This is the summer of sport. It has kicked, smashed and sprinted past the competition in the ratings. The ritual of gathering around a TV to watch an event is sacrosanct, but, increasingly, technological advances are vying for attention around and during broadcasts. Apps are supporting the on-screen action with statistics and analysis, as well as extra content; interviews with experts and behind the scenes access. Rights owners are trialling the latest tech away from the scrutiny of the ratings wars, especially 360 VR and UHD. Technological advances have given today's audiences a range of off-screen innovations, from social media to VR, but what can these tell us about the changing nature of viewing habits and how might they influence sports broadcasting in the future?
Ways of watching
VR, or to be more precise – 360-degree viewing via VR headset, has already been created through Sky’s VR Studio since March and can be viewed on Facebook 360. Sky’s VR Studio produced a series of behind-the-scenes videos starting with Formula One in March, followed by Team Sky’s Tour de France preparation in June. Each lasts less than five minutes, providing a glimpse of what we can expect, and while the freedom to explore a scene takes some getting used to, the potential is evident. As opposed to the distanced cinematic view provided by fixed angles, VR is a view more akin to being a spectator. The few clips Sky have made so far act as behind-the-scenes tours, providing a feel for the hive of activity that is a Formula One pit. This is a far more democratic view, there is no centre frame. Instead, it feels like an active space.
Sky’s decision to avoid a live sporting event is a deliberate one. Many a football fan has guiltily admitted that watching their team on TV is better than being in the stands. Past the obvious ‘not-standing-in-the-cold’ argument, live sport broadcasting has been perfected over many iterations. Those fixed angles are the best for seeing the action, of which there are many: pitch side, in the goal, over the goal, even wire cameras that hover over the ground. Clever editing and expert commentary provide instant reviews of contentious decisions and moments of magic. What would be gained from leaving direction to the amateurs at home? Even giving the viewer a choice of multiple 360 cameras cannot prevent people missing an off the ball incident which comes to define the match. Besides, who goes to a sporting event to look at the crowd?
Despite these potential pitfalls, NBC has teamed up with Samsung to provide more than 100 hours of 360 VR coverage via an app for this year’s Olympics in Rio. The coverage will include both the opening and closing ceremonies, the men’s basketball final, gymnastics, track and field, beach volleyball, diving, boxing and fencing. It comes with a big concession though; the footage will be available ‘on delay’. While this is undoubtedly a landmark moment, NBC stops short of trusting viewers to watch unedited and live. The same reticence has not been seen with 4K and UHD; BT has BT Sport Ultra HD and Sky has Sky Q ready for the new Premier League football season.
Platforms to watch from
Competition for sports rights is emerging from what may seem unusual places. Twitter has the rights to live-stream ten NFL games in the 2016-2017 season, as well as the build up to NBA games and another yet to be announced NBA show. Facebook Live, utilised via Grabyo, will be live streaming all Caribbean Premier League Cricket matches. Grabyo teamed up with Wimbledon to distribute clips of the 2016 tournament through Facebook resulting in millions of views. It may come as no surprise then, that during a panel exploring monetisation and the value of social video for sponsorship and advertising, the first question asked was ‘is social video killing TV?’
It is no wonder social media platforms are broadcasting sport. Sports rights have long proved their magnetism, with Premier League rights deals bolstering both Sky and BT’s subscription bases. However, spare a thought for Setanta UK and ITV Digital. Passionate fan bases don’t come cheap - making sports rights a high stakes gamble. Social media platforms have a natural edge when it comes to broadcasting sports as they already have massive user bases built around shared interests. Sports fans naturally share both successes and failures. Twitter had an inherent advantage with fans and experts commenting on games centred around hashtags. However, Facebook launched Sports Stadium in January to allow commentary, images and clips to be grouped around fixtures and events in a bid to catch up. Sport broadcasters have to date integrated and encouraged social media participation, a strategy they may come to regret if these platforms start competing for the next round of rights deals.
Apps have opened up options for sport broadcasters from live streaming, to companion apps, second screens and more. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) basketball can be streamed through an innovative app launched in 2013. The app offers users the choice of watching on multiple screens simultaneously, providing the potential to watch a match Google-cast to your TV, a different game on your iPad and another on a smartphone. Access to matches is restricted based on cable and satellite subscription, but with over a million downloads, it shows there is a demand for new ways of watching and no reluctance on the part of the viewer to split their attention between devices.
The latest news is that Verizon have patented augmented reality technology which would allow spectators in the stadium to view stats and information on NFL players as they play. Using microchips in player’s helmets and the app, a phone pointed towards a player would bring up how quick they are running, distance travelled and past performances etc. as if the information were above their head. These innovations all point towards more diverse, interactive and data-rich ways of viewing sport.
For as long as broadcasters own the lion’s share of rights, they have little to worry about regarding viewing figures. However, people are already splitting their attention between communicating with friends on social media and supplementing the event through apps, perhaps even watching related events or matches on their phones. Some sporting events are naturally better suited to the new disparate ways of watching - the Olympics being a key example. Wherever events are taking place simultaneously, TV will struggle as viewers want to be able to flick between events as and when it pleases them. The repercussions of divided attention will impact advertising; it is increasingly difficult to prove that people are giving the TV screen their full attention during the events, so what guarantee is there that they are watching the TV when the competition isn’t on the screen?
Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp dominate the conversations around sport, so broadcasters should be concerned if these platforms begin to consolidate attention by showing the events as well as hosting the chats. Perhaps current broadcasters would be wise to integrate their own social apps, if for no better reason other than they have nurtured their greatest threat.
VR stands apart in that it demands 100 per cent of a person’s attention, a dream come true for any worried broadcaster or advertiser, in theory. I fear that this demand on a person’s attention will be its barrier to success. It goes against the mainstream progress of sports viewing habits so much that it is destined to sit on the sidelines, part of an array of supplementary features, but never the star of the show. 4K and UHD are the natural successors to the sports broadcast throne, but the old order will have to grapple with the challenge of how to handle divided attentions. No doubt the next battle will be between those who seek to consolidate attention and those who intend to fortify their niche.
By Tom Burton, marketing manager, K7 Media