On Sunday, Jan. 15, anyone with a cable subscription had access to a full slate of sports programming, including plenty of men’s and women’s college basketball, NBA and NHL games, the PGA Tour’s Sony Open, a Premier League London derby, tennis’ Australian Open plus the ratings bonanza of three NFL wildcard games.
You’re forgiven, then, if you didn’t realize there was also a mid-season tilt between the league-leading San Diego Sockers and mid-table Kansas City Comets of the Major Arena Soccer League (MASL). It wasn’t on cable—the league doesn’t have a traditional broadcast partner—but the game was watched by 354,000 people on Twitch, a streaming video platform. More people watched that than the Lakers-76ers on NBA TV, the Australian Open and the prime-time Telemundo broadcast of Ravens versus Bengals—all top-50 rated broadcasts that day.
“The arena soccer game, to me, is totally made for this type of platform. It’s a nonstop combination of skilled play that captures attention really well,” said Rob Striar, who owns an MASL expansion franchise with Brazil’s Ronaldinho. “When we first spoke to Twitch about this, they jumped right into it because they realized you’re overlaying a traditional soccer fan base with, let’s call it a new game, with a short attention span.”
The MASL, the indirect descendant of an indoor soccer league that peaked in the 1980s, features six players a side playing on the footprint of a hockey rink. Between Twitch and a new streaming agreement with Spanish language Canela.tv, streaming and social media are having a direct effect on the growth of the 14-team league and its top line, according to Striar.
“We’re seeing hyper-growth from media, sponsors, investors and new ownership groups attracted to the lower barrier for entry for pro soccer,” Striar said, though declining to discuss specific ownership financials (MASL teams probably fetch in the low millions of dollars.) “What it took was that exposure of getting the right media partners alongside us.”
To be fair, it can be tough to compare apples-to-ratings apples; Twitch tallies all views, however brief, while Nielsen ratings average out viewership during a game. Plus, Twitch views come from anywhere in the world, while Nielsen ratings are only in the U.S. Still, it’s not an unusual number of views for the MASL on Twitch, with the league seeing peak Twitch viewership of more than 507,000 for the first game of this year, while a more recent Utica-Baltimore match drew 250,000 sets of eyeballs.
The money isn’t anywhere near what NFL ad buys cost, but it’s enough to be material for the league and its teams, according to Striar. “How do we reach fans, boost engagement and create a really attractive media rights package for us?” he said. “First and foremost, Twitch has been great … our sponsors love the ability to integrate into the chat and have direct engagement—it’s been a really nice win in that sense for sponsors.”
In an age where cord-cutting is starting to threaten a core part of big leagues’ revenue, the promise of social media as a potential faucet of new revenue is appealing, especially to other growing leagues. The two-year old World Jai-Alai League, based in Miami, has revived the fast-paced court sport that had a notable foothold in south Florida and Connecticut in the 1970s and ‘80s, before a three-year player strike effectively killed off the game domestically. Fashioned after team tennis, with teams competing in singles and doubles matches, the World Jai-Alai League is now on its third semi-annual season and heartened by its quick uptake on social media.
In just over a year since creating its accounts, the league has tallied 250,000 TikTok followers plus another 56,000 on Instagram. That helped to draw viewers to Friday evening streams of matches (which the league provides for free to ESPN+). As many as 100,000 unique viewers tuned in, according to Scott Savin, World Jai-Alai League chief operating officer. “We’re scratching and clawing trying to make a name for ourselves and making progress,” Savin said.
The high social uptake has helped the league make some sales on its unique seasonal ownership offering: for $100,000, people get the right to draft players and run a team for one season (the league and teams are owned by the Havenick family, former casino owners, and University of Miami boosters.) “A social media site called Lifestyle Miami, which has just shy of 2 million followers, just became owner of [an] expansion team this year,” added Savin.
But while social media impressions make for appealing metrics—views of a specific hashtag by SlamBall fans are cited in that league’s funding announcement yesterday—the financial conversion of social media followers into revenue is debatable.
The prime example for this is esports giant FaZe Clan, which went public by SPAC merger at a $1 billion valuation. In its pitch to investors last year, FaZe touted its 350 million worldwide social media followers “as a vast network of influence, and we are positioned at the intersection of how Gen Z consumes content and how they transact and engage with that content,” CEO Lee Trink said on a pre-merger investor call. The company presented itself as the purest case that social media followers would convert into a fast-growing revenue machine; ahead of going public FaZe projected $91 million in revenue for 2022 on the way to $650 million in sales by 2025.
So far, the business has faltered, posting just $49 million in revenue the first three quarters of last year (full year results are out next week). FaZe shares have fallen 98% to 41 cents over the past eight months.
Both Savin and Striar note that their respective sports have track records and a core fanbase, whereas esports is unproven over the long haul. Miami jai-alai once drew more than 15,000 spectators to matches in the 1970s, while indoor soccer clubs like the New York Arrows drew 131,000 fans over a couple of dozen home games in a season.
For their sports, the executives say social media builds on core fans while reaching new audiences that otherwise would never discover the game. How valuable is that? Jai-alai, for instance, sees an unexpected number of viewers in Ireland, and Savin’s not sure why. It could be hate-viewing: World Jai-Alai promotes itself as the globe’s fastest ball game, something hurling has long claimed for itself. In the case of MASL, Twitch views are volatile, with presumably less-compelling matchups, like Utica City FC versus Milwaukee, tallying just 5,300 last month.
But the social media impressions are enough that both leagues are seeking this year to expand their broadcast reach with other providers including, both Savin and Striar say, a linear TV deal.
(This story has been updated in the second paragraph to accurately reflect the network on which the Lakers-76ers game aired.)