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By Chris Wilson, Portfolio Director – Sports, MediaKind

While restrictions on live audiences have posed significant challenges to sports leagues, federations and fans alike, they have also catalyzed technological and operational experimentation within the industry. Major sports federations and rights-holders are now exploring alternative business models and technologies to keep their audiences engaged and digital access as wide as possible.

This has led to a far greater understanding of what fans want from a live sports experience – personalization, interactivity, and engagement. They want new ways to connect with their favorite teams and athletes outside of physical venues. A ‘Twitchification’ of sports broadcasting is underway as secondary platforms such as social media become increasingly prominent outlets for accessing live content. Top sports leagues are experiencing significant surges in social media engagement, with Formula One seeing its social media engagements grow 99% in 2020, and total video views across its digital and social platforms grow 46%. Brands are now looking into how they can deliver live content that engages audiences in unprecedented ways while retaining control of the content curation.

The age of interactivity in live sports

Converging fan engagement within the viewing experience offers an exciting glimpse into the future of live sports entertainment – from integrated betting services to virtual ‘watch-party’ features. It’s a mission that most broadcasters and sports federations are working toward. However, while interacting through video conferencing apps or social media has sufficed for other forms of entertainment, replicating these experiences in a way that enhances a live sports viewing experience is far more complex.

This is a challenge because broadcasters must synchronize much more complex and demanding video content, share the fan’s live feed with other participants, and facilitate a space for fans to share their thoughts and feelings in real-time. Managing all of this requires careful manipulation and control of both the Audio/Visual (AV) pipe and the data and experience layer.

Whether sports content is being accessed on a main-screen TV, via an OTT app, or through a brand’s website, the fan engagement mechanism must be handled separately from the main broadcast. The mechanism might involve viewers casting votes, making predictions, and sharing real-time commentaries.

Looking across the entertainment landscape, global reality show franchises such as ‘The X Factor,’ ‘America’s Got Talent,’ and ‘The Voice’ have been using fan engagement tools successfully for many years. These have primarily included audience voting and ‘bonus’ content available on second screens. However, they have traditionally used separate applications using independent devices, predominantly mobile phones. This approach doesn’t necessarily require the close synchronization needed with an interactive live sports broadcast, and, as such, creative new approaches are needed.

A front-end and back-end approach

The ultimate goal of a fan engagement platform is to drive an interactive experience for the sport and commercialization for the businesses involved. This commercialization comes by finding ways to engage transient fans while also understanding the needs of die-hard fans. Bringing in new revenue streams through gaming or betting features offers one way to achieve this. Additionally, giving fans options to pay for content either through subscription-based billing or on a per-event basis provides far greater flexibility and autonomy.

Creating these practical fan engagement tools can come in two ways. The first involves marrying data together with the experience itself within the front-end. However, this approach tends to require input from several different parties and involves heavy integration – which poses several challenges.

Broadcasters can also work in the back-end to manipulate and prepare video streams while ensuring data feeds work in the interactive environment. This is where MediaKind has been working closely with sports federations and leagues to deliver a better content pipeline, combining video and data to unlock a whole new world of commercialization.

5G is also playing an important role in enriching storytelling within live sports. One way it achieves this is by increasing access to cameras and sources of content from within a stadium or arena and enabling a greater number of more dynamic content sources. 5G can also deliver an enhanced companion experience to fans watching from within the venue itself. This includes sharing personalized live content for friends watching at home or in another part of the stand, whether it’s video, gifs, games – or perhaps a ‘friendly’ message to ‘remind’ them of the latest score!

Stability is critical in the delivery of live sports

A recent report from MediaKind and The Sports Playmaker found that delivering a reliable sports streaming platform at scale remains a significant priority – and challenge – for rights-holders rolling out direct-to-consumer (D2C) services. While it’s still rare to experience high-profile glitches in an OTT service, many rights-holders experience teething problems in the early months of the service, which can have subsequent impacts on fan engagement and brand loyalty.

With the accelerated move underway from traditional linear broadcast technologies to streaming services and the increase in the number of sports rights-holders offering live events online, these volumes will increase exponentially in the coming years. Rights-holders need streaming service providers that can guarantee stability and scalability.

To attract and retain subscribers and to keep viewers on screen for the longest time possible, D2C OTT platforms must be able to support multiple video formats across a complex array of device platforms. High-profile glitches during major events do not only cause dissatisfaction among fans: they can damage the brand image of the sports body itself. And as betting services are increasingly integrated into D2C services, the need to simultaneously improve quality while reducing latency will become business-critical to protecting that revenue stream.

Join me at SportsPro LIVE!

 The opportunities for creativity and innovation in delivering live sports content are riper than ever. There has never been a more exciting time to work in the intersection of live sports and broadcast, where technology developments have truly catalyzed the options available to sports fans and federations.

If you’re interested in hearing from me and other leaders in the live sports broadcast industry, join me this Thursday (April 29) at 12:20 pm BST for an in-depth panel discussion at the 2021 SportsPro LIVE! I’ll be joining Astro’s CK Lee, Grass Valley’s Robert Erickson, and TV sports presenter Sid Kohli to explore how broadcasters can leverage the latest advancements in media technology to upgrade the broadcast experience.

Find out more about the event here and register below!

Register here!