Streaming on social benefits everyone involved – but are we moving too quickly?

Last week, Spain’s top football league, La Liga, streamed a live game on Facebook Live. They plan to stream one game a week on the platform. The week before, it was Mexico’s Liga MX broadcasting to a US audience, whilst in France the Six Nations rugby tournament was streamed on Twitter. This week, the latest live streaming news is that Facebook and Major League Baseball are in talks about streaming one game a week.

Live streaming on social media platforms is taking off, and it doesn’t even seem to matter the platform or the sport. Everyone wants a piece of the action because everyone can see a benefit from getting in on it.

Over the last year, we have seen smaller publishers and broadcasters look for rights to minority sports or events: Unilad streamed the Homeless World Cup on Facebook, whilst The Sport Bible streamed a Table Tennis England event. Manchester City Women have even streamed some of their games on the platform, too.

Those smaller events and publishers have all seen an opportunity to get the word out for their various sports or events. In turn, the publishers will probably have found that their social media engagement enjoyed a boost, too.

That’s because sport is one of the few events that just needs to be watched live. On demand TV and streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have created a scenario where no one needs to sit down at a certain time of the day or night to watch their favourite TV shows. But sport is different. Alex Trickett, currently an independent consultant, but formerly Head of Sport at Twitter told us that, “sport offers something unique because the experience of watching Man United v Liverpool or the Super Bowl, even a few minutes later, is diluted. Fans of flagship sports events retain the cherished ‘appointment to view’ that even blockbuster series like Game of Thrones struggle to achieve.”

Avoiding the football scores in order to experience some sort of suspense on Match of the Day is about as close to the ritual of avoiding spoilers as sport offers. That’s why Facebook and Twitter are desperate for live sporting events as they look to boost the live stream products which have taken off with a bang. Those features rely on people watching in real time, not on demand.

Facebook, for their part, have put a lot of resources into a huge ad campaign for Facebook Live. Twitter, on the other hand, sought to solidify their brand’s link to sport by creating a Paul Pogba emoji and advertising on the boards around the pitch during a massive Man United Premier League game against Liverpool. Both want live sport to bring large volumes of people to their platforms at the same time.

But if there’s an opportunity for some publishers, minority sports and the social media giants themselves, there’s also an opportunity for the bigger sports’ rights holders to get involved as well. Just as MLB, NBA and La Liga are showing.

Although events such as the streaming of the Six Nations and Liga MX games are geofenced, there is still the tantalising possibility of sports leagues breaking into markets where they aren’t currently popular. Most American sports are reasonably contained within the North American continent. Basketball’s popularity in Europe is growing, especially in France and Spain, where a handful of the top players come from and are stars in their home countries, too. American football has made its way to the UK, with the NFL hierarchy choosing to stage games at Wembley and having a hand in the building of a new stadium at White Hart Lane, home of football team Tottenham Hotspur, where NFL teams will also play when it is complete.

Baseball, however, doesn’t have the same clout in Europe. Apart from Japan, too, its appeal worldwide is smaller. But that just makes the Facebook opportunity that much greater. Not everyone in the world can access ESPN’s coverage, but anyone with an internet connection can access Facebook.

Especially young people: another market for rightsholders to look at. It’s a seductive idea that a new generation of digitally-native millennials all over the world could fall in love with a sport if it reaches out to them on a platform they understand. Trickett believes that this is where the value lies for everyone. “There is a mutual benefit to be found for rightsholders, broadcasters and social platforms,” he says, “because live streaming can unlock a complementary audience, which skews younger and has moved away from traditional programming.”

Recently, the NFL has tried to boost its popularity in the UK in a similar way. By enlisting social media influencers to explore the game and engage their audiences, the NFL hopes their followers will be watching, too.

It remains to be seen whether any deal between MLB and Facebook would see a geofenced stream of the coverage, or whether it could be available worldwide. Given the rights to many sports have already been snapped up before the advent of live streaming, streaming directly to a worldwide audience may not be a reality for quite a while. But it’s obvious already that that sport can offer Facebook and Twitter the juicy proposition of bringing a ready-made audience to their site all in one go.

On the other hand, the two social media platforms can offer sport something that traditional broadcasters can’t: a truly global audience of young and engaged viewers who are part of a larger conversation about the action. So engaged are they, indeed, that they aren’t just watching the games in silence, they’re telling everyone about it.

But Trickett has a final word of warning amidst the current clamour for the rights to stream sport on social: be careful when jumping on the bandwagon and targeting that young and engaged audience. The rights to sporting events are expensive, and this is still a fledgling market: spending on rights to bring in new spectators offers no guarantees. “It’s a delicate and evolving balance in a hugely competitive and expensive rights landscape,” he says. “The value of that extra audience is still in the process of being determined.”

It’s a landscape that shows no signs of slowing down at present, though.

About author

Chris McMullan
Chris McMullan 237 posts

Chris is a sports journalist and a regular contributor to Digital Sport - follow him on Twitter @CJMcMullan91

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