In this post, GlobalWebIndex's Strategic Insights Analyst, Olivia Valentine looks at the shifting sports viewing landscape globally, and the role of social media in fuelling the growth of digital platforms in this space. 

The broadcasting landscape in sport is changing. Amazon Prime became the first streaming service to show live Premier League football, Sky Sports began sharing its coveted broadcast rights with YouTube, and Disney launched its flagship sports service ESPN+. These digital-based deals are just a few examples of a clear shift that's taking place. But what’s behind this transformation, and are the changes a precursor for what’s to come?

YouTube is quickly becoming ‘the home of highlights’
Social media has made some headway towards becoming a sports viewing hub, with watching or following sports events emerging as a main reason for many going on social media. Globally, it’s now 1 in 5 who are looking for sports content on social media, a 46% increase in the last three years alone. This figure rises in markets outside of Europe, where sports fans are more likely to be searching for ways to watch those games that are broadcast overseas in different time zones.

Facebook and YouTube are already at the centre of spectator commentary that surrounds sports. Broadcasters and leagues have had to acknowledge this consumer charge towards wanting more sports content and commentary on social media, especially for international supporters who want to follow but can’t.

At the start of the 2019-20 Premier League season, Sky Sports made the decision to make game highlights available on YouTube shortly after the matches end. In a three-minute video format, it was a surprise play by the pay-TV provider. 

Aside from the revenue opportunities from pre-roll ads, this tactic allows Sky Sports to connect with new audiences across the world, and push them to its own properties - whether through signposts or retarget ads. This could also have been a response to BT Sports, who are well-known for their high-speed uploads of game highlights. And Sky Sports isn’t the first to enter a partnership with YouTube. With the rights to broadcast some of the biggest sporting competitions in the world, the social platform is certainly on its way to becoming “the home of sports highlights”. 

Facebook has also bet big on this rising sports trend. The MLB had an exclusive broadcast agreement with Facebook to produce 26 live games online for $30m. The initiative was a success, with games receiving 123m views. Facebook has also made a deal to live stream La Liga games in India for free for the next three seasons.

These partnerships to produce online content are not intended to replace longer-form broadcast highlights and commentary though, at least not yet. Right now, it’s about social media giants, sports broadcasters and rights holders maximising the commercial opportunity.

A tug of war between broadcast and online?
There’s no doubt that TV behaviours have changed and are continuing to change; time spent watching online TV continues to increase – especially among the youngest generation of consumers – whilst traditional/linear TV has an increasingly ageing user base. But for the viewing of sports competitions/leagues, broadcast TV continues to reign. European digital consumers are watching twice as many sports on TV as they do online, for example. 

The English Premier League is a good example of a competition with a fractured distribution of broadcasting rights across the world, especially with Amazon Prime entering the mix for the 2019-20 season in the UK. But with around a third of consumers in the UK saying they wouldn’t pay for another subscription, how much will fans be willing to spend to access the content they want?   

Engagement for the Premier League differs across the world, but the pattern of viewership is very similar. Almost half of the global fan base is tuning into matches on linear TV, and a third are watching via online. Interestingly, 2 in 10 are watching the competition via a TV only, compared to just 1 in 10 who watch via online channels only. Very few fans are choosing one or the other then. Cross-channel engagement is very common. 

The appetite for broadcast games is still substantial, as is the fanbase who prefer more bite-sized content, and the fans who see the value in both. Subscription video on demand (SVOD) platforms dedicated to sports are still few and far between, but could really shake up the scene. TV and online broadcasters may exist in harmony for now, but for how long? How splintered can distribution rights become before consumers simply can’t keep up. 

Looking to the future
Arguably, it’s social media that could pose the greatest threat, as well as a great opportunity, for sports broadcasters and rightsholders. For the foreseeable, its role is to complement rather than compete. There’s no denying the pulling power of televised sport, but there are sure signs of the threat from online channels. Rightsholders face the threat of having to become less reliant on the guarantee of millions of consumers paying to watch.

Sports fans now span a variety of devices, platforms and timezones, and it’s in the sports industry’s interest to continue to find a balance between them all. Broadcasters alone can no longer satisfy the appetite of the modern sports fan, and it’s important that opportunities are seized as they arise.