OTT Players and Social Platforms Are Cashing In on Live Sports Streaming

While finding a way to make it stand out from linear TV

OTT companies face major technical hurdles as they try to expand in the live sports space.
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With cord-cutting rampant, the big broadcast and cable networks have another problem. Streaming platforms are coming for one of the few remaining types of live programming that audiences still love: live sports. Some of these new deals dating back to 2016 include Twitter and Amazon snagging rights to select NFL games, while Facebook and Yahoo landed rights to a weekly MLB game (Yahoo scored NHL games as well).

Now YouTube is the latest to chip away at traditional TV’s hold on live sports rights as the streaming platforms eye the biggest upcoming prize: broadcast rights to the NFL’s Sunday football packages will be up for grabs in 2022. The value proposition is simple: Live sports deliver big audiences and can attract big advertising checks. The exact approach, though, depends on who you talk to.

“If you’re a sporting league, it’s in your best interest to give your consumers the opportunity to watch your game in a variety of ways,” said Frank Puma, the investment business lead at media agency Mindshare U.S.

As part of a partnership between YouTube and MLB, the platform will exclusively livestream its first game on July 18. It’s part of a broader experiment to figure out how best to leverage sports content to complement its library of on-demand content, said Erin Teague, who heads up YouTube’s sports product team.

“It’s something that, as a business, we recognize is really important, and it’s something that users really want to experience,” Teague said. “If you’re a sports fan, there’s really no replacement for watching sports live.”

“When people try to create tech to do live sports, it’s just exponentially more costly. ... You can’t just wake up one day and say, 'I’m going to get into streaming the NFL.'”
—Nick Nelson, chief product officer, Ownzones Entertainment Technologies

Hulu is taking the approach of virtual MVPD providers by licensing live sports channels from broadcast distributors and streaming the linear feed directly to subscribers of its live TV offering, said Michael Schneider, Hulu’s director of live and licensed marketing. Amazon’s livestreaming platform, Twitch, streams Fox’s NFL Thursday Night Football broadcast, but provides additional audio commentary feeds.

Social apps are getting in on the action, too. In the past two years, Facebook has struck deals with MLB to bring certain baseball games to Facebook Watch, which MLB produces to fit the platform’s streaming format. The company has also struck several overseas deals to bring certain live soccer matches to fans in India and Latin America. Twitter and Snapchat, meanwhile, are producing content intended to complement live sports broadcasts. Twitter now builds out video products in response to fans, like a partnership with the NBA to bring a live video feed following a single basketball player around the court during the second half of the game after fans vote for who they want to see featured.

“We know that users don’t really care to have the exact same experience they see on linear [television] smacked into their timelines,” said T.J. Adeshola, Twitter’s head of sports partnerships in the U.S. “We’ve worked to make those Twitter experiences feel Twittery.”

But live sports isn’t easy, and OTT companies also face major technical hurdles as they try to expand in the space. Last Thanksgiving weekend, Turner’s Bleacher Report had to issue refunds after technical problems blocked customers who bought a pay-per-view livestream of a Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson golf match on its B/R Live OTT service.

“When people try to create tech to do live sports, it’s just exponentially more costly,” said Nick Nelson, chief product officer of Ownzones Entertainment Technologies, which provides tech services to video-content companies. “You can’t just wake up one day and say, ‘I’m going to get into streaming the NFL.’”

As more streaming services dip their toes into the live sports waters, players are bracing for a more competitive market. Advertisers, meanwhile, have to learn to navigate a crowded landscape where different audiences are seeking the same live programming across different—and sometimes multiple—platforms. Ultimately, the winners in the space will be determined by the fans themselves.

“Viewers will really dictate a lot of this,” Teague said. “It’s going to be based on the extent to which they can access content they want, when they want.”

This story first appeared in the July 8, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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