Will streaming alter sports in the same way it changed music and television?

As the Premier League and Twitter sign a new deal, the bubble around sports streaming rights continues to grow

Sports, camera, streaming, Wembley,

Image: Mike Egerton / PA Archive/Press Association Images

As we continue to invest more and more of our time into the worlds of digital and social media, what kind of portrait does this paint for the future of sports broadcasting? 

The shift has been definitive; people are choosing what content they want to see and when, there are precious few occasions where you can guarantee an audience are all going to be watching.

Live sporting events are perhaps one of the few remaining occasions where TV companies can guarantee bums in seats, but with new services offering streaming and alternative ways to view sports from MMA to soccer, is there a new landscape on the horizon for how we watch sports?

That is something which has become incredibly valuable for advertisers, the effects of which can be seen already in the sale of the UFC for over $4 billion, or the deal between BT, Sky and the Premier League ticking over the £5 billion mark.

Yahoo's experiment with streaming an NFL game on their site last season, albeit in an attempt to reawaken people to the existence of Yahoo in general, shows that the big sporting corporations are beginning to look to digital as a way to get their content out there to a global audience. 

The figures were, as you might expect, relentlessly positive as both sides did their best to "sell the win", but for viewers in Europe, the ability to watch NFL games online already exists in the form of the Game Pass. The popularity of that service remains high, despite the increased cost each season, suggesting that the ability to give fans a choice is a key part of the process. 

North American Soccer League commissioner Bill Peterson spoke exclusively to Newstalk.com about where he sees the future of broadcasting going, and the challenges that presents to how they plan for their own growth and development over the next few years.

"We're trying to figure out what the future looks like because we feel like we're right on the cusp", said Peterson. "In five years are you tuning into a Microsoft player or an Apple player to watch your content? It's a discussion that we have every day."

However, television and other traditional media still play an important role in people's lives, something that he also recognised: "we probably would benefit from a cable TV relationship for the next five years [...] but at the same time we're looking out and thinking, maybe we should be spending more time with some of these other companies, because they're really the future. They're going to be the broadcasters in my opinion."

Ignacio Trujillo of La Liga, one of the biggest sports leagues in the world, also raised a similar point when speaking with Newstalk.com: "We want to be free about our thinking and digital is important of course, but TV is also important. I don't know where in the next two years people will choose to enjoy or access their content". 

"It's just a different model altogether," Peterson highlighted. "That's something we're exploring and we don't have all the answers right now, but it could really benefit a league like ours [the NASL]. All of a sudden you have a chance to become much more global, much more international very quickly because we're not tied to all those TV dollars". 

There is little doubt, however that the models that have been used up to this point are not going to remain the same for much longer. "Probably paid TV will change,", said Trujillo, "probably all the rules of the business model will change. But one thing is very clear: if you want to reach the best events you need money". 

With the prevalence of illegal streams that can be found with a simple Google search, the sports media industry is on the cusp of a similar battle to that which the music industry faced when they took on illegal downloading - how can you provide what people want and still make a profit?

"People are confusing the logistics. It's practically free to share, but it's very expensive to create", said Trujillo. "The internet allows us to share globally, the cost is practically zero, but it's very, very expensive to produce". 

"The point is to try to reach the balance between people who are demanding a product and rights, because we are a business. We need to reflect, we need to review. The economy is changing, we have no doubt about that, all of us are agreed on that [...] How can we can manage and how can we produce and defend our product? We need to find a new way, we need to find a balance". 

That balance could well be struck by the unique opportunity presented to businesses to target their audiences in the same way that advertisers have taken to new platforms to engage potential consumers.

Speaking to Bill Simmons, investor Chris Sacca noted that those who are still doubting how Twitter can be monetised are missing the point about how valuable the information and databases they have are. People are engaged on that platform, but growing the user base has proven to be difficult, leading to problems with advertisers.

The Premier League's recent deal with Sky Sports on Twitter is perhaps the biggest sign that things are changing. Learning from how the behaviour of fans has changed in recent years, both parties look set to benefit from the move. 

There is an air of "if you can't beat them, join them" about the deal, which will see key moments and goals from games throughout the season tweeted out in real time. This not only means that fans in England will be able to see clips from the 3pm matches, which have traditionally been unavailable for broadcast.  

Sky are taking a punt that this investment will not only serve as a way to entice further growth in customer numbers, but can also include this new medium in the packages they sell to advertisers. On the other hand, Twitter gets sought after content exclusively available on their platform as they look to fend off competitors such as Snapchat. 

As Peterson notes, the importance and potential of information is the biggest factor with the advent of the digital age: "They're collecting these huge databases on everyone on the planet, so when you start talking about true appointment television, they're going to be able to send you a notification to say 'hey, your team is playing' no matter where you are in the world, and if you come to say, Indianapolis, you'll get a message to say [NASL team] Indy Eleven are playing, tune in."

That's valuable to a business who want to get their product out there, but just as valuable to advertisers who can now appear in the palm of your hand alerting you to 

The worldwide nature of that new model is also something that has to factor into plans to change the way people watch sports. NASL's Soccer Bowl was available through the ESPN player for the European audiences, and on the other end of the spectrum NBC's deal with the Premier League already allowed American audiences to experience essentially what the new agreement with Sky promises to deliver on Twitter. 

"It's a global game," said Peterson, "whether you're talking about broadcasting or sponsorship. The example we use is there's a Detroit car company who puts their name on the shirt of a football club in Manchester, England to sell cars in China. You're going to miss the point if somehow you don't figure out a strategy there". 

As a result, bringing the various people who want to watch the sport together at the same time is a challenge. Where the scheduling of games used to be geared towards the fans in the stadium, there has been a shift to have matches start earlier or later so that they appeal to a television audience, something that Trujillo cites as a particular challenge in Spain. 

"At this point in time where we think that all the world is together, we need to understand that togetherness to be able to give things to people separately". 

"Our duty is to create the biggest, the most important, the most incredible business for our fans," added Trujillo. "We are trying to identify to best way to give them that. I'm not sure if the NFL Game Pass [streaming service] is the way. Probably, but we understand that we can check other ways to improve our business.

"From my point of view, when we're talking about the new digital age, the crucial condition is that we merge the different strands. To merge that style of digital pass, the physical experience, whatever kind of delivery into the same business model. 

"The world is global, I have no doubt about that. But we need to create different strategies for different countries, for different people. The point is we need give them what they are demand, in their language, the kind of content they want, and give them the opportunity to enjoy it when it suits them."

With advertising dollars pouring in from around the globe and fans in China are as important a customer as the season ticket holder at Turf Moor, football risks distancing itself from the fans to the point that they can't afford to go to games, or it becomes easier and more cost effective to watch them on television from the comfort of their homes.

The live experience is crucial to what makes sport so unique, but as brands look to produce the content fans are so desperate for, the risk is that it ceases to have anything to do with the game they truly love.