The post-pandemic reality, the emergence of a new audience dominated by Gen Z and technological advancement all contributed to crucial changes in the sports media landscape. It could be even argued that broadcasting, disregarding its long-lasting business presence, has never been so heavily discussed in the sports industry. However, as far as digital trends create an exciting opportunity for maximising revenue and engaging the younger public, they also give rise to many regulatory challenges.
The first significant change in the media sector regards a shift from traditional television to various kinds of over-the-top services (OTT) providing its content directly to the viewers via online platforms, commonly in a subscription-based manner. Even though it is not yet a full shift, it is definitely a growing trend, expanding the market and introducing new actors. One of the many examples of OTTs is a well know Amazon Prime which has been exploring its broadcasting abilities for the past few years which resulted, among many more investments, in purchasing broadcasting rights to international tennis events between 2021-2023 (including the most prestigious ones - US Open and the French Open). The company, that already possesses a well-established position in other sectors, has been also investing in major football leagues - Premier League, La Liga and League 1 which resulted in acquiring the right to broadcast a significant percentage of their games. The offer varies from one OTT service to the other and can include a pay-tv multiple sports broadcast such as the one provided by DAZN (global sports entertainment platform founded in England) or a product focused on a single sport like GolfTV that generates an audience fully invested in one discipline.
To fight this trend and keep their audience, traditional providers such as Sky and BT have been also searching for ways to increase their online presence by entering into partnerships with long-established streaming platforms (e.g. YouTube which collaborated with BT Sport on the live streaming of the UEFA Champions League final) and expanding their own offer with online-streaming/on-demand services such as Sky Go app or BT Sport app. However, disregarding their increased flexibility, the regional/national character of television makes it difficult to compete with online providers that can work on a fully global scale.
Next to the two already mentioned kinds of OTTs - new players on the market such as Amazon, and long-established names like Sky coming up with a new offer, there is also a third type of subscription-based services - the ones created by sports leagues and clubs themselves. This gives them an opportunity to provide fans with way more than only live sports. FC Barcelona on its streaming service Barca TV+ monetised endless hours of exclusive content - historic games, documentaries, interviews, highlights, vlogs and more. Thanks to such a move the club can not only increase the revenue with the income from subscriptions but also gather priceless data that can help grow the fanbase and maximise fans’ engagement. The extensive access to data is one of the ‘wealths’ of OTTs that allows them to track new trends and stay ahead of the competition. Knowing consumer behaviour and preferences can be also expected to result in personalised/local advertising being introduced by OTT providers.
Another innovation regarding data, next to its gathering, is the visualisation of captured information during live broadcasting which enhances the experience by adding the storytelling aspect. Knowing the background information and ‘fun facts’ about competitors serves two purposes: (1) answering the need of high-engaged fans to always know more, even about the statistics and technicalities of the sport, and (2) providing total newcomers with an interesting and easy to follow story that they will grow to feel attached to. One of the companies that noticed this opportunity is Amazon which uses X-Ray technology during games to provide viewers with detailed live stats and play-by-play analysis. Data visualisation has been also used in cycling broadcasts to boost the attractiveness of the sport with more background information about the location of the race.
If the change in the type and access to content was not significant enough with the development of blockchain and NFTs (Non-fungible tokens) sports fans can now also ‘own’ their favourite moments broadcasted over the years. NBA remains one of the pioneers in this area with its own online NFTs market TOPSHOT selling tokens with iconic basketball moments, sometimes at a tremendous price. This development addresses the fans’ desire to own something more unique than a general merchandise and fosters their feeling of belonging to a community while supporting a certain club/player. NFTs are also of a great use while selling a certain story and building brand image. FC Barcelona while launching its NFTs series decided to celebrate its moments of glory from the times of Johan Cruyff to the modern days to combine the newest technology with taking its older fans on the emotional journey back to when their personal story with the club started.
With new digital solutions in Web 3.0 sports can even bring broadcasting to a 3D level and provide the audience with real-life experience. In 2023 AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) will be delivered to the fans during Rugby World Cup in France via Meta Quest headset. Thanks to technology supporters gathering in Rugby Villages will be able to enter an augmented reality locker room and customise their supporter’s avatars. Metaverse is also entering the football landscape with a partnership between La Liga and TVM (Korean metaverse-oriented company) reached with the aim of developing an exclusive ecosystem for the league in the virtual world, where supporters can earn rewards and experience points while enjoying content such as press conferences, games highlights and interviews. Yoon Chul Kim, vice-president of TVM commented on the deal emphasising the growing importance of technological advancement in sports:
"Technology is continuously and rapidly changing and moving. We too should be ready for the next technological advancement. For now, that is digital transformation, and one of the best ways to successfully deliver digital sports content combined with non-sports-oriented content to the users is metaverse. Together with LaLiga, TVM will create a world where nothing is impossible and anything and everything is possible."
The emergence of a younger and digitally oriented audience created a need for different kinds of partnerships that would allow sports organisations to reach that new group. One of the examples of such a partnership is the collaboration between Six Nations Rugby and TikTok. What is most appealing about TikTok and similar media outlets from the Gen Z perspective is the possibility of enhanced engagement in sports by participating as avatars, interacting with others, or managing virtual goods aka the new digital type of ‘merchandise’ such as previously mentioned NFTs. Moreover, the young generation is more likely to be attracted by short and condensed content working perfectly with their short attention span.
Besides being a lucrative business partner, Social Media platforms constitute also a great power in the hands of sportspeople and their fans. During the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, American gymnast Simone Biles made the headlines with her open advocacy for mental health awareness across social media platforms and a controversial decision to withdraw from the competition. On the Formula1 grid, Lewis Hamilton uses his Instagram with over 30 million followers to fight racism and advocate for current social issues. Gen Z more than any other generation loves to see their idols being active on the Internet, not only to be up to date with their personal life but also to see them engaging in the conversation on socio-political issues that young people find highly important. This relationship being build between fans and supporters online makes Social Media a place where sportspeople create their personal brand image and can monetise their popularity.
All the new technological developments yet exciting can be also seen as quite problematic. The new media offer equals new sponsorship, advertising and licensing revenues that need to be regulated. Additionally, the emergence of a new kind of property creates numerous questions regarding Intellectual Property rights. The question “Who actually holds the rights to this content?” is becoming more popular and more confusing. For example, while launching an NFT it is important to keep in mind the difference between owning a token and owning the represented image as usually the image rights do not pass with a token. Moreover, organisations deciding to release digital goods should also pay significant attention to not abusing the personal image rights owned by athletes. New media offer equals also new sponsorship, advertising and licensing revenues that need to be regulated.
New types of services and fragmentation of content do not introduce a new broadcasting law itself but make the cases more complicated. The importance of broadcasting rights should not be underestimated on the wave of general excitement and the competition to be ‘the most innovative’ as such rules safeguard investments, regulate the relationship between media organisations and teams, and help protect intellectual property. Lastly, moving the sports world online creates a challenge to track online hate speech and keep the digital environment as safe as possible.
The rapid development of new technologies makes the future of broadcasting exciting yet unpredictable. As the market is being extended and entered by new players the competition will continue growing possibly increasing the prices of media rights as a highly lucrative investment. Companies will also spend more and more on technology to keep up with the digital race and try to create premium quality product to justify having to pay for it. However, it is still too soon to announce the definitive end of sports on traditional television channels. The real scale of the shift in the media landscape will be easier to measure in a span of the next few years when lots of contracts with traditional ‘big names’ in the industry expire leaving even greater space for newcomers to enter the ‘broadcasting game’. The bridge between the physical and digital worlds will continue to grow bringing high-quality entertainment to fans and significant challenges to legal practitioners.
Article written by Wiktoria Jazwinska.