SVG Sit-Down: Wazee Digital Mike Arthur on the Company’s Evolution and the Oncoming Onslaught of Sports Content

Wazee Digital has moved beyond licensing into cloud-based MAM and content management at events

Wazee Digital has been known primarily for its content-licensing business for more than a decade — working with a variety of industries, including film, news, and sports. Sports clients range from the NCAA and PGA TOUR to USA Swimming and World Surf League (WSL). While licensing continues to be an integral part of the Denver-based company’s business, Wazee Digital is broadening its horizons, most notably with its Wazee Digital Core cloud-based media-asset–management (MAM) platform and Digital Media Hub SaaS portal, powered by Core, for centralized content distribution during events like the U.S. Open.

SVG sat down with Mike Arthur, VP, sports and live events, to discuss Wazee Digital’s evolution, where he sees the industry headed, and how the company can help content owners manage and distribute the approaching flood of original sports content.

Mike Arthur, VP, sports and live events, Wazee Digital

How is Wazee Digital’s overall strategy changing?
I think the equity in our brand is built on our licensing expertise. About three years ago, we started to focus on the elite technology that enables everything. Yes, licensing is a sweet spot of ours, and we will continue to nurture and support it because we are very good at what we do in that space. However, we also felt like the actual digital-asset–management platform that we utilize here internally and now externally, referred to as Wazee Digital Core, was a very valuable part of our offering. From a business standpoint, we felt it represented larger growth opportunities with more significant improvements for the market in terms of content management and monetizing content in various formats.
Thus, we shifted our priorities so that, in addition to being a licensing-services company, we became a complete asset-management platform on top of which licensing, event services, and digital-asset management and more now sit. Licensing was our birthright, if you will, and we will continue to serve that [market]. However, we will also provide many other services — all sitting on our Core SaaS platform.

How do you see the sports-content market evolving, and how is Wazee Digital adapting to the changes?
In the sports market specifically, there are a couple of different things going on. Our sweet spot is with properties that have heavily viewed content but aren’t necessarily large enough to have their own [content-management] division with an on-demand MAM and cloud storage [system]. We do have several partners who do have an on-premises MAM for certain projects, though we usually represent the largest portion of their library because they are in multiple locations and need to have global centralized access. U.S. Tennis Association, for example, has a [facility] in White Plains, NY, and just opened another large facility in Orlando, so the ability to connect to the same content via the cloud from various locations is one of the benefits to the cloud.

There’s also the disaster-recovery angle for those customers that have an on-premises MAM.

Over the [past] six or seven years, the ability to produce high-quality content cost-effectively and simply has revolutionized the industry and totally changed the dynamic. You started seeing NFL franchises — who [had been] very limited from a content-creation standpoint because of the limitations of the league’s rights agreements — producing vast amounts of content. Through today’s [distribution] mediums, social specifically, those teams can connect with their fan bases in an entirely different way that doesn’t rub up against those league-wide rights agreements. And, because production [tools] became so much cheaper, they have been able to serve those outlets with a lot of content.

So, from a sports and live-events standpoint, I think we have an amazing opportunity to provide access to cost-effective storage and manipulation through a dynamic archive environment using Core as the platform. That also enables a licensing component, as well as opportunities for our Digital Media Hub.

What is Digital Media Hub, and how is it being used at major sports events?
Digital Media Hub essentially offers a web portal at events that provides [property owners] with centralized access to acquire and distribute content from that event. That can be video highlights, stills, press conferences, audio highlights, and pretty much anything else the media would need. All of that can be distributed out to multiple locations by the user.

We recently spun up a Digital Media Hub at [a major golf tournament], and the beauty of it was that it was for every single type of media. We had all the video highlights from the course, entire press conferences, audio, transcripts, stills, flyover shots. It was also permission-enabled: if one of their major partners was logging in, they would have access to everything; if a local affiliate was logging in, they might have a couple of highlights and some transcripts and press conferences, [depending] on what their access was.

Taking that content, adding metadata, flexible transcode workflows, manipulating it in whatever way the property chooses, and then being able to publish it or post it straight to YouTube or Facebook (with other digital endpoints pending), we’re finding, is very valuable. On top of that, we often are the licensing agent of record for that content, so we can immediately start to monetize that content. The Digital Media Hub also provides broadcasters with a cost-effective way to grab content for shoulder programming.

The Core platform enables all of this. At the end of the day, the ability to digitize a workflow and to think thoughtfully about how the content is captured, ingested, and then monetized is what we’re about.

You spoke about how the content-creation revolution in recent years has drastically increased the amount of sports-video created. Do you see that rate continuing to grow exponentially? If so, how can Wazee Digital help content creators/owners manage this oncoming avalanche of content?
I believe we are entering an era of unprecedented change in terms of the way consumers are consuming their content. You see it everywhere, from Netflix to the moves that ESPN is making for the future to even acquisitions like NBC Sports’ [investment in rights to] peripheral Olympic properties in order to feed the content beast. These are all [indicators] of where the industry is heading.

I think you are going to continue to see more and better content and that content is going to intersect with the distribution platforms of the future. Some of those platforms are happening now, and some have not surfaced yet. I think we, as an industry, are still in a wait-and-see mode strategically. For example, I don’t believe Twitter’s rebroadcast of the NFL [Thursday Night Football] game is anything significant by itself because all they’re doing is taking CBS’s production and just retransmitting it to their platform, and there is nothing earth-shattering about that content. But it is significant because it means these new distribution platforms are starting to consider and experiment with [live sports content].

I’m not [expecting] English Premier League, the NFL, or major golf leagues to [migrate exclusively] to these new platforms anytime soon, but I do think all bets are off when it comes to that next tier down, which includes a lot of well-known properties. In terms of rights fees, I don’t see the bubble bursting, but I do see a deflation of that bubble because we are going to have multiple digital platforms [and] that will change the game. A lot of people are moving to skinnier bundles or unbundled offerings, and there is a significant number of the younger people that simply aren’t going to pay for ESPN content.
But the more valuable insight here is that a lot of those same young people are grabbing their phone, checking the score, looking for video highlights, and then checking back out. They are almost like ghosts, really tough to track. This is where Wazee Digital comes in.
Our role is largely dependent on how long a rights window the broadcaster has. In the case of our client, the College Football Playoff (CFP), ESPN’s rights from a newsgathering standpoint expire in 24 hours. When you think about the number of people who either missed the game or want to see those highlights again, a lot of that is going to occur outside that 24-hour window, and that’s where we can play a role.

We play a role not only in actively engaging that content through the Core platform to get it into various formats and get it up on social media but also, at the same time, in licensing that content. There are licensing opportunities that will be leveraged by both the sponsors of the CFP and others from a commercial standpoint that we’re going to play a role in. So it’s going to be interesting.

I think you’re also going to see more and more broadcasters wrapping up more digital rights for longer periods of time because, even though they don’t quite know what they’re going to do yet on the digital side, that day is coming, and they want to hedge their bets.

There has been a lot of talk about the challenges for high-profile leagues and broadcasters in the changing landscape. But what opportunities do you see for smaller, niche properties like World Surf League and World Poker Tour?
That’s a great question because I think, ultimately, most of the growth right now is happening where the eyeball interest is segmenting to, which are those niche sports. The role that we play in that space is even more significant because we have the opportunity to consult with certain properties around their rights strategy.

One of the things that we preach is, the more control digitally that a property has over the content, the better it is for everyone. Now, it is tough to turn down guaranteed money upfront, but I think, if this world continues to evolve, you’re going to have a real dichotomy between the value of digital rights upfront and controlling your own destiny if you don’t take that upfront money. How these smaller [sports properties] build their brand and shape their equity in the future is going to be dependent on how they present and control their content.

The World Surf League, for example, is a group with a very sophisticated vision. But they have to have a bit of a crawl, walk, run approach because that sophisticated vision commands a chunk of resources that don’t necessarily exist yet. We can help demonstrate what I call a “momentization” strategy for them in licensing that helps liquidate the investment of moving their archive to a digital platform like Core. They can get some quick [revenue] hits that will let [WSL] articulate their vision as they move forward. That is the crawl, walk, run approach to a lot of these folks.

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