremost news sources on China’s internet banned list. At first glance, there is an obvious reason for this: that a notoriously censorial authoritarian regime is keeping the international lines of communication to ordinary residents closed. But those measures, concurrently, have helped incubate a domestic breed of online giants, big enough to bear comparison with the most powerful examples overseas.

“Tencent is one of the biggest internet companies in China,” explains Yuefeng Xie, the general manager of sports business development and marketing at Tencent. “We rank number four in the global internet sector, just after Google, Facebook and Amazon. We have a US$150 billion market cap, so we’re definitely the number one company in China.”

The scale of the Chinese market creates incomparable opportunities for those in a position to conquer it. Tencent owns some of the country’s dominant social networks: QQ, an instant messaging service with 843 million monthly active users; QZone, a more Facebook-style platform with 659 million users; and private messaging service WeChat, which has 600 million users and has a growing footprint in markets outside China. And sport, Xie adds, is “a very important component” of its content strategy.

“As an internet company,” he says, “we do two things: connector and content. ‘Connector’ means those services and applications that connect people. But by connecting people, we’re also providing content to our users, so sport and entertainment – these kinds of lifestyle-related content – are the most important for us.”

Competing with Tencent in China is Sina, originator of Sina Weibo – a Twitter-esque microblogging platform with 176 million users – and the first to market in the online sports sector with Sina Sports in 1998. “Sina Sports has been around for about 15 years,” notes Dan Redford, senior manager for content acquisitions and strategic partnerships at Sina Sports.

“We are, just like our parent, the most established, longest-running and largest online sports platform in China, so we’re getting about 60 million active users a month and they’re coming back to the website five, six times a month, commenting on a variety of different sports. European football and basketball are the kings of the mountain, still, but we’re looking to diversify and cultivate viewership and engagement in a variety of different sports.”

Yuefeng Xie, the general manager of sports business development and marketing at Tencent.

Weibo is the primary point of contact for Sina users and much of the company’s strategy is dedicated to getting users there. “People are using Weibo to access and keep the conversation going on their favourite sports and their favourite athletes,” says Redford. “Another thing that we’re doing is we’re engaging directly in producing some of our own original content outside of just the live games for the fans to interact directly with the players.

“So, for example, we’ve signed four European footballers and commentators – Gary Neville, Michael Owen, Carlo Ancelotti and Eden Hazard. They’re exclusively going to work for Sina to provide questions and answers and direct interactions with the fans. Those have just really blown up. That’s something that you’re not getting anywhere else in the Chinese market. They’re engaging us, not just on Weibo but also with the mobile app as well as the mobile website.”

Mobile use, as it is elsewhere, is transforming the digital landscape in China, but Redford reports that the market operates “on a scale that western countries don’t really comprehend”. There are technical nuances to get to grips with, too. “Again, there’s some of those strange intricacies about the Chinese market: if people use mobile you’d think they’d be more inclined to access it using apps, but actually there’s a higher rate of people, almost three times as many, who’ll access the mobile site as opposed to the app,” Redford adds. “So we’re still also learning about it.”

Redford believes that “there’s always going to be a role” for traditional television channels in China like the state network CCTV but, unlike counterparts such as Facebook and Twitter, China’s social networking kingpins are distributors of live broadcasts. Tencent is the exclusive digital partner of the NBA, which Xie says is the driver of “more than 50 per cent of the total sports traffic online”. It will soon be helping to launch the NBA League Pass service in China, giving Chinese users access to 1,300 NBA games a season, and its activities go further than that, with partnerships in place with the likes of the NFL and various properties in soccer.

Sina, too, is a prolific online broadcaster. “There’s the Uefa Champions League, EPL [English Premier League soccer], China Open, PGA Tour, NFL, Bundesliga, AFC Champions League,” says Redford. “We have certain rights for the UFC. But the thing about Sina is that, of course, it’s great if we have live rights, but if we don’t we still like working with sports that are being shown in China to again provide a forum for fans to discuss and have conversations about the game.

“That’s why we’re still much more competitive in that field than a lot of the others in the market: because we have the backbone of Weibo and the history of doing this. We have a lot of loyal customers, loyal users. And people are spending a lot more time on our platform, so the average user that’s active will come back to the website five, six times a month and they’re spending an average of about 20 minutes on the site. So that means that people are sticking around. They want to be part of a conversation.”

For Redford, in a country where “the pie is really big and there’s room for everybody”, the role of Sina extends into helping sporting bodies to educate potential Chinese fans. “The Winter Olympics are going to be coming up in Beijing in 2022, so that’s seven years of building up to that and it’s something we’re already planning for,” he adds.

“Winter sports are not traditionally followed or played in China, for a lot of different reasons, but they’re going to host the Olympics so there’s going to have to be some education and ramp-up process for that.”

Both Redford and Xie are speaking to SportsPro in Monaco at Sportel, where they are seeking new partners at the global sports media convention. Both confirm that Sina and Tencent are interested in broader partnerships with prospective partners, where live and supplementary content complement one another. And while exclusivity of live rights is becoming more common in China, particularly as the pay-TV market matures, it is not something Sina sees as “a deal-breaker”.

“We’re more interested in strategic partnerships,” Redford reveals, “and oftentimes if the content’s available on multiple platforms it’s a good thing for us, because we’re still going to be able to control the conversation. And we’ve had multiple conversations here at Sportel with various sports that might be interested in China, and sometimes we’ll encourage them to seek out other platforms to put them on just because they need the exposure and we know that it’s in our best interests as well as theirs.”

Xie, for his part, stresses the other unique aspects of the online experience. Tencent’s social platforms increasingly place themselves at the heart of their users’ sporting lives, offering health and fitness data on mobile devices that can be shared with doctors, trainers and friends, and allowing groups of sports enthusiasts to get together and book facilities for games of soccer or basketball.

Tencent even has its own bitcoin-style digital currency, the Q-Coin, which allows users to buy items that show their approval or disapproval of players or teams.

As Tencent procures more rights for broadcast, Xie also highlights the choice available to online viewers. Where a TV channel can only screen one game at a time, a digital service “can broadcast 100 different live games”, while Tencent is working to implement technologies that allow for a choice of multiple angles.

“Those are the interactions that only an internet company can do,” says Xie, “that we enable.” 

Watching, sharing: Grabyo’s Gareth Capon on social video


Gareth Capon is the chief executive of Grabyo, a company which creates tools for partners in the sports industry and beyond to edit and distribute video over social media. As social video moves quickly from infancy to ubiquity, he explains what is behind recent development in the sector and how brands and teams can keep up.  


SP: What was appealing for Grabyo about getting into the sports industry in particular?

GC: To quote some statistics, there’s 650 million sports fans on Facebook of which 500 million like football. So at a very basic level, there’s a half a billion user audience there that have professed a direct interest in sport, even just in football, and more than half a billion people who like sport. Sport, also, is one of the most important live events, so if we’re a real time platform helping distribute content in real time then, obviously, live events and things which drive TV from a live perspective – of which sport is probably most important – are clearly going to be great partners and a great model for us. 

The other thing, if you look at conversations on social platforms, sport drives an enormous amount of conversations on social platforms. So as a company that helps rights holders, broadcasters and content owners get their video content into social platforms when those conversations are happening, obviously providing it in a content format which is driving those conversations is valuable. I think that if you look at the other piece, which is obviously relevant and important, sport drives significant amounts of sponsorship and advertising revenues around in multiple different platforms, so there’s a great opportunity for sponsors and advertisers within the sports industry to take advantage of all this activity and engagement on social platforms now, and video’s the best way to do that. 

What’s your model? Are you mainly working on the rights holder side to satisfy sponsors’ needs? Are you working with sponsors directly?

Most of our customers – almost exclusively but not entirely – are broadcasters and rights holders. Content owners – and that may include clubs, teams, federations, leagues, broadcasters, channels, even events, right through the spectrum, we work directly with talent, as well, sometimes. Most of the time it will be a combination of us working with partners or the rights holders themselves taking those opportunities to brands, to sponsors, that are looking for activation. But we have worked with lots of marketing agencies, doing stuff on behalf of brands where they maybe own rights or are looking to activate specific rights around particular sports properties. 

And also, in some instances, the brands themselves may create events. So we ran a great event with Puma and Arsenal for the launch of the new Puma kit, which was a combination of doing clips from a live event which was held at the Emirates, as well as then some live footage which happened in a game in Indonesia or Shanghai where the kit was being worn for the first time.

You talked about the editing tool. What are you addressing with that product? Getting it out quicker? Authenticity?

There’s a couple of drivers, really. The speed and the simplicity of the platform is definitely one – so the ability to quickly edit, create and publish to multiple places in a matter of seconds. Our studio platform is set up to do that, it’s very simple to use. You don’t necessarily need high-quality video editing skills to use the platform which broadens the number of people within an organisation that could use it. The other thing, if you look at our newest features – the vertical and square editing features – that’s specifically focused on mobile consumption, that square videos and vertical videos are optimised for consumption on mobile devices – particularly for certain platforms which are favouring vertical videos. 

Somewhere like Snapchat or Twitter’s new Moments product are actually prioritising and focusing on vertical video in terms of consumption, and that’s because of the trends in human behaviour. There are billions of smartphones on the planet and people hold their smartphones vertically, and not horizontally. Very few people like turning their phones around, so what we’re doing is responding to that trend and creating tools which are as simple and as easy and as fast as our standard studio video publishing tools but are actually focused on being able to create these new formats which are very much in vogue when it comes to mobile video consumption. 

Grabyo chief executive Gareth Capon, pictured with French soccer star Thierry Henry.

How much are you reacting to how people use their products and how much are you introducing products because you can, and seeing how they’re used?

We always talk about the triangle of great product development. So you think about the top of the triangle, you’ve got your strategy. Then you’ve got your vision for what you want to do with the business and where you believe the market is going. You’ve then got the feedback from customers – what customers tell you, their reactions and their needs. Then you’ve got the other side of it which is data, what people actually do – both external market data and trends, and internal data that we measure and we track on our platform. 

The combination of those three things should give you a great customer-centric product down the road, and we are very much driven by the needs of our customers and the requirements that come back from them, but also by what we see happening in the market. Two years ago, nobody was talking about vertical video. It’s been clearly on trend for a while and growing in terms of consumption, and we responded to that knowing that we think it’s going to be an important video format from a mobile perspective over the course of the next three to five years. 

Is there a culture of that kind of thing where you release something and see where it’s going to take you?

I think yeah, absolutely. Release fast and iterate is the heart of the mentality. We release updates to the platform very regularly. We iterate and enhance the platform very regularly, too, and you have to. It’s not just about driving innovation, it’s about being responsive to what the needs are in the market, identifying those needs – both the existing, clear and unmet needs in the market today and also thinking about those unmet needs in the market in the future and making sure you’re building ahead to address those, too. 

As a start-up, it’s definitely easier to be more flexible and be more nimble but it’s also imperative. It’s imperative from a business development standpoint but also to make sure that you’re creating a set of tools that people actually want to use, which ultimately is at the core of all great product development: you want things which are necessary and provide some value. Therefore they constantly need to be iterated and improved. 

How important is it to be able to address multiple platforms? Are people in sport in particular getting an idea of what each platform is doing, what it’s good at?

The market is very early. Social video is a very early market. It’s two years old on Twitter; it’s less than two years old on Facebook; YouTube is a bit older and was probably the only real online and social video platform in the past. I think there’s a lot more to go in terms of maturity, testing, understanding, testing out different types of content in different markets on different devices. But, fundamentally, we provide support both from a strategic perspective but also from a technology perspective to enable people to do that. 

There is no one size fits all to this debate. What is clear is that on social platforms, shorter-form content works better: 30 to 45 seconds is probably the optimal content length, currently. But things are changing all the time: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, they’re updating the way that they support video – and native video in particular – very regularly. 

Does technology have an effect on that? Or is it something more difficult to quantify?

I think, in the end, it gets driven by users and user behaviour. If users don’t like what we’re doing, or Facebook is doing, or what any of our rights-owning clients are doing, then they won’t consume the content and they’ll vote with their feet. And you’ll see it in the data. So, yes, it’s driven by technology, but I think it’s much more driven by behaviour. What’s really driving this market is that people are spending a lot more time on connected devices; those devices are smartphones, they’re computers, and they’re becoming increasingly good for the creation and consumption of video, so that’s driving a lot of video consumption. 

Yes, the social platforms have responded to it but is that driving that change? I don’t think so. They’re responding to changes in behaviour and they’re seeing that there is demand for consumption of video on connected devices – whether that’s in the home, out of the home, or anywhere else – and then social platforms are inherently very viral so they’re very good at creating mass distribution of that content very quickly, which is something that’s much harder to do in an OTT environment or an owner/operator environment. Maybe a TV environment, to some extent: you’re limited by the scope of your organic audience. On social platforms, you’ve got this potential audience of hundreds of millions of people, where content with the right rights implications can scale to and share to very quickly. That’s totally new from a content distribution perspective.    


Aneesh Madani on Twitter and Indian sport


Twitter has helped conversations around sport go global but for the platform, and the teams and events that hope to feature prominently on it, local knowledge is just as important for reaching an audience. Twitter India head of sports partnerships Aneesh Madani explains its work on the subcontinent and discusses how to fit best practice into 140 characters. 


SP: What kind of partnerships is Twitter targeting in India now?

AM: My mandate at the company is to make sports a more ‘Twittery’ experience through partnerships with all stakeholders in the industry, from federations to broadcasters; teams to athletes. We’re meeting demand from across the sports industry to reach and delight every fan in the country. These partnerships are focused on making Twitter the most fun go-to public platform for sports fans with exclusive content and content experiences championed by our sports partners. Our partners have always driven innovation on the platform. An example of this is the BCCI with the #ThankYouSachin integration for legendary cricketer Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement. For his final test series, fans could tweet to @BCCI with #ThankYouSachin and automatically receive a Tweet with a personalized photo message in Sachin’s handwriting. The BCCI showcased this opportunity to fans on live TV throughout the series and made history drawing more than 3 million tweets from fans around the world.

Would Twitter approach partnerships differently in India from in other markets?

We have a global sports team at each of our 35+ offices around the world that serves sports fans across six continents through our partners. It’s a uniquely collaborative group and we work on all major international sporting events together. Having said that, with Twitter being a interest based network, our partnerships are informed by the unique interests of our users in each country. For instance, as per the Global Sports Media consumption report in 2014, fans in India spend more time per week watching sport than any other country in the world thanks primarily to their love for cricket and its duration. Our partnerships with the BCCI and the ICC and broadcasters like Star Sports  are guided by this through Twitter content experiences seamlessly integrated on-air, on ground and online. The ICC activated #AskCaptain during the Cricket World Cup where one lucky Twitter user could get his or her question answered by the winning captain on live global TV during the post-match presentation, with their tweet being showcased in the lower third graphics to millions of viewers watching the broadcast. The IPL has amongst the most social TV experiences of sports leagues around the world, showcasing fan tweets and player Twitter battles in the live TV broadcast. Star Sports launched a live Twitter TV trivia quiz for an India international cricket match against Australia in January 2015 where fans had to watch the live broadcast to look for a series of questions which they could tweet answers to with #OwnTheJersey and stand the chance to win the newly launched India Cricket World Cup jersey. It was an interactive experience like no other attempted before for an entire match and was one of the most tweeted cricket related moments of the year. 

How does the use of Twitter differ in India from other markets?

According to a Cricket Moments study commissioned in 2015, nine out of ten Twitter users in India are fans of cricket and three quarters of these cricket fans are under the age of 35. This is even higher than the two thirds of Twitter users in the UK who use Twitter for something related to football as per the GlobalWebIndex in 2014. The unprecedented following for one sport and the predominantly young demographic is what stands out for the use of Twitter in India by sports fans.

Do those using Twitter commercially need to move past an interest in headline numbers such as follower counts? How can teams and brands build more robust audiences on Twitter and interact with them more meaningfully?

The key is to harness the power of your league or event’s total audience on Twitter. This includes users who follow not just the official league or event account but also those who follow the players, commentators, broadcasters, teams, celebrity fans associated with your league or event. For instance, at the start of the season, the Premier League had nearly 10 million followers but the top ten most followed players in the Premier League had nearly 70 million followers between them. Twitter is a human platform and the following of superstar individuals exceeds those of brands for practically every sports property in the world. Giving all of them a reason to tweet automatically translates to the league or brand reaching a large audience at scale with delightfully authentic engagement.

Based in its Mumbai office, Aneesh Madani is head of sports partnerships for Twitter India.

What are some of the ways in which Twitter is working with new sports properties in India like the ISL to help establish them in the media landscape?

One of the challenges for new sports properties is to build heroes. We’re working closely with the ISL to help them get the most out of Twitter and make fans have fun in learning more about their stars. For instance, at the end of the league stage in season one, we partnered to launched ISL Trump Cards on Twitter where fans could tweet with #ISLTrumps to @IndSupeLeague to receive a tweet containing a digital Trump card of a player with his photo and statistics. Fans could collect Trump Cards of all the players and this was a runaway success with nearly 200,000 tweets in just a few days. This year, the ISL is tweeting GIFs of goals in the league so that fans never miss a big moment. In addition to this, they can tweet at various times in the season with #ISLMoments to the @IndSuperLeague and receive a tweet that looks back at a crucial moment in the season with a photo of the player involved in that moment. The serendipitous nature of these ideas keeps fans coming back to discover something new about their league and heroes on the platform. Pro Kabaddi is another exciting new sports event in India. In the second season held earlier this year, we partnered with the league to build unique fan experiences. One of these was a Twitter Fan Club for Pro Kabaddi, which fans could be a part by simply tweeting with a range of terms connected to the sport. Fans would collect points for their tweets, and the top five fans were then flown in for a VIP experience of the final of the league, completing the full circle of a ‘money can’t buy’ experience.

To highlight unique aspects of the sport and take it global, we co-launched a special Twitter emoji for the final. Fans could bring it to life by tweeting with #ThighFive. This would immediately showcase an animated character doing the ‘Thigh Five’, a celebration move used by players after scoring a point in Kabaddi. All of this led to an impressive 239 per cent increase in tweets with the campaign and official hashtags of the event over season one. We’re all in to help our partners build a mobile, global fan base.

Who are some of the brands and teams getting Twitter right?

For teams to win on Twitter, they have to build an environment of playfulness and trust with their players, executives, owners and fans. Kolkata Knight Riders are a great example of this. At one point last season, the team left goodie bags at midnight outside the hotel rooms of each of the players after a win and tweeted to them asking them to open the door for a surprise. The players were so touched by the gesture that a majority of them tweeted right back to the team to say thanks. It was a fun moment for fans to experience from afar, and it is no coincidence that they were the most mentioned team in the IPL.

U Mumba the reigning champions of Pro Kabaddi, are another good example of a sports team that has worked closely with their players to take advantage of their total audience on Twitter and engage fans deeply using Twitter Video and tweeting in Marathi, the local language of the city, at opportune moments.

Who’s getting it wrong – or, to put it another way, what are some of the pitfalls to look out for?

It begins with the question: Are you listening to your fans on Twitter? Twitter is the largest focus group in the world, with public conversation about sports helping leagues and teams make valuable choices. If partners haven't set up a digital room to learn from tweets about their properties, now is a great time to do it. Authenticity is important. Twitter is an intimate medium and fans can immediately tell if a team or athlete that they care about aren’t being themselves.

The other pitfall is stagnancy in content. Twitter has evolved into a medium where 140 characters of text sit seamlessly with photos, GIFs, six second looping Vine videos, thirty second Twitter videos and live video broadcast through Periscope. Partners will do well to take advantage of these unique rich media options on the platform along with a personality driven voice on the platform that is endearing to fans. 

What is the future for Twitter? Is it going to be possible to host live content in the way that other platforms are looking to do, or is it going to prosper as a means of sharing content as a supplement to the live broadcast?

The goal is to have the best sports content on Twitter that engages and delights the largest daily audience in the world. We come in peace to our partners and are committed to being complementary to the live broadcast. There are one billion unique visits monthly to sites with embedded tweets, and volume of video consumption on Twitter is rapidly growing, with native video views across Twitter, Vine and Periscope up 150 times in the last six months.

From the BCCI that tweets match highlights of international cricket matches involving India or from the IPL, to the NBA that drops six-second looping Vine videos of the best plays of a match, sports videos shared by our partners on Twitter are crisp, timely and fantastic primers to draw fans back into the broadcast. These can easily be made possible for other sports leagues around the world with premium partner tools like Snappy TV.

The first and most authentic conversations between athletes and fans, federations and journalists, broadcasters and teams are unique to the platform.

Live, interactive mobile video to bring fans closer to their heroes is already possible through Periscope and is a fun supplement to the excitement surrounding a sports event.  A great example of this is Wimbledon getting Roger Federer to doing a walking tour on Periscope two days before the start to give fans an intimate feel of a player’s experience at SW 19.

All in all, if it’s happening on the field, the global viewing party for sports fans is on Twitter.