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Amazon’s Black Friday NFL plans, WBD Sports’ streaming ambitions and the future of RSNs

SportsPro's technology editor picks out some of the highlights from two days of sessions at OTT Summit USA at Citi Field.

17 March 2023 Steve McCaskill
Amazon Thursday Night Football NFL

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Spring in US sport means one thing – Major League Baseball (MLB) is back. The changing of the seasons also has significance in the world of sports broadcasting, heralding the return of SportsPro OTT Summit USA.

So what better place to stage the event than at Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets, for the second consecutive year?

As the Mets prepared for another push for the World Series, some of the industry’s most influential individuals, broadcasters and vendors gathered for two days of sessions, tech showcases and networking opportunities at the team’s ballpark.

While it might be an impossible job to condense everything into a single newsletter, here are my key takeaways from another memorable event.

Premium rights crucial for WBD Sports ahead of streaming launch

Given Citi Field is in the New York City borough of Queens, it seemed appropriate to kick off proceedings with someone who was born there. WBD Sports chief executive Luis Silberwasser even remembers watching Mets games at Shea Stadium, which was closed in 2008 to make way for the spectacular venue that replaced it.

While both WBD and Silberwasser have more of a general entertainment than sporting background, he was keen to stress the importance sport will play in the company’s wider offering as it prepares to launch a streaming service that will absorb both HBO Max and Discovery+.

Given WBD lacks a dedicated sports service in the US, the new OTT platform will give it scope to show many more events than what is possible on linear channels like TNT and TBS. However, Silberwasser said the focus would be on premium rights rather than high volume properties. Naturally, this includes the National Basketball Association (NBA), which the company is keen to keep as the rights come up for renewal.

Some observers believe the service will struggle to attract sports fans, while others have concerns that the HBO brand is too closely associated with prestige drama like Game of Thrones and The Last of Us (boxing legacy aside). Still, Silberwasser believes the high quality of such programming can only be a positive thing – reinforcing the idea that this a premium product.

As for the name of the DTC service? Silberwasser was giving nothing away. 

The future of RSNs is up in the air

Our return to New York coincided with a period of uncertainty in the regional sports network (RSN) business. Silberwasser touched upon WBD’s planned retreat from the space and the need for a clean exit that won’t affect its relationships with the NBA, National Hockey League (NHL), and MLB. The suggestion is that the company is succeeding in this regard.

Diamond Sports Group’s (DSG) future is a little more complicated. There are many within the industry that believe the RSN model is outdated and will have little luck in transitioning to streaming, but not Michael Schneider, general manager of Bally Sports+.

He believes there is a market opportunity for a local streaming service that has more sport, more short-form content, and integrates technological innovation as seen on national platforms. 

“It’s not doom and gloom as people make it out to be,” Schneider told the audience. “These rights are still incredibly valuable.

“At the moment [Bally Sports+] is a digital version of the live feed but this is just version one. We’re working with leagues, partners and teams to offer a truly localised [streaming service].”

And if you ever needed evidence of this being a fast-moving space, DSG filed for bankruptcy hours after day one concluded – although it’s business as usual for now.

Amazon wants to create a new football holiday on Black Friday

Marie Donoghue, vice president of global sports video at Amazon, said that when the company partnered with the National Football League (NFL) on Thursday Night Football (TNF) it did so because it saw a chance to “own Thursday night culture” in America.

After a successful first season, the tech giant was rewarded with the first-ever live game on Black Friday and now it sees the opportunity to create an entirely new holiday that combines live sport with ecommerce.

“[During TNF negotiations] we started talking to the NFL about how we could create a new football holiday,” she said. “Black Friday is the top shopping day in the US and our biggest traffic day. [The NFL] didn’t commit initially but kept it as an option in our deal. So it was a great sign of their confidence in us when they awarded us that game so quickly.

“We think we can do some pretty cool things around retail. It’s not hard [from a technological standpoint] to serve offers during the game. What’s really hard is to make it intuitive, seamless and not distracting. We’ve been offering commerce on TNF for years and, to be honest, we’re not thrilled with the experience just yet.”

Sport still commands a premium

Free ad-supported television (FAST) services were a hot topic at Citi Field, with many major broadcasters offering such services to diversify revenues and attract new audiences. But despite this, there is still a belief that consumers are ready to pay for premium sport.

“In 2022, we increased the prices in Italy, Spain, and Germany, [markets] where we had premier soccer rights,” said Kevin Mayer, reflecting on his recently completed stint as DAZN chairman. “We had underpriced a lot and, frankly, I thought there was more price elasticity.

“Viewers in Europe are used to paying a premium for sport, in the €30 [per month] range. We priced [DAZN] at about €15 to €20 [per month] thinking this might expand the subscriber base but that didn’t happen. So we went up to a more premium price and we didn’t lose many subscribers.”

Bally Sports would agree, claiming it had learnt from mistakes made by others in the early years of streaming.

“I think [streaming services] were priced too low,” Schneider said of Bally Sports+’s price point. “It’s much easier to go down than up.”

Authenticity key in the search for Gen Z

The battle to attract, retain and engage Gen Z audiences is a seemingly evergreen issue in sports broadcasting. It was a hot topic of conversation at the event, with several speakers addressing the challenge during their sessions.

Technological and content innovation are seen as ways of attracting, retaining and engaging Gen Z audiences who have so many forms of entertainment competing for their attention. But perhaps the most important thing is authenticity, especially given Gen Z are just as likely to follow athletes as they are teams.

“You have to make [sport] fun for this audience that has so much stimuli around them at all times,” said Arielle Chambers, founder of HighlightHER. “I love storytelling, I love that you have former players talking about the game, I love that you can pause, fast-forward and rewind things and there’s more can do on your own time. I love the social media aspect of it.

“Clients, I beg of you to allow creators, athletes, or whoever is in front of the camera to deliver their message as they wish and in the language they wish.”

Going ‘beyond’ the game with real-time animation

As an avid follower of North American sports, being in the US is wonderful from a time zone perspective. I was able to watch WWE Raw in real time and I caught Great Britain’s historic maiden victory in the World Baseball Classic at a time when I’d usually be getting ready for bed.

But I was also able to witness a bit of broadcasting innovation too. Disney+ delivered its first ever live stream – a real time animation of the National Hockey League (NHL) clash between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals.

It was delivered using Sony’s Beyond Sports’ virtualisation technology and offered a glimpse into the future with regards to simulcasts and repurposing content to serve multiple audiences.

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