Social Video is Everyone's Front-Row Seat to Sports
Without fans in stadiums for most of 2020, we've seen an abrupt shift in how fans watch sports. What was once a tiered separation of premium seating in venues, upper-level seats, TV audiences, and social highlight viewers has been completely flattened. The "premium" experience is the same for everyone.
Even as U.S. arenas pushed toward more expensive box seats in recent years and TV carriage deals have escalated in price, there's been a shift moving in the opposite direction for quite some time. An increasing number of fans either can't afford to attend in-person or don't have the time to do so. To counteract this, viewers have taken to democratizing sports through social video. And since mid-March, everyone else has had to adapt to a "new normal" that millions were already well-accustomed to.
The NBA's fans long ago built a digital-first video content machine that's helped fuel the league's global growth. Some—like House of Highlights—got so good that Bleacher Report wound up purchasing them outright. The page, which is part of the NBA's larger social video strategy in concert with broadcast partner and House of Highlights parent company Turner Sports, racks up billions of views per year sharing basketball videos.
Since arriving in Orlando in July, players joined the deluge of content creation as well. Some players took to social video to profile their experience in "the bubble," while others took the time to use video as a way to spotlight racial justice concerns. Leaning into #NBATwitter's fervent fandom, the second half of select playoff games were live-streamed on the platform. Fans also were able to get in on the in-arena action from a distance, including video board interactions, live polls, trivia, and a virtual courtside experience courtesy of league partner Michelob Ultra.
The NBA continues to lead the way with these sorts of initiatives (owned pages have generated more Facebook video views this year than the NFL and MLB combined) But it also isn't the only sports organization to try and embrace new ways to engage with fans and use digital video as a front-row seat to the action.
Despite a fan base that may be older than the NBA's, Major League Baseball has nonetheless used this time without fans to try new things as well. A recent announcement by the league includes a "film room" feature that lets fans create and share their own highlight reels using a variety of sorting filters.
In the past, MLB was extremely protective of its video licensing. That's understandable given the value of game inventory, but the NBA also showed how increased access bred fan engagement. It'll be months before we truly see the results for MLB. But giving fans the tools to engage in new and exciting ways allows premium experiences to be created and consumed via digital platforms. Given how many fans worldwide are never able to attend games—pandemic or not—it's a big step toward global growth. And the league doesn't even have to create the content!
Less mainstream sports are also finding ways to present "premium" or "front row" experiences using social video lately, and for some, it's leading to increased popularity. Even chess—once thought of a stodgy, older game—has used a platform like Twitch to not only connect with existing fans but also find a whole new audience. It winds up that Twitch's presentation and the pace of play actually make for exciting viewing. And all via social video.
Eventually, we'll be back in seats watching our favorite teams in stadiums and arenas around the country. However, fans have already seen a different way to find and create premium sports experiences for themselves given our current limitations. And even when fans can attend games, the experience is still closed off to a lot of spectators.
Whichever leagues and teams are able to utilize digital platforms to monetize their product and deliver video engagement on par with in-person attendance now could wind up being the ones best situated for success in the future.
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