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The rise of the sports OTT app

By: Anna Cotton

There’s a revolution taking place in sports media, one that’s being driven by cloud-based video delivery and watch-anywhere content consumption on OTT apps.

Sports fans have long tuned in to broadcast games or watched scheduled highlight shows on TV, but they’re increasingly streaming the action via an app on a connected device. Not only is streaming convenient for today’s digital-savvy audiences, but it offers them a different experience. The NBA’s League Pass, for example, enables viewers to watch specific portions of the game and select new camera angles, like the Ref Cam. While the NFL’s Game Pass features a multi-view option, enabling fans to watch more than one live game at a time.

As one industry expert told SportsPro, the DTC approach “is the single most transformative shift in broadcasting for this generation.” It should come as no surprise that Deloitte Global predicts streamers will spend over US$6 billion on exclusive major sports rights in 2023.

There are unique opportunities here too, from live media streaming and team-branded channels to greater coverage of niche sports, women’s sports and in-depth live coverage of international events. Sports fans are already turning on to these DTC offerings, and turning off conventional television. Viewing habits are changing. In July 2022, streaming outperformed cable and broadcast TV in the US for the first time. While Altman Solon’s 2022 Global Sports Survey revealed that 27% (US) and 20% (UK) sports fans prefer to watch video highlights of a game over watching the live match.

All of this has direct implications for how sports federations and leagues engage fans.

Changing broadcast platforms

The swing away from linear TV to digital-first and on-demand content is causing some sports organisations to partner with online companies as well as broadcasters. Others are developing (or have already developed) their own OTT platforms and apps to reach their audiences directly. 

Liberty Media, the owner of Formula One, owns and operates F1 TV Pro, which is accessible via web, iOS, Android, Google TV, Apple TV, Roku and Amazon Fire TV apps. The subscription service offers commercial-free live streams of qualifying sessions and races, along with a choice of on-board cameras and live timing data, plus press conferences, interviews and documentaries. F1 TV Pro is available in over 60 countries worldwide, although the UK version lacks live race coverage due Sky Sports’ exclusive rights to broadcast F1.

FIFA launched its FIFA+ DTC service in 2022 to stream “the equivalent of 40,000 live games per year from 100 Member Associations across all six confederations, including 11,000 women’s matches.” Available on the web and through a mobile app, the service also features original football documentaries, a World Cup archive, live scores, match stats and breaking news. FIFA President Gianni Infantino called it a “cultural shift in the way different types of football fans want to connect with and explore the global game.”

Of course, there are dangers here too. The fragmentation of rights across different platforms could make it harder (and more expensive) for sports fans to find and enjoy the content they’ve been used to. In addition, media streaming can be an inconsistent experience, dependent on a customer’s internet connectivity, location and bandwidth. Subscribers paying premium subscriptions won’t tolerate low latency streams.

Deepening fan engagement

Apps like F1 TV Pro and FIFA+, as well as those from the NFL, NBA and MLB, offer a route for rights holders to promote a deeper engagement with sports fans. Formula One already has a host of content deals with various broadcasters. But a dedicated OTT platform and companion app provides a more direct connection to its audience. This relationship, in turn, allows it to offer a tailored, branded service; to collect personal data; and, of course, to monetise both new and archive content.

From a customer perspective, OTT services are supremely convenient. Fans can choose the content they want to watch, when they want to watch it, and on whatever device they prefer. OTT can also deliver concurrent streams, offering a choice of viewpoints, as well as information and live data. Motorsport fans, for example, will often have a number of screens open to view multiple camera angles, as well as lap times and race statistics. Multi-screen content consumption is fast becoming the norm.

Using mobile devices, there’s the potential for augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) too, providing in-stadium experiences that are driven by 4G and 5G networks. “Operators have identified [live sports] events as the springboard for roll-out of a whole range of new interactive and immersive services,” said Gary Miles, CMO of services provider Amdocs. During the World Cup in Qatar, FIFA+ tested this theory with its Stadium Experience app, providing live AR overlays featuring real-time stats, line-ups, heatmaps and in-game insights. 

For sports organisations, OTT provides an efficient way to engage with a fragmented fan base, no matter where they live, unconstrained by TV schedules or rights issues. By removing the middleman, it’s forcing IP holders to understand and derive value from their content. An OTT platform enables them to own and manage the entire user experience, helping to reinforce the brand while gathering valuable customer data. DTC channels are also easier to market via social media, which is often an intrinsic part of the service.

The tech giants move in

The appeal of OTT delivery has also seen many of the tech giants break into the live sports space. The likes of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Snapchat are all making inroads into the market and they plan to stay for the long-term.

Apple spent a reported $2.5 billion on a 10-year deal to stream every Major League Soccer (MLS) game exclusively through its Apple TV app. Running through to 2032, the service will provide match content plus game replays, highlights, analysis, and other original programming. In a smaller, but by no means less significant deal, Apple paid MLB an estimated $85 million to stream Friday Night Baseball.

Amazon signed a $13.2 billion deal with the NFL to broadcast “Thursday Night Football” in 2022, the first time exclusive rights have been granted to a streaming service. “Obviously, we’re an innovation-first company,” said Marie Donoghue, VP, Global Sports Video, Amazon. “We approach our broadcast that way, and you’ll see it in the broadcast. The OTT platform provides us a great opportunity to provide not just new ways to engage fans with data, highlights, and alternate feeds but also almost infinite choice.”

Amazon continues to stream a number of Premier League football games in the UK and paid a reported £1.4 billion-£1.5 billion to secure selected broadcast rights to the UEFA Champions League from 2024. The company has big ambitions and deep pockets, having also pursued the rights to screen F1 in the US. Ultimately, Amazon lost out to ESPN who reportedly agreed to pay between $75-$90 million per season – 15 times higher than the previous rights deal.

There’s room for smaller innovations too. As highlights, over 60 million people viewed World Cup Stories content on Snapchat and in excess of 285 million used the app’s World Cup AR lenses to see themselves in football shirts and clothing. 

Future commercial opportunities

As Deloitte Insights suggests: providers want to “use live sporting events to entice advertisers, who see their sizable audiences as a smart investment. Sports organisations, on their end, want to monetize their rights further, expand access to products, and pursue younger consumers.”

Industry watchers say the EPL will be watching Amazon’s efforts with interest, as it mulls over launching its own OTT platform. Indeed, UEFA has already launched a dedicated media streaming platform, bringing European football to fans outside of Europe and North America.

“In my view, the Premier League has the opportunity to become a broadcaster in its own right and dwarf the revenues it currently gets,” said former Crystal Palace chairman Simon Jordan. “I’ve spoken about the Premier League becoming the ‘Netflix of football’, i.e., the video on demand platform that controls its own product. If you had 100 million subscribers on ‘Premier League TV’ like with Netflix at £8 a month, you’d be bringing in £10 billion a year, not £8.7 billion every three years like the current deal does.”

Clearly the arrival of DTC services and apps is transforming the face of sports media, and while it’s not sounding the death knell for traditional TV coverage just yet, it does signal a huge shift in power. As MediaKind’s Jean-Christophe Pineault told, “The Apple-MLS streaming deal offers an interesting barometer for where we are in the streaming story… Should the streaming strategy widen MLS’s reach, access, and global appeal, it could even be a catalyst for an influx of D2C platforms acquiring sports digital rights in the coming years.”

Adapting content workflows

All the indicators point to the continued growth of streaming sport, both in terms of established services and those sports associations, federations, leagues and teams who have yet to explore the possibilities. Large or small, OTT is democratising access to sports content. Powered by a cloud-based media asset management platform, organisations have the ability to store and share collections of live and on-demand footage online themselves.

Using a media asset management platform like Imagen to facilitate the content supply chain, content can be seamlessly ingested from multiple sources including live feeds, accessed and edited remotely (using a cloud video editing solution like Blackbird), pushed back into Imagen for AI-enabled metadata enrichment, before being auto-distributed via workflows to a streaming channel and app – all in near-real time. 

Automated distribution workflows allow content owners to offer programmed file delivery for broadcast partners, OTT platforms, subscribing clients, or even other departments in their organisation. 

It’s a system that already works for Chelsea Football Club, The Premier League, ATP Media, IMG Replay and many others we can’t name.

By employing a cloud-based media asset management platform at the centre of media production workflow, content owners can realise greater value from their content, strike better partnership deals, and ultimately provide a better service to an engaged, tech-savvy fan base that are becoming disillusioned with traditional TV.

Want to know more? Contact Imagen today.

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