The best way for sports streaming services to build loyal followings is to deliver experiences that fans can't get in crowded arenas-or in traditional sports broadcasts either, with their action-on-the-field-centric camera views, play-by-play, and color commentary. To make online sports experiences stand out from the crowd, content creators and programmers need to offer the most immersive, interactive, and innovative experiences possible. The key to engaging today's sports streaming audiences, prominent providers say, is to satisfy fans' hunger for content and experiences that capture their attention outside the games themselves.
Only Game in Town
"If the pandemic has taught us anything," says Kristen Scott, director of digital talent production and storytelling at Fox Sports, "it's that when live sports shut down, people were grasping for alternative programming that still tangentially relates to sports. So we're creating original programming that has nothing to do with the actual game, whether that's access to the players and coaches or whether it's creating a completely made-up vote of who is the best fan base in all of college football. We saw all of that completely take off over the last 15 months."
Interest in this sort of tangential programming didn't wane when the games resumed. It grew and pointed the way toward ongoing, enhanced sports content offerings.
"When everything shut down, we decided we were initially going to have watch parties of old games online, where we all gather and talk about them or tweet about them," recalls Cheesehead TV co-founder Aaron Nagler. "And that extended to when the NFL got back on its feet. After the season started, whereas in the past we had done a watch party here or there, they became absolutely essential for a lot of our viewers and our regulars. Now we see fans in the stands, but a lot of the innovation that happened when things shut down is going to stick around."
"We keep iterating upon our watch parties and other second-screen experiences, but we're also creating complete, original programming around our marquee sports," Scott adds. "We're bringing in young, fresh talent who have communities that were built on the internet, who [people] are used to engaging with on a minute-by-minute basis, who are obsessed with the data, and obsessed with how they're performing. We're investing in that type of talent with guys like RJ Young and Ben Verlander and Ryan Satin to create original shows that go a little bit deeper than the [NFL] RedZone broadcast on linear."
One of the most innovative beyond-the-game enhanced experiences serving a growing audience today is the Fan-Controlled Football League (FCFL), which puts fans in control of the game by letting them call the plays in real time through a weighted online voting system that rewards gamer experience and demonstrated "football IQ." The FCFL leverages the massive success of football simulation games like Madden and the ubiquity of fantasy football leagues by bringing fans directly into the action of live games as if they were coaching on the sidelines.
As on other channels developing enhanced sports content, FCFL is all about creating a community to enhance fan engagement. "We allow our communities to co-stream," says FCFL co-founder and chief gaming officer Patrick Dees. "Every one of our teams is owned by a celebrity in a different vertical- people with a lot of swagger, like Renee Montgomery, Quavo, and Marshawn Lynch. As with Mark Cuban and the Mavs, we see these teams as an extension of their personalities. And we not only work with their teams, but also a lot of Twitch influencers. We've seen these micro-communities pop up, where they would root for their team and talk over the game. We've seen all of these different types of experiences, where you can just go watch it with your people wherever you are and talk trash with other fans all day long."
The Elephant in the Room
Gambling is arguably the elephant in the room when it comes to enhanced sports streaming experiences. Due to regulatory changes that are on the way, are underway, or have already happened—depending on where a given sporting event is occurring—betting is likely to become more integral than ever to the sports OTT experience in the coming years. The mainstreaming of sports gambling as a central element of the sports-viewing experience is having a profound effect on how sports content programmers develop new offerings. As with any other type of content, it's all about finding a niche, an angle that distinguishes your offering from others in an increasingly crowded market.
"Betting is everything right now," Cheesehead TV's Nagler says. "Everyone's got a mock draft. Every content area seemingly has their betting expert. So I think that's already a saturated marketplace. The key is gamification, extending a visit to Vegas to an online experience wrapped inside the specific content you're creating. For us, that means tapping into whatever the betting angle is for the Green Bay Packers, whether that's the game itself or whether Aaron Jones will put on the shades after he scores a touchdown and goes to the sideline-something that connects to your team that you can then engage with the audience about in that capacity. It's wide open, fertile ground, but it's hard to wrap your arms around it if you don't come from that world. The biggest trick is finding something authentic, something that connects to your audience immediately, but doesn't feel like it's slapped on in a way that is going to be easily dismissed."
"We're leaning into non-gamblers in our gambling content," Fox Sports' Scott says. "Maybe you're intimidated by the concept of gambling. You don't know what a spread means. You don't know what an over/under means. You don't know what a moneyline is. We want to make it approachable. We have our gambling experts who live and breathe this stuff, and we have our non-gamblers, who [say], 'Hey, I'm just getting into this world, make a $10 bet with me, and let's ride it together and see what happens.' We're trying to make it approachable, and then we're integrating it into all of our second-screen experiences from an overt and a non-overt standpoint, just graphically on a screen. On the more intense side, we're creating full original programming around gambling with our top-of-the-line gambling show that we use to specifically talk all things gambling on any given event or sport."
During its first season, FCFL also made a conscious effort for approachability on the gambling side to ease its audience in—particularly fans who were more at home in the esports world than with traditional sports. "We focused on alternative solutions that a Twitch audience would just know and understand," Dees says. "There's a currency that you earn on Twitch called channel points, which are like frequent flyer miles. You watch for a few minutes, and you start earning channel points. We would let them not only bet peer-to-peer, but also bet a certain amount of their channel points on a prediction. And we saw tens of millions of channel points bet over the course of six games. I think that's one of our key learnings: If you can make it approachable, people are going to engage with it."
How Low Can You Go?
Betting's ascendancy in the world of sports streaming also makes ultra-low latency more critical than ever on the delivery side. In-game, in-arena micro-betting is resurgent in a way that it hasn't been in a century, since the run-up to the Black Sox scandal of 1919, when bookies and their minions blanketed ballparks throughout the major leagues, taking action on virtually every pitch. 5G has become the indispensable enabling technology of the real-time microbetting trend. But how realistic is that degree of ultra-low latency in the near term?
"Especially in the arena, ultra-wide bandwidth promises zero latency," says Jason Thibeault, executive director of the Streaming Video Alliance. "When we're talking about getting content from the camera to the handsets that are in that arena, we still have the latency that's in the streaming workflow. But when you start combining 5G ultra-wideband with low-latency CMAF or WebRTC, you're going to have people in the arena, watching the game, placing bets on their headset." In that scenario, he continues, "You can't have any latency, and 5G gives us that."
Cheesehead TV recently tried offering a real-time trivia game for which low-latency interaction was crucial, and it quickly reaped the whirlwind of a less-than-level playing field. "We started doing live Packers trivia via YouTube, using the YouTube API pulling hashtags," Nagler says. We would have four answers for each question, and you had to hashtag your answer into the chat. The computer would pull the five quickest correct answers, and then we would add the winners to a leaderboard. This was literally a no-stakes game-just people on the internet gathering at the end of the day to have a good time. And the amount of vitriol and very sternly worded emails I would get from people who said, 'I got all the answers right and my name didn't appear!' I can't even imagine having people's money on the line. That's only going to become more and more important as gambling turns into even bigger business, because everyone's on a different Wi-Fi, and everyone's got a different internet speed. Everyone's coming technically from a different spot. How do you make that uniform and create a level playing field? That's going to be an amazing challenge to watch as things get even faster and even more immediate."
Feeding the Fandom
Another key aspect of enhanced sports streaming involves adding interactivity to the in-game experience, so it transcends the traditional lean-back lifestyle that's only intermittently interrupted to yell at a ref or launch projectiles at the screen. How much interactivity are fans actually looking for, and what can sports streamers provide to satisfy that desire to engage with the game in a more active way?
"We view even our linear programming as a two-way conversation, a two-way experience," says Fox Sports' Scott. "Every single Big Noon Saturday, [college football] fans get to choose a segment on the show. So it's like fan-produced TV. On the digital side, they have access to all of our talent, via asking questions that ultimately lead to some of our best [video-on-demand] moments that are evergreen and live on well beyond that live experience. On the more technological side, we are producing bonus cameras so you can watch in-car with any number of NASCAR drivers while the race is going on. Fans get to vote on which drivers they want to see streaming on our app and our website. So the amount of interactivity we offer is just going up, and we continue to innovate along with the fans' demand."
"We have a technology we call 'command center,' which is your traditional drone shot—the hero cam-plus six or eight 180-degree helmet cams and a ref camera as well," says FCFL's Dees. "In real time, fans can bounce between any of those views. People use it mostly for replay, like after a crazy Hail Mary, where they could go to the player and watch it happen. We've seen a lot of great feedback on this."
"The appetite for interactivity is insatiable," says Cheesehead TV's Nagler. "You need to offer a wide variety of ways for fans to consume your content or connect with you. We've got people who are all in and watch every single video and consume every single tweet that we put out and every Patreon or Zoom hangout we do. And then there are people who are just passersby, and we want to make sure that we have something on offer for all of them. A couple of years ago when we first started the watch parties, we'd do our little pre-show, and we would tell people to send us pictures: 'Where are you watching the game tonight or today?' And that has grown to where I can't keep up with all the entries. So now we have a spot in our pre-game show where we've got people from Brazil, Australia, the Philippines—literally all over the world-checking in, and they're more excited about their picture being seen on our show than they are for the game. Our next iteration of that is what we call 'Carry the G,' where we're going to have a spot on the site for people to upload video from their tailgate parties. And hopefully, we expand that into little video peeks into Brazil, the Philippines, Germany, London, et cetera, just to keep connecting to people because that's what we love—sports and community. The idea is that this person might be on the other side of the world, but they're just as excited about this event as I am."
One of the hallmarks of successful live event streams that create unique viewing experiences is storytelling. For traditional sports viewers, the game is the story. But interactive streams aren't traditional broadcasts, and the emerging generation of fans whose expectations have been shaped by different types of media experiences isn't made up of traditional fans. How important is storytelling to enhanced sports streaming, and how can sports streaming services fashion stories that don't intrude on or drown out the story of the game itself?
Nagler admits that in the early days of Cheesehead TV, he had a hard time imagining where the audience for his company's brand of ancillary content would come from. A lot of fans "are just reclining in their La-Z-Boys, just watching the game," Nagler concedes. "But there is a whole generation that doesn't even know that existence. They want their hands in the pie. There's a wide palette of engagement and storytelling and things that can augment viewers' and fans' experience of the game. When I was growing up, journalists stood on the side and told what happened. They weren't part of the story. That is so blown out of the water at this point."
FCFL's Dees says that developing additional storylines—far from being a distraction—has proven critical to the league's success. To build the league's roster of players, he says, "We had camps and combines, and then we did a casting call. We hired a casting agent to find the guys with the biggest personalities that lit up when the camera turned on them, guys that wanted to create content outside of game day and engage with fans."
What emerged, Dees says, was a sort of "virtuous circle": "As they're out there creating content on Twitch and being active on social and playing Madden with their fans and those types of things, we saw their number get called more on game day. So the story changes. They're actually getting more reps on game day because they've built a relationship with fans in a way that never existed before. Then, if you fast-forward two or three years, you'll look at the fan leaderboards and say, 'This fan, she's killing it.' And then you'll see not only players getting recruited to other teams, but also that fan, because she's been number one on the leaderboard for three seasons, and other fans will want her to be part of their fandom. So it creates new storylines and new opportunities for experiences."
"We're dealing with a different audience these days—a distracted audience," says Fox Sports' Scott. "They're scrolling through Twitter while they're watching the game; they're doing other things. If you're not taking a slice of that pie, you're losing. So you have to create a more interesting experience for them in order to grab that attention. If you're just providing them a base-level experience, they're going to look elsewhere."
The challenge, she says, is drawing out storylines that resonate with fans. But, often, those stories emerge organically when they provide fans with real opportunities to interact with marquee on-screen talent. "The storytelling that comes from some of the questions that fans ask of our talent and star-power guests goes well beyond the live window," she says. "On one show, Joe Montana told fans that he would get nervous on the sidelines during games and call his wife from a phone that's not even supposed to dial out. That story continues to accrue views and engagement and lives on forever on our platforms. That's super valuable for us."
Steve Nathans-Kelly is editor of Streaming Media Producer and video publishing director of Information Today, Inc.
This article was written by Steve Nathans-Kelly from Streaming Media Magazine and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.