Sports look to social media to drive engagement and revenue

Real Madrid generated more than 110 million views on social media after pushing content from its club TV channel to Facebook Live earlier this year. With reach like that it surely won’t be long before many other clubs and sports organisations use social media to distribute more of their own content and consequently create new commercial opportunities.

“The major change has been around live with regards to social distribution,” says Gareth Capon, chief executive of Grabyo, a cloud-based video platform for live media rights holders and TV networks, which partnered with La Liga club. “Three years ago I don’t think we’d find a major sports property streamed live to Facebook without a direct commercial model being associated with it. Fundamentally, streaming live on social platform delivers reach and engagement for sports.”

Other examples include the French Football Federation broadcast of 400 third division and grassroots matches on Dailymotion. The Women’s Tennis Association’s (WTA) October launch of digital and social content division WTA Networks; and the recent announcement of Dugout, a social media network backed by top tier pan-European soccer clubs.

“The driver has been enormous growth of video consumption through social platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat, all happening primarily on mobile,” Capon suggests.

In a round table discussion on the subject organised by Grabyo the consensus was that the single biggest difference between social and TV is discovery. On social, rights holders can target an audience in the hundreds of millions, either doing this by paying [Facebook, Instagram] for access to the data or doing so virally.

“The vast majority of fans do still want to watch sport on TV and I can’t see that changing over the next decade but rights holders do need to be more savvy in engaging with audiences on digital,” agrees Tom Coull, Audio Visual Manager at EPL club Southampton FC.

The content being delivered by Real Madrid to Facebook Live includes behind the scenes footage, news and shoulder programming and each live video has generated around 3 million views. “These results show us that the demand for professionally produced, exclusive, behind the scenes content for football clubs has not diminished,” says Capon. “It’s just that the way we want to consume it has changed.”

Engagement data from fans via social networks can be a great signal about which pieces of content are the most compelling to an audience. To build on this Grabyo is working on new products to provide deeper insights for partners to identify the most engaging content within a live broadcast.
It ran a test with BT Sport during Manchester United’s Europa League tie with Fenerbahce (20 November) which Manchester won 4:1. It analysed the social media activity for the game and could clearly see peaks of interest around all five goals. Then it ran the same data though natural language processing, searching for positive sentiment and one goal – Paul Pogba’s sumptuous second — stood out on Twitter.

Data automates editorial and ads

“We can start to use AI and machine learning to understand patterns of behaviour in real-time,” explains Capon. “This is what excites us for next year. When you build a cloud-based platform you can manipulate data in a different way by driving editorial based on what the audience are saying and doing.”

With so much conversational noise occurring simultaneously across multiple platforms from Facebook to Snapchat, alerting content owners and advertisers as to which in-game event people actually care about is crucial.

One benefit is automation. Using data the process of cutting highlights based on audience engagement can be automated. The ad opportunity is to deploy campaigns more intelligently at certain moments in a game that are showing this engagement. Facebook’s pending introduction of ads into the live stream will open up such monetisation opportunities.

However, it is the correlations between data sets, such as in-game sports specific data like Opta, with social data which is important.

Andy Murray gets into the swing of things at The O2 on 14 November (Photo by Patrik Lundin/Getty Images)

Andy Murray gets into the swing of things at The O2 on 14 November (Photo by Patrik Lundin/Getty Images)

An example might be the recent Andy Murray Novak vs Djokovic ATP World Tour final during which Djokovic hit a smash into the crowd. “Using only match data this would only appear as an unforced error but to a lot of people the moment illustrated his mindset in the match,” says Alex Willis, Head of Communications, Content and Digital at AELTC. “Video of this clip is informative and is what audiences want to see.

“If we want to reach new and younger audiences then a sport like tennis has quite a high barrier to entry since it requires quite a lot of knowledge,” she continues. “Traditionally, highlights of a game between, for example, Andreas Seppi and Milos Raonic would have been clipped up with set point and match point but this does not tell you the story of the tennis match and gives no real information about the players. We have try to get to where we use different data points around a match to tell the audience why they should care about this player, why they should carry on watching this player or the rest of tournament.”

Mark Gilbert, Head of Digital Communications at the FA made the point that 90% of what is captured will probably never see light of day, “but the 10% you do use makes the archive increasingly important. The youth player you record scoring in a U17 match could become the hero of tomorrow and you want to be able to reach into the archive and present a timeline of their story or a single video clip of their first goal instantly they score for the first team.”

Outside the top six Premier League clubs though the content teams are very, very small so any tools which can automate clip capture, curation, discovery and publishing has to be of benefit. Coull confirmed that Southampton’s highlights coverage of its U21 and U18 games don’t get as much attraction as video clips of goals put out in almost realtime along with a Tweet.

“Again, very few people want to sit through a pre-match press conference but there’s definite interest if we clip up comments about team news and distribute to social channels,” says Coull.

“The younger the fan the more they want this and we have the data to support it,” he says. “Older viewers probably prefers VOD from the club website but even here we have seen a strong uptick in engagement since removing the paywall and making access free.”

Gilbert echoed the view that social media audiences want to view talking points, rather than a full highlights package. “The next step is to try to commercialise it properly,” he said. “We make some money from YouTube and Facebook but nowhere near what we could be making.”

Proving return of investment is an obstacle because of inconsistent cross platform measurement. Neither does it help that some of the social media platforms aren’t sharing as much audience data as they could be.

“You don’t get much data out Twitter and Facebook which is meaningful,” says Gilbert. “What does 100 million video views actually mean? This is where clubs and governing bodies need to work harder and smarter. Would you rather offer a sponsor 10m views which are 3 seconds long but show an audience attention rate of 60%? For me that means your content is being discovered and engaged with.”

“While sports generates a lot of consumption on social platform the challenge is to merge the ratings around traditional TV with a complete multi-platform framework,” adds Capon.

Changing rights models

In the past, a rights holder like the EPL packaged rights on a territorial basis to sell to a broadcaster who paid the most money. Usually those rights included all digital activation and digital distribution in the territory which could be monetised through sponsorship.

Casting forward the picture is less clear. Telling, one of the biggest rights deals of the last few months was struck by Chinese video streaming service PPTV which spent £560m on EPL rights over three years.

“You are seeing rights owners like Formula E make distribution deals with Facebook in every market where they don’t have TV deals and using using social platforms systematically to reach a new audience,” said Capon. “The NFL’s deal to distribute live games on Twitter is a chance for it to play around with social and start to understand consumption patterns and what market there is for streaming to mobile devices.”

The launch of Facebook Live has already prompted an uptick in audiences wanting to view live content on that platform and driven rival platforms to react.

“YouTube has significantly upped its game around live by investing more into the live environment and making discovery very much easier,” says Capon. “Twitter has a parallel product strategy. With Periscope Producer it offers content owners the ability to stream higher quality content to audiences while Twitter Live is focussed on the top tier of the market acting more like a traditional broadcaster by paying for rights to distribute across the platform.”

When looked at in entirety it means the distribution points for all rights holders in the market have significantly increased. Rights holders recognise there is money to be made on social, even if they don’t know exactly how. Driving the investment is a rights model that’s becoming far more relaxed about what content is freed up for social and a realisation that it’s reductive to think about monetisation in sport as just revenue shares or selling rights.

“Clubs should consider the trade off between data versus reach and engagement as well as the potential monetary streams that come from that,” advises Capon.

Dugout future

Commenting on the move by a group of leading European soccer clubs, including AC Milan, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Barcelona as well as top footballers, to form new digital football platform Dugout, Coull pointed out that launching any new social network is a challenge.

“We offer a social hub on our website but we know the real conversations are going to happen on Twitter and Facebook,” he says. “We want Dugout to be a success and we are working with them.”
Access to star players, possibly driven by brands like Mercedes and Adidas, could differentiate Dugout from existing fan sites like Copa90. Live is not part of Dugout’s launch but there are plans to add live content in time.

“There has to be a reason for fans to go to a sports-specific social network like Dugout, and that invariably comes down to exclusivity of great content,” adds Gilbert.

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