Exclusive: The Game Behind the Game

Posted February 6th 2017



Sam Jossen

If you were one of the 100 million-plus people who tuned into last night’s Super Bowl, you may have noticed that – between the commercials – there was an actual game being played. And during that game, had you been looking up from your Twitter feed or the seven-layer dip, you may have caught moments of the action from a new perspective – that of the players.

For the big game, Fox and Intel partnered to deliver point-of-view instant replays with Intel’s 360 Replay technology. Thanks to an array of cameras placed around the stadium, any moment could be recreated in 3D, from the player’s point of view. They also partnered with virtual reality firm LiveLike to offer near-real-time streaming of highlights in VR via the Fox Sports VR app—available to their TV subscribers at no extra charge—using Google Cardboard and Gear VR. Viewers were able to enter a “virtual suite” where they could see approximately 20 highlights during the event, navigable through a timeline.

More and more, sports leagues and broadcasters are implementing virtual reality, augmented reality, 360 technology, streaming technology and the like, into their offerings to enhance the spectator experience. It’s experiments like these that are simultaneously a response to declining viewership numbers on traditional TV, as well as a glimpse into how we may one day watch sports.

TV ratings, however spurious, have been down or flat across several major sports leagues, but what is unquestionably down are the number of cable subscribers.

The way we–especially younger audiences–consume sports, and every other kind of content has drastically changed. The phenomena of cord-cutting and cord-nevering (a new buzz term for young people who have never been cable subscribers to begin with, and have no reason to start now) are having a profound effect on the sports industry.

Tom Richardson, Founder & President of Convergence Sports & Media, and Professor of Sports Digital Media at Columbia University sees young people consuming tons of video in different fashions, but “when they settle in to their first apartments they are not calling their cable company to say, ‘Hey, I want a $100 a month pay TV package.’”

Much of this shift is due to the changing state of fandom in the digital age. For older fans, commercials and slowness in the action have always been part of the experience, a chance to digest what’s happening in the game, to discuss it with friends and family.

As Richardson observes, “Viewers of a certain age have a mental clock in their heads when it comes to commercial breaks for pro sports, able to switch back to the broadcast at just the right moment, like Rainmen with the remote control, because we’ve been doing it for so long. But younger fans don’t like–and don’t really accept–all the interruptions.”

Today’s digital natives want to “watch” on their own terms. If you haven’t heard the statistic: there are only 11 minutes of actual game play during the average NFL game, spread out over the course of 3 hours and 12 minutes. With the level of stimulation at their finger tips, and the on-demand nature of it all, for a teenager to sit and watch a full game would be improbable to say the least.

“If you’re young, technology is so much a part of your life, you may not even have that fundamental context of what a traditional fan media experience even is,” says Richardson. “It’s literally being shaped by what you experience with the devices you and your family have as a kid.”

It’s these devices that are opening up a menu of alternative consumption options. At R/GA, Kyle Bunch, Managing Director, Social, has been working with sports leagues to engage this new type of fan.

“There are various factors converging,” he says, “one of which is the rise of fantasy sports.”

Add the proliferation of social media, which allows players to tell their stories directly to their followers. That human interest entertainment factor that has always surrounded sports is no longer filtered through a select few traditional media outlets, explains Bunch. Fans can get it straight from the source.

“We’ve been calling them 3-minute fans,” Bunch says. “They will consume some formats of sports everyday, but it’s probably a bunch of highlight clips that they’re seeing on social.”

Richardson, who writes extensively on the subject, agrees. “Young people are still going to be fans, but they’re not going to be the kind of customers the TV industry needs for them to sustain the wealth creation and economic structure of the sports business as it is currently built,” he explains.

It’s a specter perhaps best illustrated by ESPN, who back in November, experienced its largest ever decline in subscribers–621,000–over a one-month period. Everyone on cable is hurting from the the loss of subscribers, but ESPN takes extreme top-line losses. At around $7/month, it costs every subscriber roughly 3x more than the next closest channel. On top of that, like all rights holders, the network is paying enormous fees to the major professional sports leagues for the right to broadcast games, against which it can sell advertising to make money back. Except now, they’re selling against a much smaller audience.

With current TV rights deals as expensive as they’ve ever been, many experts believe the legacy sports media bubble is about to burst.

Young people are still going to be fans, but they’re not going to be the kind of customers the TV industry needs for them to sustain the wealth creation and economic structure of the sports business as it is currently built”

Which is why we can expect to see more and more major sports streaming on social, like NFL Thursday Night Football and this past month’s Australian Open on Twitter. The PGA Tour also just struck a streaming deal with the platform. According to Kyle Bunch, this is more than just a play to stay relevant in the eyes of young people who live on these platforms.

“This is about anticipating where the fan is going, and where the business is going,” Bunch says, “so that the next time a big deal gets done, more leagues can make a case for selling the digital rights.”

For leagues, this is a no-brainer. They get revenue from whatever they charge the platform ($10 million for 10 games in the case of the NFL/Twitter deal). Richardson sees this as an obvious way forward. “It’s basically the best possible way for leagues to promote, advertise, and conceivably get trial of their over-the-top products.” It also gives them access to a global audience as well as a massive amount of invaluable insights from the usage data.

That usage data is why Richardson is confident that the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon will become major players in sports, given their extremely effective ways to reach, engage, and track audience behavior, and the loads of cash they have to buy their way in.

“These new things are going to be developed in an effort to help mitigate the problems and declines of other revenue streams like TV,” Richardson says, “and eventually you are going to see a lot of creative deals with digital companies.” This is especially true as sports broadcasts begin to conform to the mobile device, thinking about how best to adapt the viewing experience for the smaller, 4×6 inch format.

VR provides another huge opportunity in this regard. For the moment, it is still a small addressable market, but many leagues and individual teams are beginning to experiment. The NBA currently broadcasts one game a week in virtual reality to its League Pass subscribers. That you probably don’t know anyone who has watched one of these NBA games in VR is beside the point.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets, and Chicago Bears have all started to offer VR experiences to their fans. All of them are positioning themselves for a time when the technology has come far enough that it can be an incremental revenue driver– effectively catering to a younger, tech- and experience-hungry audience that may choose to watch sports in new, personalized and immersive ways.

The Golden State Warriors reportedly used a customized VR experience to entice Kevin Durant during free agency, giving him an inside look inside the huddle, the locker room atmosphere, and the practice dynamic. This could easily translate as a fan experience.

These forays into VR, as with streaming on social media, are experiments that leagues don’t yet need to profit from. (The NBA will take in $2.66 billion dollars a year from ESPN and Turner for its TV rights, through the 2024-25 season.) They are simply looking to see what works, and can figure out how to monetize down the line.

If not you’re not into the fully immersive, then imagine something akin to the way Microsoft HoloLens imagines the future of watching football, where the broadcast is augmented by interactive digital content, like stats, player bios, and instant replays, floating around your living room.

Or think of Spanish startup FirstV1sion’s POV wearable cameras embedded in players’ jerseys, which have already been tested by players from Cordoba CF, a Spanish La Liga soccer team. This technology potentially points to a broadcast experience where you could toggle between perspectives of your favorite players in real-time throughout the game.

With the old model of the sports media business, and millions of advertising dollars hanging in the balance, leagues, networks, and new entrants in the space will continue to experiment, and technology will continue to play a major role in how things shake out.

Whether we’re watching on a 60-inch screen, on our smartphones, wearing a headset, or asking Alexa or Siri to queue up a highlight, it’s an exciting time to be a fan.