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What Is the Future of Mobile Streaming for Major Sporting Events?

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  • January 31, 2014, 12:41 PM EST
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Illustration by Mitch Blunt

When was the last time you saw a group of NFL fans huddled around a smartphone watching a game? Probably never, and that's not only because it’s impractical.

Take this Sunday’s showdown between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks. While live streaming of the game will be freely available to desktop users on Fox Sports Go, it will be limited on mobile to Verizon smartphones, thanks to a contract between Verizon and the National Football League, and to the Fox Sports iPad app, because the Android version isn’t ready yet. 

Mobile streaming of major sporting events is still sold as its own digital platform, though maybe not for long. 

Analysts at Adobe Digital Index (ADI) are predicting the largest US sporting event audience ever for Sunday’s game. While the main driver of social buzz leading up to kick-off is television advertising, even those marketers that can't afford the $4 million TV ad price tag are poised to take advantage with digital-only campaigns. Given that 50 percent of viewers will have a smartphone in their hand at some point between kick-off and the final seconds of play, according to ADI, there are plenty of second-screen possibilities to be had.

It's fair to say that only a small portion of viewers, not to mention advertisers, will see the streaming limitations as a big loss on Sunday. Yet it’s a different story when it comes to regular season games across major sports leagues. Some of the most popular sports apps, such as NFL Sunday Ticket and MLB At Bat, are primarily used to stream live games and have made moves to extend their content offerings with stats and social integrations.

Last November ESPN relaunched its popular ScoreCenter iOS app, which had over 40 million iTunes downloads at last count, with a much improved design and significantly more content in the form of video and in-depth analysis. The new app doesn’t have live streaming, but it does a lot more than just keep track of scores.

Clark Pierce, senior vice president of mobile and advanced platforms for Fox Sports, sees a trend. "The standard sports fan move on mobile is, if they're at a child's baseball game or running errands on a weekend, to go their mobile device and check a score," said Pierce. “What I'm seeing with streaming is that people are doing the same thing, but checking the live game."

While sports fans are enjoying this growth in mobile offerings, media companies are still figuring out how to make a big screen experience into a portable product that can attract ad dollars.

"The NFL has made a bet on how much demand there is going to be, and they made a deal for exclusivity," said Manish Tripathi, co-founder of Emory University's Sport Marketing Analytics blog. "Given all of the innovative ways to monetize mobile content, unless Verizon is willing to pony up a lot of money [after the current contract expires in four years], my guess is you'll see it open up” to all carriers.

And with new devices come new opportunities. Imagine, for example, a Google Glass video feed during halftime from Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. Getting as many eyeballs as possible on this kind of content would be important to the NFL, and that just might be the point at which an exclusive mobile carrier deal becomes a thing of the past.

In the meantime, most of the action, for both viewers and marketers, is still right there in every fan's own social feeds.

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