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How YouTube established itself as a leading destination for sports content

Rob Pilgrim, YouTube’s head of sport for EMEA, used his appearance at the recent SportsPro OTT Summit to explain how the company has created the platform, monetisation tools, and content protection capabilities to become a critical channel for rights holders.

13 December 2021 Steve McCaskill
How YouTube established itself as a leading destination for sports content

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Once upon a time, rights holders considered video-sharing sites like YouTube as a problem. These platforms were perceived to be a Wild West where anyone, anywhere could upload footage of sporting events even if they didn’t have permission to do so, bypassing official channels and threatening broadcast revenues.  

These days the situation is very different. YouTube’s massive reach is viewed as an opportunity – especially among younger, digitally native audiences. Live streaming and digital highlights are just as important as linear broadcasts and many people don’t just search for sports content online, they go to YouTube as their default destination.

Recognising this opportunity, the Google owned-company has responded by creating a dedicated business unit and developing a range of easy-to-use tools that allow rights holders to control, monetise and protect their content.

At November’s SportsPro OTT Summit in London, YouTube’s head of sport for EMEA, Rob Pilgrim, explained that the company wanted to be the best partner possible for rights holders.

YouTube is a leading destination for sports fans

“Our mission is enablement,” he said. “[Specifically,] how do we enable the sports broadcasting industry and help them achieve their business goals?”

Far from being viewed as a pariah by broadcasters and rights holders, YouTube now hosts highlights for most of the biggest sporting events in the world.

A landmark deal with Sky Sports for Premier League content was viewed as a significant milestone and the company has entered into partnerships with the likes of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Formula One and the National Football League (NFL), among others.

Pilgrim says YouTube is now the number one sports video destination online, with many users seeing it as a default platform for sports content.

“Google is the largest search engine in the world and YouTube is the second largest,” he said. “People expect highlights when they come to the site. People come to YouTube to search after major sporting events and there is a 97 per cent chance you will find the moment on YouTube legitimately.

“The days where a highlights video might be posted 24 hours later are gone. Organisations are putting up highlights in minutes, not hours now.”

How YouTube established itself as a leading destination for sports content

YouTube worked with official Olympic broadcasters during Tokyo 2020

Content protection is critical

One of the reasons YouTube is now such an influential part of the broadcasting landscape is because it has addressed many concerns about piracy. All videos uploaded to the platform are protected by ‘Content ID’, software that can detect copyright infringement.

“We’ve got this really impressive system that can use Machine Learning to fingerprint video, understand what’s in it and then look around YouTube and find other copies of that video,” Pilgrim said. “From this point on, it’s the rights holder’s choice. They can take it down, monetise it or track the data on it.”

He added: “We’ve got 100 engineers working on this in Zurich. We’re very proud of it.”

“Google is the largest search engine in the world and YouTube is the second largest. People expect highlights when they come to the site. People come to YouTube to search after major sporting events and there is a 97 per cent chance you will find the moment on YouTube legitimately.

Highlights are a shop window for greater revenues and data

YouTube is able to provide partners with a huge amount of data. Partners can gather insights into the type, length, and variety of content that people are watching. It’s even possible to see what other content people watch after viewing a clip on a specific channel. 

In some cases, this data can be more valuable in the long term than any immediate revenue opportunities because rights holders can better understand their audience or redirect them to first-party channels. Both can deliver greater revenues in the long term than immediate monetisation.

“It’s not just [about] coverage, it’s about quality,” Pilgrim said. “People don’t just want a quick highlight, they want longer content. Six minutes is the sweet spot, and some organisations are putting out highlights that are ten minutes or longer.

“YouTube highlights are like a movie trailer that encourages viewers to subscribe. We’re happy for that graduation to happen and we don’t always need to be the destination.

“We really want the industry to understand how YouTube makes you money elsewhere. Proving that link between people watching your content and then paying for that content elsewhere is something we’re really passionate about and we’re willing to co-found research to do so.” 

YouTube offers multiple ways for rights holders to monetise content

Since monetisation is important for rights holders, YouTube has spent years developing advertising management tools and programmes that give partners complete control over how their content generates income.

“We launched a partner programme a few years ago and we’ve really been ahead of the curve so that programme really is market-leading,” Pilgrim said. “We’ve got advanced tools where partners can block advertisers. If you have sponsorship deals in place and you’re worried about potential conflicts then you can block those competitors from advertising on your content.

“We’re really trying to enhance the monetisation tools we have and last year we paid US$30 billion to YouTube partners. That’s a significant number and growing every year.”

These options go beyond advertising and some partners are also taking advantage of a new membership programme which allows the most passionate fans to pay a monthly fee in exchange for additional benefits and exclusive content.

“YouTube has always been an advertising business at our core but we have recognised that partners and creators have asked us for new ways to monetise,” Pilgrim explained. “Memberships have been very successful.

“You can have a paid section of your YouTube channel that ‘super fans’ can have access to. Liverpool FC have a few thousand members each paying US$5 or so. We’ve also brought in paid events.”

Live is increasingly important and YouTube is tailoring its offering

Highlights are still incredibly important to YouTube, especially for events like the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were most of the action happened when people in Europe and North America were asleep. YouTube worked with official broadcasters like NBC and Discovery to ensure their content was as visible as possible when people came looking for gold medal moments.

However live streaming is also critical. One of YouTube’s first major forays into live sports rights was a UK partnership with the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket competition in 2010. Now, everything from the Uefa Champions League final to the World Handball Championships are hosted on the site, providing rights holders with an easy, efficient route to market.

Latin American broadcaster Marca Claro showed the entire Olympic Games on its YouTube channel in order to reach a youthful audience. It was a huge success financially, thanks in no small part to something called dynamic ad insertion (DAI). Whereas most videos are monetised via a few pre-roll adverts, DAI allows creatives, tailored to user profiles, to be inserted during the video. For a live event that takes place across an extended period of time, this is a game changer.

“With DAI we’re really looking to supercharge revenue not just on the body content, which is just one pre-roll ad, but also on live content where we’re looking to add multiple ads,” explained Pilgrim. “[DAI] might seem like quite a small technical thing, but I’m told by our engineering team that this is a non-trivial thing to build.

“All of Google’s business has been built on innovating in that ad space; this is another step within that. We can go from delivering one ad to 50 [with DAI].

“If you’re watching a football game on YouTube, that one ad might have generated a few thousand dollars of revenue. Now if you have 50 ads and you maintain the same cost per impressions (CPM), you can quickly imagine that number goes [much higher] and [streaming] becomes very viable.”

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