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Facebook’s Rob Shaw: ‘Live sport on social media is a big business opportunity’

Social network’s head of sport predicts a retreat from paywalls in favour of digital revenues.

21 October 2021 Steve McCaskill
Facebook’s Rob Shaw: Live sport on social media a “big business opportunity”, just not for us

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  • Facebook has stepped back from live sports rights in recent years
  • Company wants to provide the tools to publishers to monetise social media
  • Rob Shaw predicts clips won’t be enough to engage audiences in five to ten years

Rob Shaw, Facebook’s director of sports media and league partnerships, has suggested leagues and rights holders will eventually retreat from paywalls in order to capitalise on other sources of revenue enabled by digital and social channels.

The social media network has dabbled in the live sports market in recent years, reaching deals with Major League Baseball (MLB), Spanish soccer’s La Liga and Fox Sports in a bid to attract users to its platform and encourage them to spend more time there.

Although Facebook considers these early forays to be hugely successful, Shaw said they also demonstrated that the real opportunities on social media were for leagues and publishers – not Facebook itself.

“We did a tremendous amount of experimentation and learned a lot about what happens if you put a live event on a social platform,” Shaw told SportsPro’s StreamTime Podcast. “There is a pretty big business opportunity in going live on our platform but it’s for the publishers, not for us.”

Shaw said Facebook’s deal for 25 exclusive Major League Baseball (MLB) matchups a season attracted a younger audience of hundreds of thousands of viewers as well as a high degree of social interaction. However, as a platform, he argued that Facebook lacked the ability to seize monetisation options such as sponsorship, ticketing, and the sale of associated services.

“Facebook is a great way, using our paid products, to get to those audiences,” he said, adding that MLB was able to use location data to offer tickets to local fans and its MLB.tv streaming service to those who lived further away.

In the short term, Shaw believes rights holders will stick with the tried-and-trusted pay-TV model for as long as possible, but as more and more viewers ‘cut the cord’, there will be a major shift as subscriptions decline.

This will inevitably mean lower revenues but also means fewer eyes on the product – harming everything from sponsorship income to participation.

“There will come a point where leagues want to put the games everywhere to reach the biggest audience,” Shaw speculated. “It’s going to be about having the right social marketers and businesspeople to make the [financial] returns. I don’t think leagues are going to be content having their content limited in exposure because of paywalls.

“What might happen in the short term is whether leagues are happy with their free exposure being limited to clips. Are these a good way to build fandom? Or do we have to go out of our way to make live events more available?

“That’s a billion-dollar question.”

All episodes of the StreamTime Podcast can be found here, or you can find it on your favourite podcast platform here.

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