Sports Viewers Stream Their Teams, Changing the Game for Pay TV

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Signs are that it's working: 400,000 people have already liked it on the Soccer AM Facebook page.

According to Selander, more than 35 percent of Whistle Sports' audience is not based in the U.S. An international expansion has been planned for a while, led by Jeff Nathenson, former YouTube head of football, based out of Whistle Sports' new London office.

“Even before Sky we had several hundred thousand followers in the U.K.,” says Selander.

 “While soccer is a focus for us given its massive global fanbase, the Whistle Sports social media experience is less about 'which ball' and more about the uplifting moments in sport—and those moments tend to cross boundaries.

“Millennials are global sports fans: They like to stream global sports content and discuss it on social media,” he argues. “Sport is inherently exportable compared to other verticals. A ball goes into the net in the same language whether you're in North America, Scandinavia, or China. We think there's real value in owning one vertical like sports.”

Sports Rights Shift Online

Whistle Sports has content deals with the NFL, Major League Baseball, MLS, NASCAR, the PGA Tour, and the Harlem Globetrotters. The leagues share archived content with Whistle Sports, though not live games. While Google has so far not dipped into its purse for live rights it could be just a matter of time, using growing YouTube sports fans as a base.

Live rights to streamed content from the major leagues remain at a massive premium, but signs are that both rights owners and internet players want to shift the action online. The NFL will stream the live game between the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars on October 25 from London's Wembley Stadium on Yahoo sites—the league's first exclusive pact with a digital channel. The NBA and Turner Sports streamed the first live game on Facebook in simulcast with cable's NBA TV.

“When you look at the NFL streaming rights paid by Yahoo, it's a breakthrough, but sports rights is not the best use of our money,” says Selander.

BigBalls CEO Thomas Thirlwall says rights holders are keen to share content with the network for free.

“With the connection with fans that we have we find that footage is being offered to us for no payment because rights holders are very keen on making sure they engage with the right audience which for them is the future of their sport.” As an example, Copa90 gained exclusive behind-the-scenes video access to the Brazilian soccer team during the World Cup 2014. “Football leagues and clubs want to play the game in front of fans. They want loyalty from fans and they realise that this group is being consistently overlooked by traditional media and are going online first.”

From 2016 to 2020, Sky will be able to take advantage of a new deal with the English Premier League allowing it to show clips from every EPL game across its digital platforms, including in-match content and highlights. That's something the Soccer AM social site could tap into.

The Sports TV Disruptor

However, there is skepticism from BigBalls which says it was approached by Sky to partner with the broadcaster.

“I don’t know any business that can survive by ignoring the next generation of fans,” says Thirlwall. “We’ve spent the last five years only going after that audience. We know how to talk to them because we listen to them and we invite them to be a part of the conversation. When we listen, we react and alter our programming to give them more of what they want."

The sports broadcast community will come more and more into this space, he says. It’s difficult to move away from legacy business models. “The problem is that big media businesses always handle young audiences very clumsily, and often in a very patronising way. We’re a massive disruptor of traditional linear broadcasting. The way we engage sports audiences, the way we find our talent, and the editorial tone of the stories we tell defy all previous logic that applied to TV sports programming.”

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