SBJ SMT: Future Platforms for Sports Content

The surge in tablet devices has raised questions in the sports world about what other platforms may soon crop up and which will be the best for viewing sports content. At Sports Business Journal’s Sports Media Technology Conference this week in New York, executives from leagues, broadcast networks, content distributors, and technology companies discussed what today’s platform landscape looks like and what future platforms might be on the horizon.

First and foremost, the panel agreed, the big-screen HDTV remains king.

“I don’t think people are looking to replace their home television experience,” said Versus President Jamie Davis. “We are looking to enhance that with various types of data, angles, and other ways to enhance the viewing experience.”

Old Agreements, New Platforms
Finding places within existing agreements to move content to new platforms can be easier said than done.

“We’ve been very aggressive in trying different technologies and platforms, while respecting the agreements that we have but pushing hard to see if there’s more there for the hockey marketplace,” explained NHL COO John Collins. “I think it’s really important for the rightsholders to understand that value chain. We need to work harder with our partners to find new revenues through that.”

Added Fox Sports President Eric Shanks, “For now, whatever we do with the rights that we have has to include the affiliates. There’s a lot of work to be done around the customer experience on that side.”

He explained that Fox wants to say that, if a fan is watching the Giants game on Fox Sports in New York from a mobile device, that fan should get the local New York ads.

“That means that every affiliate in the country needs to be streamed somewhere, and we need to see where you are,” Shanks said. “The industry is moving forward and starting to agree on what rights start to come with the fees that are being paid, so now we have to start thinking much more about the customer experience.”

Traditionally, the industry has carved up rights by windows and platforms, but, according to Melinda Witmer, EVP/chief programming officer at Time Warner Cable, that formula is collapsing. “I think it’s going to be a little messy for a while,” she said. “Consumers want to have a seamless experience. The technology has leapt us forward in a way that I’m not sure the content world is ready for yet, and I think that’s going to take some sorting out.”

Cord Cutting Not a Sport
A hot topic on the panel was cord cutting, the trend of canceling paid cable services in favor of watching content only on free and Internet set-top–box services, such as Hulu. Consensus was that the popularity of cord cutting will increase in proportion with technology, but, as of now, only the most tech-savvy viewers are capable of fully cutting the cable cord.

“Once the technology gets good enough, you don’t care where it’s coming from,” said Jim Funk, VP of business development for Roku. “The people who are looking to cut the cord are driven by the fact that the total bill doesn’t add up to the value they want to get. Those are people who are willing to settle for some subset of everything that’s available.”

Luckily for sports, however, cord cutting is largely not an option for sports fans, because sports does not have a shelf life longer than the live window. Episodic-entertainment programming can be watched online at any time, but sports fans will not wait until Sunday to watch Saturday’s college-football game.

“Sports is the one thing that none of the devices comes to replacing what you can get through your subscription services,” Funk said.

Moving Toward Aggregation
In looking toward the future, the panel agreed that, eventually, all content will be available through a single interface, so that fans do not have to go channel surfing to find their favorite teams.

“There is power in aggregation,” Shanks said. “I shouldn’t have to think that something’s on ESPN; I should be able to know that there’s an Indiana college-basketball game, click it, and watch it. The customer experience is something that we really have to work on. I think it will take a cycle or two before we figure out that it does need to be aggregated together.”