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

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The decades old wisdom that premium live sport drives pay TV subscriptions is in need of a reality check. The youth audience—called millennials or generation Y—definitely want to engage with sport, but seem to prefer doing so online by visiting sites which show hardly any live or recorded in-game action.

To prove this, look at the rise of U.S.-based Whistle Sports which launched in January 2014 and has attracted 110 million subscribers across multiple channels, including 25 million on YouTube, 51 million on Facebook, 11 million Twitter followers, another 20 million on Instagram, and 4.5 million on Vine. It's gaining 2 million followers a week on its various social network accounts, and has just launched a e-gaming platform on Amazon-owned Twitch.

Or look at the similar content and distribution model of the U.K.'s Copa90 which focuses on football. It averages 3.6 million views and 13.8 million minutes watched per month on YouTube (where it recently reached 1 million subscribers), and publishes content across all the main social networks. In January, it acquired the digital network of Major League Soccer as a launch pad for its expansion into the U.S.

The common wisdom is that 14- to 25-year-olds prefer to access and interact with content on screens other than the TV, and that traditional media needs to react by adopting a mobile-first policy. But the reasons the YouTube social media audience for sports is growing is deeper than this. An aversion to paying for content is part of it, certainly, but there is also a feeling that the likes of Sky Sports, the BBC, NBC, or EPSN are peddling a brand of coverage that simply has less appeal.

Where conventional TV sports presentation is based around the live event and has a hard news, studio and desk-bound talent-in-suits approach, Whistle Sports and Copa90 have succeeded in capturing the spirit of the game by focusing on the culture and social aspects that surround the sport.

Both businesses encourage a network of independent content creators to publish authentic grass roots fan-based videos, and both supplement this with brand-funded content which aims to speak the same language.

According to Whistle Sports' executive vice president Brian Selander, short content includes instructional videos, bloopers, trick shots, and behind-the-scenes access. “Pretty much everything except for live game action,” he says. “There's a special emphasis on the aspects of athletics that is fun and surprising.”

The approach is similar at Copa90: “We think people go to Sky Sports to see what happened and fans come to Copa90 to find out how they feel about it,” says Phil Mitchelson, head of marketing at Copa90's parent company Bigballs. “We take every single piece of content that may be seen as wastage in a normal sports production—the build up, what restaurants to go to, what taxi to catch—and present it so that we have engaged fans weeks before the main content has even happened.”

Both companies say that their audience doesn't cannibalise the live viewing experience. “It's generative,” says Selander. “Once you go behind the scenes and get the insider perspective you can get a stronger connection to the [sports] brand and a stronger connection for audiences to want to watch the live game.”

Questioned at IBC as to whether or not this approach reached the new generation of fans, Dave Gibbs, Sky Sports' director of digital media, said: “A traditional broadcaster says 'I am going to talk at you and expect you to watch what I want you watch.' Copa90's approach is about building a community and bringing them into the conversation. There's a lot we can take from what they are doing.”

A few days later, Sky announced its first public collaboration with Whistle Sports, in which it invested $7 million a year ago. Whistle and Sky launched a social media channel in conjunction with Sky chat show brand Soccer AM.

Sky says its younger audiences are not deserting live broadcasts on its platforms, but hopes the move will expand its reach with millennials. “What we liked about Whistle was some of the commercial opportunities they create by working with brands to create branded content opportunities,” says Gibbs.

LG, Sony, Subaru, and Gillette have all customised campaigns for the network. “Branded content can't be along the lines of your traditional TV spot, but the millennial audience is more realistic than the older generation about accepting a brand's involvement in content at face value,” says Selander. “If the editorial tone and style is delivered in the right way then the audience will accept it.”

Whistle Sport revenue shares with 300 YouTube content creators including channels from Dude Perfect and NBA star Jeremy Lin. In return, creators get Whistle support and expertise.

“We support them with a data analytics and insights team does a lot of work mining data for what works, when it works, how it works, and how to do more of it,” says Selander. “On top of the data science piece we have a content production team providing advice on the best ways to make your video 'pop.' This team also creates and produces content. We can provide a business relationship for creators, for example in talking to Sky, and we also bring brands and agencies into the conversation.”

Global Reach for Sports

For Whistle Sports the partnership with Sky is about expanding its reach beyond the U.S. “We had lots of options and interest from people wanting to partner with us,” explains Selander. “Sky seemed like a fascinating fit—adding what is next into what is now. Sky has built a great brand in Soccer AM and strong relationships with the English Premier League, its teams and players. They have a great roster of traditional broadcast talent. Soccer AM is a great way to bring all of that more forcefully to a digital audience.”

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