Shared Experience: Live Sport and The Move to Social
// Eoin Connolly // SportsPro

Since social networks became social media – forums for sharing news and content rather than directories for connecting with friends – there have been questions about when they might begin to compete in the broadcast space. Those questions have only grown louder since the biggest among them began developing outlets for real-time video.  

Twitter bought Periscope shortly before its 2015 launch, and has now integrated live video directly into its main site. Facebook Live became available to companies in 2015 and in April of last year, it was opened up to all-comers. 

Sport has followed. Twitter has picked up live simulcast streaming rights to selected games in the National Football League (NFL), and the likes of PGA Tour golf and Australian Open tennis. Facebook Live has become the home of events looking to grow their audience in markets where they lack a mainstream TV deal, from Spanish women’s soccer to Caribbean Premier League cricket to Formula E. With near-live digital video clips already common, full live streaming is only a step behind. 

“I don’t think there’s one single thing; I think we’re actually seeing a combination of many things coming out,” suggests Richard Collins, the chief executive of Tellyo, a real-time editing, sharing and content management system for the social media market. 

“We’re seeing an audience saying, ‘Hey, live is really interesting.’ We’re seeing a technology enablement that makes it far more simple and far more cost-effective to actually do this. I mean, it’s no longer the case that if you want to be live streaming you’re at the bleeding edge of technology. It’s maybe not mainstream, but it’s getting there.”

Live video streaming has been a reality online for close to a decade, and elite sport has been a part of it for much of that time. Cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL) agreed a two-year deal to stream its games live on YouTube all the way back in January 2010, with coverage then carried in every country other than the US. But there are key technical differences between that exercise and the current vogue for live social video.    

Practical advances, certainly, are one factor. Improved download speeds in several markets have not only allowed more users to stream video but also to do so without compromising on quality. For Carlo De Marchis, chief product and marketing officer at broadcast and digital media solutions specialist Deltatre, the gap between traditional TV sources and digital streaming has been bridged entirely on some platforms. The challenge, he says, comes from building technical solutions that can provide “a strong beyond-TV opportunity”.

Another factor is that, where the IPL’s YouTube partnership was an exercise in mimicking the linear broadcast model, rights holders that make their coverage available on social networks have a better chance of finding a new audience. Digital services have a different marketing infrastructure from TV channels, and a platform on the scale of YouTube does not direct its audience to a single viewing in the manner of a linear broadcaster. 

Tellingly, when BT Sport partnered with YouTube for its UK free-to-air simulcast of last season’s Uefa Champions League final, its coverage was promoted through a campaign across Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter. In the event, BT was also able to measure viewing figures and times on YouTube, and direct marketing around its subscription packages, using cookie data.

Seven years on from the debut of YouTube T20 there is also a better understanding of the strengths and potential of social platforms, and rights holders and brands can be better informed of what will and will not work. 

“Traditional broadcast usually focuses on live action on the field of play with digital content used for alternate camera angle footage, highlights, and expert commentary,” says Igor Ulis, chief executive of digital content delivery consultant OMNIGON. “As such, digital content has not had the same fan engagement as traditional broadcast has. However, with evolving technologies like 360 video and virtual reality, we see digital playing a key role in engaging fans. These new video formats can offer a truly immersive experience that comes close to in-venue content consumption.”   

While the most newsworthy aspect of the move to live on social media has been the conventional broadcast of events like NFL’s Thursday Night Football, the choices open to content owners are much wider. Flexibility and accessibility are baked into platforms that, after all, are built to house user-generated content.

“You need to have a clear endgame of what you’re trying to achieve,” says Collins, “because there’s a number of different technology platforms out there that can enable you to share either a live stream from a specific event or will enable you to clip and share – in real or near-real time – extracts from a broadcaster’s stream. 

“And it’s a question of what you want to do. Are you trying to generate a different audience? Are you trying to grow awareness or are you just trying to reutilise this content into a new platform, or transfer audience from social through to linear? What is it you want to do? Have a clear view, and then seek out the best technology partner and try the platforms out.”

Rights holders at different levels have different priorities. Those at the very top end may be in an experimental phase, feeling out its potential before entertaining the option of deeper partnerships with social platforms – not least as they explore what flexibility to build into future TV rights deals. For those further down the scale, sharing live streams with fans through social media could well be the best way to reach them, particularly with supporting content.

Rights holders can also have different needs in terms of how much live video content they use. A major soccer team, for example, can find that while fans have an appetite to watch full games involving the first team, goal clips and alerts will better serve youth and reserve sides.  

“We’re also seeing people using social live streams as a teaser, through to either on-demand, pay-TV and, in some cases, linear,” Collins notes. “So I don’t think there’s going to be a single one size fits all, irrespective of what tier of sport you’re in.”

Collins stresses the importance of creating video editing tools that, while powerful, are intuitive and straightforward to use. He believes that to properly harness the potential of social video it needs to be put in the hands of people who know how to convey the “passion” that live sport can generate. 

“I mean, this is something that has to engage in a few seconds,” he adds, “and sport encapsulates passion, tribalism, that thing you feel on the inside when your team is winning.”

The effectiveness of Tellyo and similar platforms is dependent on being able “to democratise the technology”. 

“In this technological era, it’s more important that they understand engagement on a social platform and understand storytelling then it is that they’re a great video editor,” Collins says. “Let’s let the computers do the heavy lifting on the video, and let’s let human ingenuity and storytelling create great, engaging content.”

Tellyo was in its “dark beta” phase of testing “for the first nine months of 2016”, a period in which the company was able to get pertinent feedback from five of its most significant clients. “And we learned so much in those nine months that we actually rewrote our entire platform twice,” Collins reveals. “And, for us, that was where we decided that single-clip wasn’t enough; that montages, highlights, news reel creation in great-quality adaptive bitrate was essential.”

To that end, Tellyo has not only made it possible for users to create edited highlights from a single stream, but has also worked up a new feature that makes it possible for users to access the platforms controlling raw broadcast feeds. 

“That’s a bit of a game-changer,” Collins says, “because suddenly the social media editor has access to content that was previously the domain of the OB truck – you know, 24 cameras on a single game – and can choose angles. In some respects, it takes storytelling – and we come back to this phrase time and time and time again – because just having a million different pieces of content doesn’t help you create a great, engaging clip.”

Getting the attention of fans, ultimately, is at the core of what rights holders are trying to achieve. The value of social video is on the rise. According to ‘Putting a Price On Social Video’, a report by Burst Insights, short video clips posted on social media by Premier League clubs last season generated an estimated UK£88m in brand value exposure for their kit suppliers. Of the best-performing videos across all platforms, 29 per cent were short match clips – more than any other format outside of live streaming.

There are benefits to building an audience on a social platform that go beyond what is possible in linear broadcasts. In late 2016, social video specialist Grabyo ran a test on a Manchester United soccer game to gauge interaction and reaction. First it measured social media activity and found, unsurprisingly, that it spiked around goals and major incidents. When it ran those reactions through a language analysis tool, it found that it was possible to discern differences in the reaction based not only on the volume of output but the nature of it. 

Theoretically, it could be possible to use such data to better inform – or even automate – the process of editing footage for highlights. On live entertainment shows, meanwhile, there is the opportunity to measure how different segments are performing. That can aid creative choices, and it can give brands an insight into how best to align themselves with social programming.  

“Social media offers a glimpse into fan behaviour that can be measured,” says Ulis. “For example, we’ve seen views per share ratio decrease over 40 per cent in last 12 months, meaning more people are sharing videos that they’re viewing via social channels. This is a very telling metric since the same views per share ratios have not shifted dramatically outside social media channels. Brands looking to raise awareness can take advantage of this fact and utilise social media video viewing as a meaningful channel to increase brand awareness and reach.”

Ulis sees this as fundamental to what will drive rights holders to social platforms in the months ahead. 

“Being able to measure engagement and capturing data points that drive business goals from social media channels will be key to major brand adoption of social video publishing,” he says. “We see data as one of the key focus areas for all our clients, especially data capture when it comes to fan engagement via social networks.”

De Marchis concurs. “The great advantage I see in live social video is the participation aspect, which enables more depth of measurement as it can also provide qualitative beyond quantitative,” he says.

For Collins, it is a matter of when, rather than whether rights holders will engage. “I think everybody will adopt whatever platforms provide them the greatest and the most valuable audience,” he adds.

Asked how the sector he expects the sector will develop, Collins suggests that there will be “different answers depending on what sport you’re in and where you are”. 

“Some of the really big brands are actually beginning to really investigate,” he says. “There’s a major club in Spain which is putting together an innovation centre and looking at how media will evolve over a number of years, so they’re starting to really experiment and trying to work out where they can go themselves. But what we’re also seeing is some major movers in the likes of eSports who are digital natives – this is where they started – and their appetite for digital and social, and all things accessible to a global audience, is driving at an incredible rate of knots. So technologically, I think we’re in a really great position.”

Data on the radar

Live video is one element that has heightened engagement opportunities for sports organisations on social media, but it is only part of the picture. Live data, which is growing ever richer and more open to interpretation, is also driving interaction and sharing. 

Sportradar, an integrity specialist which has made its name as a betting and anti-corruption monitor, has diversified in the last 18 months to offer a broader range of data distribution services. It has made a breakthrough in the US, where it has now signed stats distribution partnerships with the likes of the National Football League (NFL), the National Hockey League (NHL) and, most recently, the National Basketball Association (NBA). According to chief commercial officer Steve Byrd, North America was a natural place to start. 

“Traditionally the US leagues have had data distribution partners, for a much longer time than in soccer and other federations,” he says. “The US is a very statistics-driven culture; so is the way that we follow sport and with fantasy sports being such a big thing here for such a long time.”

The technical challenge of collating and disseminating large quantities of in-game data in real time is one Sportradar has prepared for through its previous activities, with Byrd crediting “the core competency” the company has developed in “the servicing of all the bookmakers and the fraud detection system” as being particularly attractive to its new partners. 

“The way that the operation works,” Byrd explains, “is that we receive the data feeds from the leagues and then we put that into a consistent API [application programming interface] format so that our clients know that whether they are getting NHL, NBA, NFL, college football, college basketball, golf, international soccer, that there is going to be a consistent data scheme in their ability to process that is much enhanced by our ability to deliver that in a consistent format.

“The key to the whole process is speed. And it is certainly obvious for the online bookmaking industry where the in-play gaming is so critical but it is the same for fantasy games, where they are showing real time scoring to all the mobile clients that we serve where people need that information as fast as it happens because otherwise they are behind their friends; they are behind what is happening on TV.”

Byrd adds that the creation of the API early on is the pivotal part of the process, supporting all of the processing work that follows. 

The move to watching and following sport live on social platforms, he says, has “greatly” affected the delivery of statistics. “For instance,” he notes, “when you post on Facebook that you are watching Chelsea versus Liverpool – or are at the match – and you post the score, I will then be seeing a live score of that game on my feed. That is all coming from Sportradar. That’s the power in social. 

“In that sense it is not necessarily about delivering the data to someone who is looking for it. We have tons of clients like Bleacher Report and The Score where people are coming to seek out that information but with social media we are adding to what is being shared about the events, which people are doing more and more but we are now adding that context. It is all integrated now. We are now building the digitalisation, widgets, or mobile cards of the content to be shareable, to be snackable. To fit into that form factor that people want to consume data, that they are getting most of their information from what they see on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook.”  

Byrd anticipates the next developments in the distribution of live data to be in the type of information made available by rights holders. Player tracking is already “in the early innings” but new data sets like impact measurement and, in particular, biometric data could give fans an entirely different picture. “Again, the technology helps in creating new content that allows a further understanding of the game,” Byrd adds. “Fan engagement is our primary interest but certainly the leagues are using it for tactical and coaching information.”  

Sportradar has “covered something like 400,000 live events” but it still has plans to expand its activities. Its next move is into the growing eSports market, where it has become the official betting data and media partner of the Electronic Sports League (ESL). 

“The APIs are consistent for a media company to consider,” Byrd says. “Whether it is on CounterStrike or League of Legends, we have all of those APIs. We are delivering those to companies now, who are frankly just starting to figure out how to display it and how fans want to consume that information. I think that is going to be critical for a broader interest in eSports, for people who aren’t intimate in playing the games themselves to be able to understand how people are winning and what makes you a good eSports player or team. We are very excited about that.”