Live sports are looking online to revive flagging interest – will it work?

By Jim O'Neill on Apr 20 2017 at 10:45 AM

Live sports – once seen as the sure bet for TV ratings – have suddenly gone cold with fans. Attendance at events is down and the bigger money maker, TV ratings, also continue to decline.

Last season’s ratings for the NFL – the Daddy Warbucks of pro sports -- were down 12% from 2015 for the first nine weeks of the season, a slide pundits blamed on a spirited presidential race. But even after that contest was decided, ratings for the rest of the regular season were off 9% and playoff ratings were down 5%.

Professional golf has felt the pain, too. The final round of the Masters tied its lowest ratings since 1980. A week later, the Heritage drew 2.4 million viewers on CBS and just a 1.4 rating for Sunday’s final round, an 8% drop in viewers and 13% ratings drop from a year ago, according to Sports Media Watch (SMW). Broadcasters have seen nearly a dozen consecutive rating declines for final round golf action, seven of those multi-year lows.

Major League Baseball just kicked off its 2017 season, and there’s little doubt the league is hoping for a repeat of the 2016 World Series where – for the first time since 2004 – viewership and ratings ticked up significantly, driven by the 40 million viewers who tuned in for Game 7 between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians.

Still, the average 23 million viewers who watched the Series featuring the Chicago Cubs was just more than half (52%) the average number of viewers that watched the Yankees and Dodgers Fall Classic battle in 1978. That series averaged more than 44 million viewers.

In an effort to regain that old-time magic, the league is looking at Facebook, Amazon and YouTube as potential future partners in its push to appeal to younger viewers online.

“I think there will be aggregators of live sports content going forward. It might be some of those companies,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said in an interview last year.

It’s not just major sports leagues that are struggling, NASCAR has been battling falling attendance and ratings for years. SMW figures show the first four races of the NASCAR season were bombs on TV. The season’s opening race, the Daytona 500, scored its second-lowest ratings ever for the event, followed by historic lows for NASCAR’s race in Phoenix, which were down nearly 20% from a year ago.

Nor is it just teams in the United States that are looking for ways to reach new, younger viewers.

This week, Italy’s top soccer league – Lega Serie A – said it planned to tailor video rights offerings available this summer to attract bidders like Amazon, although it still expects the biggest piece of the pie to go to legacy pay-TV operators.

Millennials are sports’ ‘white whales’

The issue, of course, is how to maintain and grow a fan base as baby Boomers begin to exit and Millennials enter, with their focus on consuming content on mobile devices, even sports.

The average age of the MLB’s average TV fan is 56, the oldest of any major U.S. sport, according to AdWeek, with the NFL not far behind at 49 and the NBA a relatively spry 41.

A global survey from Ampere Analytics showed viewers 18-24 are the least interested in sports as a genre, with the worst numbers coming in the U.S. and U.K.

The NFL, for one, believes it can go online to stop its rating slide and attract the Millennials it desperately needs. The league has. For decades, conducted a master class in fan engagement.

It recognized TV as key to its growth early on, changed the game to appeal to TV viewers – NFL v2.0 -- instead of just an in-stadium experience. Along with its broadcast partners, it added multiple camera angles, experimented with live mics on players, loaded up on highlights and made the game more personal.

Fans – mostly Boomers – loved it.

In its move online, NFL v3.0, it began experimenting with Sunday Night football, adding multiple camera angles that fans could control, making it more interactive, more like a video game.

It tested online delivery more aggressively with Yahoo for a single game and a limited audience. Last year it sold NFL Thursday Night Football online rights to Twitter in an effort to reach a huge, albeit largely unengaged audience across the globe.

Most recently, of course, Amazon grabbed TNF rights for $50 million.

Amazon is the next step in the NFLs digital strategy, which eventually will culminate with the league making all games available to streamers on an a la carte basis – perhaps on Amazon, perhaps on another platform.

Amazon has three crucial pieces that make it attractive to the NFL:

• A built in growing global customer base of better than 60 million users who already buy content, both in the transactional and subscription mode; the fact that their credit cards already are on file also makes it easier for the NFL to sell merchandise through Amazon on game day, a unique revenue stream that both will exploit.

• Its understanding of marketing and ability to leverage its various brands to support each other; it will make much better use of its dance with TNF than Twitter did.

• Technology that’s helped it develop into the primary competitor to Netflix.

The bottom line:

For Amazon, it’s a foot in the door, a chance to show just how it can extend the NFL’s audience – with the kind of marketing punch the NFL is looking for – to back it with strong advertising sales and to develop a reliable audience that resembles one it looks for in its broadcast and cable partners. That Amazon already is spending billions on content, and its willingness to pony up $50 million for the NFL’s lowest-rated game day, presages additional investment from the company down the road.

It’s a lesson for other sports content owners, too, one that will be played out over the next few months and that will serve as yet another example of how consumers – especially younger ones – have chosen watching online as their preferred method of consumption.

MLB, the NBA and NHL and even NASCAR all have bought into online video and social media to one degree or another, but there’s still a long way to go.

Millennials may not be the most engaged sports fans at the moment, especially if sporting content is presented to them on traditional television screens, but they are a growing segment of the addressable audience that will only continue to grow.

You have to go where they go, and they go online.

Stay tuned.

Jim O’Neill is Principal Analyst and Strategic Media Consultant - U.S. West, for Ooyala. You can follow him on Twitter @JimONeillMedia and on LinkedIn

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