Given that pro sports are likely to be played in front of less-than-capacity crowds for the foreseeable future—at least in the U.S.—there is increasing desire amongst fans to have an immersive home viewing experience, one capable of providing the feeling of ‘being there’ and ‘being together.’ Josh Walker (Co-Founder, Sports Innovation Lab) explained that historically, long-term media rights deals have “created a disincentive [for leagues or their partners] to take on risk and [introduce] new formats.” But Michael Spirito says shifts in consumer behaviors brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have changed the dynamic. The Sapphire Sport Managing Director said, “If a top-notch interactive viewing experience isn’t provided—now more than ever—[I.P. owners] are at risk of losing fans because people are cutting the cord and doing different things with their entertainment dollar.”
Our Take: Technological innovations from leagues and their broadcast partners can bring fans closer to how they’re used to experiencing sports. The problem is, with media rights serving as the lynchpin for the entire pro sports ecosystem (see: the reason we’re playing games without fans in the first place), it has always been difficult to get the various stakeholders to agree on how to do it. There’s also been little motivation to rock the boat. Bloated TV contracts and “complacent brand sponsors” have enabled leagues to thrive in spite of a lack of innovation within linear broadcasts (at least from an experiential perspective), and as Walker notes, the few high-profile experiments that have been held “tended to cause a backlash from traditional fans—the purists.”
Pro sports leagues, teams and governing bodies should certainly be sufficiently motivated to recapture, maintain and engage their respective fan bases after a four-month hiatus—a time when peoples’ focus was elsewhere. But Spirito says their traditional broadcast partners are equally driven. Companies like NBCUniversal, Comcast, Sinclair and Disney find themselves in an environment “where cord-cutting is accelerating, where sponsors are not finding as much value in the air time [as they once did] and where they need to monetize the billions of dollars in live sports rights they’ve acquired.”
Delivering a product that can provide fans the personalization and connectivity they seek on game day (see: ability to interact with those they would usually watch a game with on the live stream) is among the ways a rights holder may be able to solve some of those challenges. While it’s bound to be more difficult for a traditional media company than a digital native outlet (linear broadcasters are not necessarily good at productizing, nor are they development shops), Spirito says there’s absolutely no reason to believe the leagues’ existing partners can’t put forth a solution on par with a next-gen broadcaster. Remember they have all “been providing digital experiences through their apps, streaming products and other interactive elements—that have all been commercialized.” In the medium- to long-term, traditional media rights holders should be able to deliver technologically savvy products. “The question is, How long does it take [them] to align everyone’s interests and productize it?” Spirito asked.
When Spirito refers to aligning “everyone’s interests,” he is including the I.P. owners themselves. Even if a broadcaster wanted to “take a [game] stream and maximize it [for engagement], they’re [currently limited] by what the leagues allows them to do with the rights.” To date, aside of the NBA (which is dabbling in some immersive tech), there’s been little indication that the big leagues are ready to “loosen the more draconian restrictions [they have] imposed on AR/VR, interactivity, wagering and gaming, commerce and merchandising and other conduits that are ultimately going to engage fans [at home within a live stream].” Of course, the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB have been preoccupied of late simply trying to get their respective products back on the court/ice/field. Sapphire Sports’ lead investor suggested it’s possible that once a sense of normalcy returns the various leagues might consider providing their current rights holders with some more flexibility (in terms of what they can do with the broadcast) or carve out an alternative package (think: an immersive broadcast as opposed to the standard broadcast) and create some incremental revenue for themselves. Walker suggested Facebook, Twitter, Verizon Media and Apple would be among those that would make sense as potential partners for those rights.
The next 12-18 months should accelerate the move toward a new media approach—one disentangled from the lean-back viewing experience we are accustomed to. Walker says “watching [alone] is really dead” and that the “watch party and social viewing habits developed as a result of this health crisis” will have “long-term staying power.” He’s expecting to see “chat, e-commerce, casual gaming and sports gambling [all] push aggressively into these new social viewing and streaming environments.”
It remains to be seen if the industry can rally and “move quickly enough to bring these [immersive environments] to market during this fallow period [where fan attendance is limited],” but Spirito says if the various stakeholders can get on the same page it is feasible. “The timeframe to [actually] flip the switch and turn it on [once everyone’s concerns were addressed] would be months, not years,” he said. Considering NBPA Executive Director Michelle Roberts recently suggested the 2020-21 NBA season may also have to be played within a bubble, there would seemingly be time to introduce a new viewing experience before venues are once again selling out.
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