The next level of digital sports entertainment is creating a fully integrated viewing experience that combines live action, social media and additional content seamlessly on one screen.
That’s according to Mike McGraw, co-CEO of The Social Channel, which is working with the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) to bring its players, matches and other content to fans worldwide on digital and social platforms.
Speaking in Singapore during the WTA Finals, together with digital video platform Ooyala, which is a WTA Networks partner, McGraw said the rapid rise of mobile sports consumption meant broadcasters and streaming services need to incorporate all the behaviour that now takes place when a person is watching sport on their phone, what he terms the “pocket experience”.
“Statistical insights in real-time are creating a new live viewing experience,” McGraw said. “The two have not completely combined yet, it’s still a two-screen experience right now. But that’ll be totally integrated so that social, stats, videos, are all going to be streaming right at you, and just like in The Matrix you’re going to be able to read a lot of complex data streams. Fans are going to get incredibly good at doing that, and in turn share their insights socially.”
Right now, many sports streaming services remain coupled to bigger linear broadcasting deals, but as those streams decouple, McGraw says there will be a lot of room for experimentation.
“You’re seeing it with five-minute, 10-minute highlights, really incredible ways to consume sports if you don’t want to watch the whole thing,” he said. “One day, you’ll get a notification saying that your favourite [tennis] player is going into a third set in a really tight game, and you’ll be offered the live streaming service there and then to watch it.”
The need for this greater integration is also based on the fans’ “overwhelming need” to get closer to sports stars, McGraw said, particularly in individual sports like tennis. The WTA, founded by former player Billie Jean King, has more than 2,500 players from more than 100 countries, with 54 tournaments and four Grand Slams this year around the world.
Creating and managing relevant content for such a “huge big circus”, as McGraw puts it, is a real challenge that technology is critical to solving.
“The biggest problem we have is that fans don’t know where [the tournaments are], who’s winning, what the [WTA] rankings are, who’s coming up and dropping down. It’s the stuff where the data insights matter. Only in digital are you able to measure, almost heat-map what’s going on, but you have to have enough analytics and business intelligence to look at those hotspots and say ‘cool, we’ve got to load up content on the best platform in this time zone’.”
Of course, it doesn’t help when social platforms make sweeping changes that affect engagement. McGraw pointed to Facebook’s recent algorithm change that promotes personal user stories ahead of content from media companies, saying most sports leagues saw engagement on Facebook drop between 28% and 45%.
“You have to take what the social platforms give you and react to that,” he explained. “When you’ve really put a lot of eggs in your Facebook basket, and that kind of algorithm change happens, you definitely step it up with other platforms. Snapchat’s making a resurgence when everybody thought Instagram was going to wipe them off the map, so now we’re paying attention to Snapchat.”
Regarding Asia, the continent currently makes up 6% of the WTA’s viewership, but McGraw said that is climbing quickly. With the WTA Finals moving from Singapore to Shenzhen next year, he said the WTA was “making a big bet on Asia”.