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How Buzzer is planning to cut through and bring live sport to the House of Highlights generation

Former Twitter director of live content, Bo Han, recently secured US$4 million in seed funding for mobile live sports platform Buzzer. Here, he explains how a combination of savvy tech and micropayments can act as live sport’s bridge to younger generations.

6 November 2020 Tom Bassam

It goes without saying that the first impression for any tech startup’s platform concept should leave a potential user saying, “I want that”.

So when Bo Han, founder and chief executive of Buzzer, shares his screen with SportsPro to illustrate how the mobile sports streaming platform will work, it is immediately obvious why the concept managed to secure backing from Sapphire Sport during a recent US$4 million seed funding round.

The venture capital fund, which counts City Football Group (CFG) as its anchor investor, was joined by New York-based Lerer Hippeau in leading the funding for Buzzer. Additional backing came from R&R Venture Partners; Imagination Capital; Social Finance chief executive Anthony Noto; Richard Parsons, the former chairman and chief executive of Time Warner; and Twitter’s head of design and research, Grace Kim.

TJ Adeshola, who’s the head of sports over at Twitter, always talks about how it's is the ultimate sports bar, but what if you can’t see the TV? 

Interest from a Twitter executive should not be a surprise. Han (pictured left) spent more than seven years at the social media giant, initially working on growing its partnerships revenue and then on its live content. Han was on the team at Twitter that secured the landmark National Football League (NFL) rights deal in 2016, as well as other content agreements with the likes of the National Basketball Association (NBA), Major League Baseball, and NBC around its Olympics coverage.

It is not hard, then, to see where the inspiration for Buzzer comes from.

“My good friend, TJ Adeshola, who’s the head of sports over at Twitter, always talks about how Twitter is the ultimate sports bar,” says Han. “You’re hearing about all this, but what if you can’t see the TV? And so, to borrow a term from another industry, we’re kinda coining [Buzzer] as the last mile logistics of sports content.”

The mobile platform is being pitched at young consumers by offering frictionless look-ins to live games. Combining its own mobile broadcast rights acquisitions with the users’ existing subscriptions, Buzzer will look to draw in viewers by telling them when an exciting moment is happening for a team they care about and offering them micropayment options to watch if it falls outside of what they are paying elsewhere.

“We’re going to really focus on the core product: notification, right swipe, immediate to live video, a few seconds preview, and then the micro transaction,” says Han as he describes the process for getting from lock screen to live viewing.

The US$0.99 micropayment is the key element of Buzzer’s business model for the initial launch, with opportunities for gambling tie-ins also a possibility down the line. For Buzzer, the idea is not to be another aggregated streaming product, such as YouTube TV, Hulu Live or FuboTV, but instead to act as a gateway into live action.

“The last thing we need to do is launch another competing subscription product, that’s the last thing that consumers need,” says Han.

“So for us it’s how do we address and net new audience, and drive incremental revenue for rights holders, and so we think that micropayments are especially interesting given that live sports has limited shelf life, it’s ephemeral moments, right?

“Because once it’s gone, it’s a clip on Twitter, right? And, you know, after a certain period of time even that clip becomes a commoditised product because you see it multiple times after the play is done.”

That low entry point is designed to get what Han describes as the “House of Highlights generation” into the platform to watch the final quarter or a key moment. Part of Buzzer’s pitch to the rights holders and broadcasters to whom the platform will provide access is delivering their most valuable IP to the young fans who are not currently engaging.

“You have the older generation that are still consuming live long-form via linear television,” says Han. “But you have this entirely new generation of Gen Z or younger millennials that are completely missing the live window – and not because they’ve fallen out of love with sport. The barrier of entry is way too high.”

He adds: “The broader industry is optimised for linear first and that makes sense because that’s where all the rights fees are coming from, and all the ad dollars, but in terms of engaging with the younger audience, Gen Z has completely skipped the TV medium and gone full mobile. 

“So how are we translating the live sports experience in mobile? It’s not simply putting an entire game on mobile, it’s really adapting and putting it into a format of how we really engage with our phones.”

In order to drive those users to the platform, however, they have to know that something exciting is happening. To that end, Buzzer is going to create multiple touchpoints in an attempt to learn as much about its users as possible and send out “hyper-personalised” notifications to draw user attention.

“These mobile notifications can be triggered in a few ways,” explains Han. “One, it could be implicit interest, where you connect your Twitter account and, based off of who you follow, [the platform] will trigger alerts for you.

“Second is you can go explicit: ‘Hey, I’m interested in NFL and NBA and MLB, EPL. Here are my teams, here are my players, here’s my fantasy roster because I’m connecting my fantasy accounts, here are my bet slips down the line because I’m showing you what bets I’ve placed and let me know when my bet slips matter’. Or you can stay geo-based and say: ‘Hey, I’m from the Bay Area and let me know when the Bay Area sports are playing’.

“Lastly is what we call an ‘aggregated authentication product’. What we mean by that is you tell us what you subscribe to, be it an OTT product or direct, or an MVPD, and if the live look-in falls within the rights you already pay for within your subscription then it’s free. Just use us as a content discovery tool. If not, then you pay the micropayment.”

The personalisation potential here is endless. Han also foresees notifications tied to favourite players or potentially historical moments, such as Cristiano Ronaldo looking to complete a hat-trick in a Uefa Champions League game or LeBron James being ten points away from passing Karl Malone on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.

However, those moments count for nothing if a user is unable to access the content quickly. The Buzzer development team is working on a single sign-on process that allows the platform to direct users to the content they are being notified to watch and therefore do not miss the action.

“I think Apple is making significant strides on the OS front to simplify,” says Han. “But that’s another piece that we’ve been thinking about a ton: how do we make it easier for consumers to access content that they’re already paying for?”

The dream scenario for Buzzer’s founder is that it goes live in a packed 2021 sports calendar with Buzzer’s content discovery fully optimised and access to all major properties. But, he says, there will inevitably be a gradual ramp up period.

With a micropayment model already in place and a game that is suited to consuming in small chunks, the NBA is an obvious target. Yet Han also sees opportunities in women’s sports as a sector in need of an efficient aggregator, as well as baseball, too.

“I had a real moment – I mean, this is lightning in a bottle moment,” he says. “I’m a big Chicago Cubs fan and I got a text message from my best friend’s dad saying: ‘Hey, a no-hitter watch, are you watching the Cubs game’? And I said, ‘why would I be watching the Cubs game when I’m watching the Clippers-Nuggets game, the final set of the US open, and [NFL] RedZone. But I had to quickly figure out how do I access [the Cubs game]. So now I’m thinking how do we make that easier in these moments to really capitalise.”

The challenge for Buzzer will be persuading rights holders and broadcasters that it is not going to cannibalise their business. Han, however, is confident that in the post-pandemic climate, and with the decline of MVPDs, the appeal of offering an additional revenue source and access to casual fans will prove persuasive. In Europe, digital soccer media company OneFootball has shown the way in terms of acquiring pay-per-view (PPV) rights for various properties to air on its platform.

“Thankfully, I come from that business at Twitter,” says Han. “I guess the foundation of trust is there in terms of ‘hey I know your existing business, I don’t want to cannibalise any of that, but how do we drive net new audience and incremental revenue?’ So far those conversations have been very positive.”

The other element for Buzzer’s potential partners is access to data. Han’s team ran a simulation on NBA games from last season to see how many moments they could potentially trigger a notification for. It found that 70 per cent of games had a single point difference going into the last ten minutes.

That is just one type of possible interaction from one sport, but along with a share of the micropayment it also provides that rights holder with access to a whole new, probably younger segment of user data.

“I think a lot of leagues have felt through this pandemic that essentially they didn’t really have direct data access to who their consumer is,” says Han. “If you’re catching a clip on Twitter, you have no idea of the demographic data of that person. I think that’s also going to be very important for leagues moving forward, having direct access of who their customers are, so that they can better tailor and adapt, not of the live games but other pieces of content as well as merch and evening ticketing.”

However, there is a sensitivity to the current marketplace and one senses Han is not approaching Buzzer’s entry like some of the splashier platforms that have come and gone in recent years.

I think the saddest thing right now is digital comes with the broadcast rights, and that’s why broadcast rights are so expensive

“Networks are paying a lot to capture these rights, right, so you can certainly understand the sensitivities that ESPN or CBS or NBC – who are already paying for these sports rights – have if these rights are fragmented,” he says, stressing that he has to respect the business models of his partners.

“I think the saddest thing right now is digital comes with the broadcast rights, and that’s why broadcast rights are so expensive. And yet I think that there is limited innovation on the digital mobile side because they’re all such heavy broadcast companies, and corporations, and that’s where the audience is. 

“It’s kind of a very tricky situation. For example [the] NFL, their mobile rights are separate, but essentially the experience is you’re watching full games on the NFL app or the sports app. It’s a mirrored experience to linear, so I do think there needs to be a little more innovation on how to reformat those rights that acclimate to mobile audience and mobile users.

“From that perspective it certainly makes sense to, you know, give rights to a partner to best optimise to deliver those rights, whether it be broadcast, digital or mobile, right? But from a network perspective it’s all about aggregate audience, extension of audience. 

“For them I can certainly understand why they would just love to keep the broadcast, digital and mobile bundle together.”

Han is very clear that Buzzer is not trying to compete with TV broadcast, or even long-form live viewing, with no plans to offer screen sharing to smart TVs. Instead, he says, Buzzer’s USP will be simplicity and speed.

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