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Sports: The Dilemma for Rights Holders

Luke Gaydon

Business Development Sports

March 16, 2021


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The impact of COVID on sports is as well-documented as it has been devastating, and the total cost to the sports industry is still being calculated. Cancellations, postponements, and empty stadiums have led to collegiate men’s basketball teams forecasting a 50%+ drop in income, and Premier League clubs are bracing themselves for $60-150m in lost revenues. With the return to 'normality' still some months away, rights holders are left to grapple with some difficult questions.

1. What can rights-holders do for fans starved of the 'match-day experience'?

2. Can rights-holders deliver new / more value back to their commercial partners in spite of past and current limitations?

What can we do for fans starved of the 'match-day experience'?

Fans are missing the live interaction and atmosphere they get from being in a stadium - I know I am. You can’t replicate the atmosphere of a packed stadium in a digital environment but digital gives us the ability to create new experiences that can help bridge that gap.

Create and deliver more additional content

If the absence of live events over the past year has taught us anything it is that sports fans love content surrounding their favourite sports. It could be insights into the lives of their favourite players, watching training, or great moments from the archive. Over recent months, we have seen major players like ESPN and Fox Sports delivering archive content along with interviews and documentaries. The NFL made every game since 2009 available for streaming on its direct-to-consumer channel, and FIFA opened up its World Cup video archive via its website and YouTube channel. Rights holders should be looking to continue to create compelling shoulder content to supplement live sporting events and keep fans engaged.

Enable social watching

No other type of video content is quite as social as sports, whether it is watched live at a stadium or in the pub with friends. Social watching is a great alternative to that experience and even post-COVID serves as a great way to watch with friends and family living far away. We have already seen a few examples of sports watch together services coming into the market, such as BT Sport and Eleven Sports. The jury is still out on whether this will become a popular feature beyond COVID. However, sports providers should be experimenting with this type of technology and monitoring the response and engagement it receives to determine if it should become part of a longterm strategy.

Do more with AR

As well as being great for sponsors, AR is also a compelling way to increase fan engagement. AR can be used to deliver complementary information to the main broadcast, such as player or team statistics. This is a trend that was beginning to happen prior to the pandemic, though mostly in the experimentation stage. However, the technology is available and proven and the benefits are massive for both consumers and the rights holders.

Can rights-holders deliver value back to their commercial partners in spite of past and current limitations?

The impact of C19 on commercial partnerships has been significant. Sponsor brands pay for visibility and this is hard to come by when matches are cancelled and stadiums are empty. Long-term partners will usually find a path through difficult times but regardless of the depth of the relationship, every sponsor will - naturally want to realise as much value as possible from their investment. There have been some great examples of sponsors adapting to the current landscape. McDonalds is a good example of this with its FA Superkicks games that encourages children to complete football challenges at home. Increasingly Digital is where brands are looking to bridge the gap created by C19. Here are our thoughts on some options for rights holders to create new /  more value for their partnership.

Revisit your digital video strategy

Video is the most effective medium you have engaging your fans, which means it’s the content your sponsors want to be attached to. A key aspect of your digital video strategy should be to have as much control as possible over your distribution channels. Are you only publishing to one platform, e.g. Youtube? Fans are consuming video across multiple platforms, very few are loyal to just one and your video content should be wherever your fans are. Look at your existing distribution channels and consider whether you can expand to new channels. Next, how visible are your commercial partners within your video channels? Custom overlays (e.g. branding, CTAs) can be integrated into a video production workflow to add a new layer of personalization for your sponsors.

Your own direct-to-consumer service is another option, giving your fans their own dedicated service and you complete control over distribution, monetisation, user experience and data. Accedo provides a suite of digital tools that enables service providers to add new platforms, new content types (e.g. match highlights), integrated branding and CTAs and even bespoke Augmented Reality content(!) to your D2C service. The shift towards OTT was already underway pre-C19, but the pandemic has accelerated this trend and we will continue to see new rights-holder owned and operated service launches such as HKRU TV from the Hong Kong Rugby Union.

Use next generation technology to deliver maximum engagement for sponsors

There are already more than 1 billion AR-ready (Augmented Reality) devices active today, a number that is predicted to rise to 3.5 billion by 2022. AR is already being used by consumers for a whole host of applications as, unlike Virtual Reality, AR doesn’t require any other specialist equipment (e.g goggles) to work. According to Nielsen, 48% of shoppers are already using or willing to use AR to assess new products and services.

AR offers an innovative, immersive way for fans to interact with sponsor brands, and for brands to tell their story. AR is also rapidly becoming a ‘table-stakes’ experience for younger fans. Snapchat claims that 70% of its users play with its AR Lenses every day. AR and sports is not new, there have been some great examples over recent years from a tilting ice hockey game from the Washington Capitals to a project from the Sacramento Kings which brought fans inside the arena, where they could take photos with players and participate in a scavenger hunt. As technology improves, AR popularity is also increasing, with engagement up nearly 20% since the beginning of 2020 and with conversion rates increasing by 90% for consumers engaging with AR compared to those that don’t.  

At Accedo, we are working with the Hong Kong Rugby Union (HKRU)  to launch AR sponsor experiences for the Hong Kong Rugby Union (HKRU), which will be integrated into its OTT video service which was launched at the end of last year.

It is clear that the current pandemic has caused a number of challenges for sports rights holders. At the same time however it has accelerated innovation that will likely live on way beyond COVID. This will make the future of sports entertainment even more exciting than ever before, and, as an avid sports fan, I can’t wait to see how that unfolds.

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