As we approach the end of 2016, football fans are setting their sights on the NFL Playoffs and gearing up for the culmination of their teams’ yearlong efforts – the Super Bowl. As an avid Indianapolis Colts fan, I find myself mired in playoff speculation and debating my team’s (slim) chances. But as the year (a forgettable one for a Colts fan) draws to a close, something else about not only football, but sports overall has struck me – not the wins or the (many) losses, or the player trades or injuries, but the way we as fans watch it.
With headlines such as Sports Illustrated’s Snap! Tweet! Score! How We Consume Football in the Age of Inattention to The Atlantic’s NFL Ratings Just Fell Off a Cliff, it is clear that both the powers that be in the NFL and the content providers (cable and streaming) have been making moves. Any avid sports fan can see that the ingrained content delivery model of sports is toeing the line of disruption.
For dedicated sports fans, this twinge of disruption raises many questions. How will the sports viewing model evolve in the future? What will be the impact of social media on sports content? How can providers prepare for the changes that will continue to take place at an increasingly rapid clip? Oh, and most importantly – how will these changes impact the way I watch the Colts? (even though sometimes it’s a painful viewing experience).
The need for change
Live sports are the holy grail of appointment television, the last vestige of traditional viewing habits in an era when anything can be streamed on-the-go. Unlike scripted (or reality) shows where networks have to scramble to attract an increasingly fickle audience, engaging sports fans is much easier. Sports fans already have a vested interest in watching that is rooted in loyalty, nostalgia and often times, borderline insanity causing the most ardent fans of one team in particular to never miss a game.
But there are many signs that the way we traditionally consume sports content is changing. There has been a noticeable decline in NFL game ratings this season. While the quality of play and the distaste for the officiating (is there a flag on every play?) certainly plays a role in this downturn, so too does the shifting attitudes of fans and the rise of millennial consumers.
Earlier this year, CSG conducted a survey, revealing that millennials demonstrate significantly stronger dislike of commercials than the older audiences, and are more likely to leave the room when ads come on.
What does that mean? Well, ad-heavy network TV games run the risk of becoming a relic of a bygone sports viewing era, as social networks and streaming services look to usher in the next generation experience that transforms the fan engagement model.
Social media takes on sports streaming
It may be time for the color rush uniform experiment to end, but one Thursday Night Football experiment that could move out of the laboratory soon is the game’s unexpected new home: Twitter. Overall, the experiment has proved to be successful, with a steady increase in ratings and positive feedback from fans. Furthermore, the service is doing well with a coveted audience—70 percent of viewers are under the age of 35 – that same group that bolts out of the room during ads. In our microwave society, the appeal is apparent – the ability to watch the game on-the-go and integrate the social aspects of sports fandom seamlessly into content viewing, from sharing clips and memes to trash-talking online.
Other social platforms are also getting in on the trend: Facebook Live is experimenting with its delivery model, teaming up with everyone from FOX Sports to the NBA to NASCAR, and Snapchat has its new Spectacles product, used by the NHL’s Minnesota Wild and NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers to bring social sharing to life.
By creating a multi-device viewing experience and providing live updates based on the action happening in the game, social networks and providers can engage with viewers in real-time.
Sports go virtual
Delivery mechanism aside, there are bigger changes on the sports horizon. In the next decade, we will see a growing overlap between the physical and digital worlds, and that overlap brings huge opportunities in sports consumption. Indeed, companies like Next VR already offer a virtual reality sports viewing experience but that experience has yet to be fine-tuned.
Fans are not the only ones who stand to benefit from VR – this new form of sports consumption changes the model for sports teams, leagues, and advertisers. VR presents an entirely new form of storytelling just as television did in the radio age. One early example of this comes from the Golden State Warriors who put virtual reality cameras in one courtside seat, enabling them to sell a “season ticket” many times over to multiple fans. Other examples include FOX Sports broadcasting the MLS Cup final live in VR or the PGA tour using VR to put viewers right on the golf course.
Tapping into the virtual world can give providers new avenues to reach their target consumers and gather more information on their preferences without the complete interruptions of the traditional sports viewing experience through TV-sets. If these early movers thrive from this crash-course, VR could very well become how we all consume sports in the future.
Lessons for the future
The key takeaway is that sports viewing models do not need to take up an entire television screen with a commercial break to engage fans. Both the advertisers and the deliverers of sports content have the power to shift the current model and avoid losing millennial viewers by looking into options such as split-screen viewing, social media partnerships, and virtual reality technologies.
How we watch the game is changing. It’s time to get in on the action!
For more of CSG’s thoughts on the future of sports content delivery, check out this great article in The Huffington Post.
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