As YES Network’s Digital Team Continues To Innovate, Engagement Grows

One of the first digital teams embedded in linear-production workflow continues to pay off

In today’s multiplatform world, a broadcaster’s responsibility in covering the game goes well beyond the live linear telecast. Nowhere is this more apparent than for regional sports networks, which must cater to die-hard fans constantly clamoring for more information and content about their favorite teams. YES Network and its Fox Sports Networks compatriots have taken on this challenge head-on, cultivating a digital/social-programming philosophy that hinges on the digital team being intimately embedded with the linear-production team.

Kevin [Sullivan, director of digital media] and I are very close, and there is a lot of communication between us — even in the offseason,” says YES Network Coordinating Producer Jared Boshnack. “The reason this all works is, the digital landscape that exists today has a lot of material that we want to spotlight on our air. At the same time, we also know there’s an additional audience seeking more beyond [the linear telecast]. To me, [social and digital distribution] is a way to drive them back to the on-air product, while we can also serve our content to those fans online.”

Kevin Sullivan (left) and Michael Spirito at the YES Network studio in Stamford, CT

In the case of YES, this has created higher visibility across the organization, resulting not only in high-quality digital programming but also in sizable increases in its digital and social metrics.

Through August, YES averaged 9.1 million video views per month (across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and web) for the 2017 calendar year — up 193% year over year — and logged 11.7 million views for the four months of the Yankees season. In addition, YES now has more than 750,000 total followers on social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram). Meanwhile, Fox RSNs as a whole have grown their digital-video consumption more than 800% in the past two years, largely by embracing the principals YES helped to pioneer over the past decade.

“The bottom line is, digital has had a seat at the table since I’ve been here [at YES] and is in close contact with [other operations]: on-air promotions, graphics, remote [production], studio [production], marketing, PR, everyone. And that strategy has resulted in our success,” says Michael Spirito, head of business development and digital media, Fox Sports Networks. “I’m very proud of how the Fox RSNs have bought into that strategy and embedded their digital functions with production and with higher visibility across the organization and have created fantastic digital programming of their own, growing their metrics extraordinarily impressively and setting the foundations for a viable sales channel.”

The YES Production Team Learned To Think Digital
Although YES has seen its output and metrics skyrocket in recent years, its commitment to digital is nothing new. A decade ago, YES was among the first RSNs to make digital a priority, demanding that its linear-production team think with a digital mindset when creating content for studio shows. YES has been an active programmer and revenue partner on YouTube and an active Facebook user since 2007. In addition, the network launched the first in-market live-game-streaming product in MLB history in 2009 (as well as the first authenticated TV Everywhere product in professional sports). That commitment to digital was made possible largely by the buy-in from the linear-production team.

YES Network Coordinating Producer Jared Boshnack has embraced the role of digital within his linear-production team’s operation.

“During the 2009 World Series, when the Yankees beat the Phillies in six games, we were producing nightly shows and saw some added value from Twitter at a time in which it was exploding,” recounts Boshnack. “All the stats and insights were flowing in, and we suddenly had all this raw information, which, essentially, added to the storyline. I saw the value in it right then and there.

“I was a believer at that point,” he continues. “Then it became more about how we could build on this: how can add to this very crowded landscape and make our presence felt? The answer was original content. It was a very organic process in which we all brainstormed, and I think it’s paid off for both YES and the fans.”

Facebook Live Goes Inside YES Production Meetings
One of the most significant outlets for that original content exploded on the scene last year with the launch of Facebook Live. Since then, the social-video outlet has become essential to YES’s ability to drive tune-in to live games and generate new monetization opportunities.

Chief among these Facebook Live efforts has been YES’s Yankees Production Meeting live show, which features producers, talent, and the digital team meeting before each Yankees series to discuss storylines and plans for the upcoming matchups. The show is a two-camera shoot, and the digital team uses Telestream’s WireCast solution to cut the show and generate on-screen graphics.

“We did a handful of these meetings last year shot on a cellphone, but, this year, we really blew it out: miking everyone up, using two cameras, and bringing in a WireCast system to produce it,” says Sullivan. “It all came together. We even got it sponsored and had some fun with the sponsorship for Papa John’s by getting pizza delivered to the meeting. I believe they are getting better every time. The more we can show fans — both regional and global — what’s under the hood and give them the most in-depth experience around the Yankees and Nets and NYCFC, the more we succeed on every platform.”

It’s no coincidence that YES’s increases in fan engagement have correlated with this increased digital-video output in recent years. YES is on pace to produce a whopping 5,000 digital videos by the end of the year and has already produced 145 Facebook Live videos (as of August), with its fellow Fox RSNs combining for several hundred more.

“When it comes to something like [Facebook Live],” Sullivan explains, “it’s also a matter of managing resources. You have to prove the concept first. Shooting a piece in somebody’s office with one phone requires fewer resources than it does to have two cameras, a WireCast, mics, and people producing it behind the cameras. But, once you’ve proven that the concept works and that there’s an audience and engagement, you get more buy-in from the president of production all the way on down. Then you can have some more resources, and [linear-]production people are more willing to play a role.”

The Stucko Effect: Spotlighting Player Personalities
In addition to its live-streaming efforts, YES Network also delivers plenty of original VOD content on a daily basis. Much of this effort is spearheaded by Web Video Producer Matt Stucko, who produces and hosts a variety of off-the-wall segments, such as Yes or No and Cool Down, with Yankees players and other athletes. Stucko, who knows many of the current young stars from having covered them in the minors, aims to create a fun, laid-back format that allows their personalities to come out.

Web Content Producer Matt Stucko creates digital content that aims to bring out players’ personalities and go beyond the game.

“When I first got here,” says Stucko, “my goal was to create as much fun content with the players as possible, so we could actually show their personalities. You can only hear so much talk about stats and injuries. But my job is to listen to people on social media and find out about fans’ interests and then bring that to the players in order to make for some fun video content. We are trying to make everybody watching feel like they are getting closer to their favorite players. It’s one thing to see them hit, but it’s another to hear them actually talk about their lives in a fun way and show people their human side.”

Having Fun With Content: Movie Posters and Bobbleheads
YES’s efforts to create fun, fan-focused content go well beyond just video, however.

Over the past three months, YES Network has launched the Movie Poster Monday initiative, which aims to blur the line between sports and pop culture by capitalizing on key Yankees personalities. Examples include Exit Velo starring Aaron Judge, Red Thunder starring Clint Frazier, The Kraken starring Gary Sanchez, and The Emoji Tweeter starring DD Gregorious.

In addition, YES has rolled out a series of Animated Digital Bobblehead Dolls depicting various Yankees, including Judge and Luis Severino.

“These kinds of [elements] are all about brainstorming: we all go into a meeting, and we don’t leave until we come up with some ideas,” says Sullivan. “But, when it comes down to it, everything is about engagement. I can’t preach that enough. We might have a piece that a lot of work went into, but, if it’s not going to get engagement, then we’re not going to post it.”

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