New trends in content distribution are great for fans, but a challenge for providers, argues Nick Thomas of specialist research and strategy consultancy MTM Sport
The BBC’s recent documentary tribute to Sir Bobby Charlton on his 80th birthday was a reminder not just of a great sportsman’s talent and class, but of a lost age of sports coverage. Those grainy black-and-white clips of Sir Bobby in his prime – gliding across the sodden pitches and striking that heavy ball so sweetly – feel like they are from a completely different era from the football industry of today, even though the man himself is, happily, still a very visible presence in the British game.
When the BBC first broadcast its football highlights programme Match of the Day in August 1964, when Sir Bobby was approaching his prime, only 20,000 fans tuned in to watch highlights of Liverpool vs Arsenal. The following year, several clubs reportedly tried to block a renewed deal with the BBC, fearing that it would lead to a drop in attendances. But for most fans, that weekly show was the only way to watch top-tier football.
Coverage of football has changed beyond all recognition
Consider how the landscape has changed in the 50 odd years since then. We take for granted that football in the UK (and beyond) is now a multi-billion-dollar industry, where the most valuable companies in the world – including Amazon and Google - are reportedly lining up to bid for the next tranche of TV rights. These newcomers are now challenging the pay-TV providers – the previous disruptors - whose business was largely built on the back of sports rights.
We’ve come a long way, and compared to fans from a previous era, British football fans in 2017 have no shortage of options. Splitting up the TV rights has increased the riches in the game but fans who want to see all Premier League matches live on TV need to subscribe to two rival services, while the free-to-air broadcasters offer live coverage of the national team’s games, the FA Cup and (some) games from the two European competitions. All this is well understood by fans, but it’s worth reflecting on how complex and fragmented the landscape for premium sports has become, juts in one market.
But that is just around the game footage itself. Fans now are likely to spend even more time accessing or even contributing content on fan-based services such as Copa90 - which largely plays out on mobile devices via the largest social media platforms, or via dedicated sites run by the clubs themselves. Indeed, to add to the complexity of the landscape, any sports clubs and leagues are becoming media companies, in an effort to offer their fans more personalised experiences and content.
Manchester United, where Sir Bobby is now a director, launched a subscription video app, MUTV, earlier this year, which they will use to go direct-to-consumer with video content. Importantly, operating their own service enables the club to retain data on its audiences and monetise them directly.
Its cross-town rival Manchester City has launched its own live-streaming channel, CityTV, providing fans with a range of content, from behind-the-scenes access to player interviews. It also recently launched a new online Cityzens platform that aims to enable fans to engage with each other and with the club.
It’s not just the two Manchester giants who are investing in new distribution channels, of course: Dugout is a football-focused online platform whose shareholders include some of the biggest football clubs in the world. Clubs and players are able to upload their own content as well as partner with Dugout to create content suited for the always-on sports fan.
Will the innovation in new content and services keep football fans engaged?
Despite this plethora of new services available to football fans, most experts expect the value of TV rights to rise again as those new entrants join the fray. And many of the new services that exist beyond the game footage are also experiencing rapid growth. Are we approaching peak coverage? Is there a prospect that football fans could even be over-served with content?
It seems unlikely, although competition for eyeballs from other forms of nominally sporting entertainment such as e-sports will likely keep some executives up at night. Rights holders and broadcasters are continuing to develop and invest in the product itself – looking at UHD,VR or AR as a way to improve the viewers’ experience – and in the complementary fan-focused content that is now a vital part of the sports fan’s experience.
Can the traditional providers harness these new trends to maintain and grow their share of the premium sports market? Will new entrants have the skills and knowledge to compete? Will fans increasingly dictate and control their own experiences? And if so, who is best placed to serve them?