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YES Network’s pick-n-play prediction game offers a glimpse into the converged future of sport

In his latest newsletter, SportsPro's media and technology editor explores the opportunities of integrating OTT and microbetting, as well as ESPN's retro NBA broadcast and Netflix's latest move in sport.

7 April 2022 Steve McCaskill

YES Network/Simplebet

Conversations about the relationship between betting and sport continue to be polarised between mature and growth markets.

In the former, there are concerns that gambling has become almost inseparable from sport itself, while top athletes in the UK are set to be banned from advertising betting activity. Meanwhile, 20 clubs from the English Football League (EFL) – a competition sponsored by Sky Bet no less – have reportedly called for a ban on gambling sponsorships on shirts.

However, enthusiasm in North America remains undimmed. College basketball’s March Madness has just generated a record number of wagers in US states where they are legal, while the province of Ontario has paved the way for Canada to get involved.

No wonder Genius Sports chairman David Levy was so optimistic when he spoke to SportsPro’s StreamTime Podcast.

Bookmakers see an opportunity for direct revenues from betting, while broadcasters and rights holders will also benefit from partnerships. But there is also the knowledge that betting drives engagement. Fans will watch for longer or take a keener interest in late-season games with little consequence. Longer term this means more merchandise sales, more lucrative television deals, and more advertising income.

Odds, graphics, and statistics have increasingly infiltrated US broadcasts and Major League Baseball (MLB) has even experimented with betting-focused simulcasts. That trend is likely to spread to ice hockey-mad Canada, especially since the National Hockey League (NHL) has finally achieved its long-term ambition of puck-tracking technology.

This trend takes place against a backdrop of unprecedented innovation in both the OTT space and in betting technology. The convergence of both these areas is creating entirely new experiences that were simply impossible even only a few years ago when most viewing was still done on television and mobile betting was in its relative infancy.

Simplebet is one of a number of companies creating microbetting platforms that offer the opportunity to play short-term markets. Simplebet’s machine learning algorithms can turn virtually any moment of a sporting event into a betting opportunity, automatically creating markets and setting odds. This automation dramatically increases the number of possible markets and goes beyond what would be practical with human intervention alone. We were impressed enough that we named Simplebet as one of our ideas to invest in for 2022.

The YES Network was also suitably impressed, becoming the first to integrate Simplebet’s platform into a live broadcast. Starting this season, users of the New York-based broadcaster’s application will be able to play a real-time free-to-play prediction game during certain Brooklyn Nets basketball games and New York Yankees MLB matchups.

‘Pick-n-Play Live’ allows viewers to make predictions on things like a possession result and individual player points and compete against friends and strangers for prizes like gift cards, team merchandise, and in-person experiences.

The appeal to all parties is obvious. Real-time microbetting creates more things for viewers to bet on and the short-term nature of the bets mean they are likely to keep watching for longer. It’s not unfeasible to imagine a future where a sports fan receives a personalised notification on their smartphone informing them that their favourite team is involved in an exciting matchup and with a single tap they are transported into a social viewing experience with their friends in which they all compete in a prediction-based leaderboard.

It’s easy to see why there is such enthusiasm – many people enjoy a flutter and this is a new and creative way to do so. But the sports industry has a duty of care to bettors and should encourage responsible gambling. There is a whole generation of sports fans who have grown up with blanket advertising from bookmakers when this wasn’t always the case.

If we can combine the enthusiasm of new betting markets with the understandable concerns of more mature ones, then the convergence of streaming and betting can create something greater than the sum of its parts.

ESPN goes back to the 60s… and the 70s, 80s and 90s too

Speaking of simulcasts, ESPN decided to tap into the seemingly inexhaustible thirst for sporting nostalgia with a retro theme for its coverage of the NBA’s 75th anniversary celebration game on 6th April.

The broadcaster’s alternate presentation of the clash between the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden was ‘inspired’ by styles from previous decades. Given ESPN has only been broadcasting the league since 2002, on-screen graphics and theme music from ABC in the 1960s, CBS in the 1970s and 1980s, and NBC in the 1990s were used to take the viewer on a trip down memory lane.

“We’re taking fans on a journey through the evolution of this vibrant, culturally impactful league while also pairing the content with the iconic performers of today,” declared Tim Corrigan, ESPN’s vice president of production. “We’re excited to pay homage to the networks that paved the way for what we have been doing for the past two decades at ESPN. Regardless of age or era, if you love basketball, there is something for you in this broadcast.”

Given ESPN’s success with Manningcast and other attempts to maximise the value of live sports content by appealing to multiple audiences, coupled with the current popularity of archive and original content, perhaps it’s a little surprising that it’s taken this long for a broadcaster to try this.

Maybe it will become an annual tradition.

ESPN aired a retro simulcast of Wednesday’s game between the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks (Photo credit: ESPN)

Maybe the docuseries does have the legs for a final sprint

I’ve said before that I think the appetite for docuseries like Formula One’s Drive to Survive will eventually wane as more and more sports look to jump on the bandwagon. My logic was that every last semblance of originality will be squeezed out of the format as the market becomes flooded with imitations of what was once a pioneering series.

But I may have been too hasty in that prediction. Last week Netflix finally reached a deal with the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) to produce a series on the 2022 Tour de France and I genuinely think this could succeed where others fail.

In non-cycling nations there is huge appreciation for the physical challenge of the sport’s most famous race but a poor understanding of its structure, its tactics, and its jargon. A series of this type could change that.

Meanwhile, it’s hard to overstate the popularity of the sport in countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as in France, where it is a national obsession.

If the series can serve both audiences, then Netflix could be onto another (stage) winner.

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