You should probably take off your headphones to read this.
In 2012, Michigan State researchers found that media multitasking (listening to music while reading this story, for instance) was “a unique risk factor for psychosocial dysfunction,” as in behavior linked to depression and anxiety. The findings didn’t seem to make much of an impact. Maybe Americans were too distracted to notice.
Second screening—that is, using a second device while watching TV—emerged as a trend following the iPad’s 2010 release. At the time, apps like Viggle and Zeebox (real startups, I swear) promised to make binge sessions more social and interactive. Broadcasters and brands leapt at the chance to connect further with viewers, who in turn relished the more engrossing experiences. By 2019, nearly 90 percent of Americans were using “a second digital device while watching TV,” according to Nielsen.
Then 2020 happened. Of course, second screening did not go away. But it changed–fundamentally. The television, long the center of American living rooms and many sports fans’ most prized possession, was demoted. TV became the second screen.
Technically, 2019 was the year traditional TV was unseated, at least according to an eMarketer study that found adults spent an average of 3 hours and 43 minutes on mobile devices every day, eight more minutes than live and taped TV got. But it was this year that smaller screens truly emerged as entertainment powerhouses, the year we spent TikToking, video calling, and stock trading from home.
TV changed, too. In The New Yorker in November, Kyle Chayka catalogued the rise of “Ambient TV,” the audiovisual peer of elevator music. “The purpose,” he wrote, “is to provide sympathetic background for staring at your phone.” The TV of the moment is consistent, simple and above all easy to watch (or not watch, as it were). More than ever, sports fit into that categorization as well.
Leagues traded historic venues for bubbles and fans for tarps in 2020, to the point where broadcasters were basically shooting on sterilized sets. Games were scheduled back-to-back-to-back, perfect for background bingeing. As a result, live sports came to serve as the always-on landscape from which memes were mined. And when sports were off the schedule, classic games found new life, a comfort rewatch alternative to The Office and Friends.
Algorithmically generated fan noise perfectly encapsulated the shift. The pre-recorded soundtracks went against broadcasters’ typical mission of capturing reality, but in this case smoothness won out over authentic drama. The echoes of past crowds could seem pretty disturbing, lending fresh terror to the idea of “ghost games,” if you think about it. But why would you?
As Chayka points out, there’s nothing wrong with a streaming service serving as background noise. Elevator music is surely a profitable business, after all. On Twitch, for instance, streamers go online for hours at a time, understanding that viewers will drop in and out, switch apps and return. For major sports, though, the situation is more dire. Their high media fees and ticket prices rely on diehard fans who plan their days, if not their lives, around their teams.
In response, broadcast models will diverge in the coming years. Some events will opt for a “One Game, Many Screens” approach, offering a near-addictive experience for fans who want to be as close to the action as possible. Betting apps and “Watch Together” options will keep viewers in teams’ virtual stadiums, where their attention can be won (and further capitalized).
The alternative is a “Many Games, One Screen” model in the mold of NFL RedZone or CBS All Access’ new Golazo soccer whiparound show. An engaging personality offering a stream of nonstop can’t-miss moments will generate new viewing habits, anchoring a world of 24/7 content that can be as reliably compelling as a TikTok feed.
Of course, there is one other option: Do nothing, and allow live TV to further recede in a crowded entertainment landscape. Those who go that route will find that the only thing worse than being turned off is being tuned out.
A few other sports industry trends likely to continue beyond 2020…
NICHE SPORTS HERE TO STAY
Consultant Gabby Roe of Maestroe Sports prefers the term “high-growth sports,” taking a page from Wall Street. Roe has spent his career working with young sports like lacrosse and beach volleyball and now helps clients in realms from cornhole to curling.
“2020 was not all sunshine and butterflies,” Roe made sure to say, but disruption did give groups like the American Ultimate Disc League and the American Cornhole League an unprecedented amount of TV exposure. Plus, most small leagues are far less reliant on attendance dollars, helping them weather the 2020 storm.
Instead, Roe explained, sponsorships have emerged as the best commercialization option. Sports like Spikeball can offer deals that stretch from local events to social media activations to live broadcasts. Partnerships did dry up early this year, but have since come back. World Chase Tag, for instance, announced a tie-up with Zaxby’s this November.
Each sport is looking to build a similar flywheel featuring grassroots players, competitive events, and sponsorship dollars. Partnerships lead to further exposure for the sport, bringing in new audiences and players.
Content is key every step of the way, from short-form clips and pics on TikTok and Instagram to longform videos on owned networks (which are easier than ever to run) or partner channels. Streaming platform FloSports, which has focused on overlooked sports, saw growth across several areas in 2020, including a 425% year-over-year increase in YouTube views for its cycling content.
TV TALENT SPLITTING TIME
Faced with lost content and shrinking cable audiences, networks had to adjust their budgets in 2020, with massive layoffs hitting the likes of ESPN and NBC Sports. As executives look for ways to keep talent costs down, one media agent (who spoke anonymously about active negotiations) said one option would be for companies to drop exclusive clauses from new deals. Meanwhile, other organizations—from social networks to streaming contenders to betting providers—are hungry for familiar faces who could bring with them reliable audiences.
THE END OF PASSWORD SHARING?
This one is a late-breaking development. Before the NBA season tipped off last week, the league changed its direct-to-consumer offering, cutting down the number of allowed simultaneous streams from five to two (and those were only available with its most expensive package). The NBA had previously earned a reputation for its desire to spread content online, receiving plaudits for microtransaction options and copious social video. But last year, the nbastreams Reddit was shut down, and the league’s latest decision puts it more in line with the NFL, which only allows one stream at a time for its digital Sunday Ticket offering.
As leagues look to recoup 2020’s lost gate revenue, selling more subscriptions to their existing fanbases may seem like an easy decision.