RSN Summit: Rise of Live Streaming, OTT on Regional Level Reflects Changing Viewership

Digital leaders weighed in on how RSNs are leveraging technologies and social-media platforms to engage with increasingly mobile fans

The digital landscape of the RSN market is evolving rapidly, adapting to shifting viewing habits. In particular, the rise of in-market streaming indicates networks’ intention to reach sports fans wherever they are and on whatever device they prefer, rather than encourage all viewers to watch the linear telecast on their living-room screens. At SVG’s RSN Summit in Chicago, a panel of digital leaders from a wide range of RSNs and technology vendors converged to discuss in-market streaming, their OTT offerings, and growing opportunities for social interaction.

Michael Spirito, currently VP, business development for Fox Sports Regional Networks, recalled breaking new ground at YES Network in 2009 when the RSN decided to stream all New York Yankees games in market.

“That was a revolutionary product,” he said at last month’s RSN Summit. “It was the first live authenticated in-market product for RSNs, and the irony is that [getting] that deal done and the operations underlying that deal haven’t changed that much over the past eight years. We certainly have more mass adoption of people interacting with that kind of content, we certainly have a better sales channel and sales cycle to ultimately monetize it, but the negotiations and the rightsholders and the constituents are all pretty much the same.”

Today, Fox Sports Regional Networks is in years two and three, respectively, of MLB and NBA in-market streaming deals, and RSNs across the country are finding tremendous success in streaming their games.

“[Live streaming] is in every decision we make,” noted Matt Murphy, SVP, platforms and strategy, NBC Sports Regional Networks. “It is part of everything that we do whether it be writing an article for our website or cutting a clip for our app or creating a podcast. Live streaming is an extension of that, and, as we look further in terms of how we evolve, we understand that the days of just putting live events on a television set on primetime is not reflective of how people are consuming content today.”

From left: NESN’s Michael R. Hall, TokBox’s Brian Johnson, Monumental Sports Networks’ Zach Leonsis, NBC Sports Regional Networks’ Matt Murphy, and Fox Sports Regional Networks’ Michael Spirito, and SVG’s Brandon Costa, moderator

Washington Wizards and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis recently took this idea one step further with the launch of Monumental Sports Network, a direct-to-consumer OTT offering. Network VP/GM Zach Leonsis sees the direct-to-consumer movement as the way to gather data about who the consumers are, as well as where and how they are consuming content. With a limited number of seats available in venues and an increasing number of fans cutting the cord (or never connecting in the first place), Zach Leonsis stressed the opportunity of Monumental Sports Network to be the “touchpoint” between teams and fans.

“When we looked at working towards a new regional-sports-network partnership, particularly focused on our Capitals and Wizards live-game rights, we came to the conclusion that the RSNs are in an incredibly enviable position in the world of cable,” he said. “If you look at each of the individual markets and how the channels rank, the RSN is almost always No. 1.”

In New England, NESN launched its NESN GO offering earlier this year in cooperation with MLBAM. Although the OTT product has been a hit with a more mobile generation of fans, NESN SVP, Digital, Michael R. Hall said that his group will work to determine how to measure ratings and create revenue.

“From a qualitative standpoint, we feel good about it. It does make us seem more relevant, younger, fresher, and more accessible to a younger, more mobile generation of fans,” he said. “From a quantitative standpoint, there’ll be three things to consider as we evaluate its success.”

The panelists from Fox Sports Regional Networks, NBC Sports Regional Networks, Monumental Sports Network, and NESN agreed that the push to in-market streaming and direct-to-consumer OTT is intended to match up with fans’ evolving viewing habits; a thought echoed by TokBox Global VP, Business Development, Brian Johnson.

“As much as OTT is a big change for RSNs, it’s also a big change for the people on the other side of the screen,” he said. “Viewers are expecting something different — they want interaction, they want to talk with their friends, they want to talk with the people they’re watching with — and that’s what TokBox does. We make an interactive platform for fan engagement.”

The panelists also discussed the rise of live social-media opportunities, particularly with Facebook Live. Although it may seem that Facebook Live has always been a part of many networks’ digital strategies, Spirito reminded the audience that the platform is less than two years old.

“Facebook Live launched about 15 months ago across the Fox regions,” he pointed out, adding, “We were right there alongside them and have been programming that specific channel in a manner that is consistent with what works on that platform that drives engagement. What we bring to the fray is a depth of coverage and a behind-the-scenes look and a lot of that sort of product that we have not been able to bring to light with traditional production processes. These new tools and new platforms have allowed us to grow that audience, which, on any nightly basis, trumps what we’re doing on a live-linear perspective.”

The newness of Facebook Live — along with other live social platforms Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat — has prompted a wave of experimentation to determine what works, what doesn’t, and what fans want.

“The numbers around these social platforms are just enormous and are too big to ignore, frankly,” said Murphy. “So we’re experimenting on all social platforms right now. Specific to Facebook Live, all of our regional sports networks are experimenting in their own ways; they’re getting very creative.

“I think they’re all trying to find solutions to monetization,” he continued. “We’re really focused on the purpose part of it. If we’re going to be participating on social, what is our purpose? What is our goal when we’re on the platform? We’re in experimental mode, and we’re going to continue to experiment to try to figure it out.”

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