RSN Summit: Direct-to-Consumer OTT Amplifies Regional-Sports-Rights Landscape in Many Ways

Media execs see new opportunities in some RSN markets

As sports fans’ consumption habits continue to evolve, so too must regional sports rights shift to meet fans where they want to consume their content. But does that signal a total departure from linear distribution in favor of direct-to-consumer over-the-top platforms?

“I think the time we’re at today is reminiscent of the beginning of the cable industry,” said Desser Media founder/President Ed Desser during a panel discussion at SVG’s RSN Summit last month. “That was the last time we saw a significant change in distribution behavior. Prior to that, everything was on broadcast or it wasn’t on. Now almost everything is on, and it’s either on cable or, increasingly, being [streamed].”

From left: Desser Media’s Ed Desser, FloSports’ Lindsey Ross, MLS Digital’s Chris Schlosser, and Stadium’s Andrew Schnell

He does not believe that direct-to-consumer OTT will eventually replace the traditional linear model that currently dominates regional sports networks. Rather, he sees streamed content supplementing the main television broadcast.

“Streaming provides a whole new set of opportunities and, for certain content and for certain content distributors, it’s great to have the option,” Desser opined. “But I believe that, for regional sports, it’s going to come later. I think that regional sports today is fully utilized, at least on the pro side, by RSNs, and I don’t see streaming in a material way changing that in the near term.”

However, from a league perspective, Major League Soccer sees direct-to-consumer OTT as the future for clubs in markets with more digital-savvy fans. For example, in Los Angeles, the English-language rights for LAFC were awarded to YouTube (the Spanish-language rights belong to Univision). In Chicago, both English-and Spanish-language rights belong exclusively to ESPN Plus.

“Our fans want access to our games live on any platform that they want to watch,” said MLS Digital SVP/GM Chris Schlosser. “If they have access to a big, beautiful TV, they want to watch on the TV. If they are out and about and they want to follow the game on their phone, we hear loud and clear they want the ability to pick and choose the device. And so we’ve been working really hard with all of our clubs to make sure that they have a way to distribute their content on any platform.”

For now, the distribution deals in markets like Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, and Orlando allow MLS to test out different platforms on a regional level before its national-rights deal with ESPN expires in 2022. “We see these deals as a way to test out different platforms, different technologies, and see how fans react,” Schlosser explained. “We’re learning something new every day.”

For a company like FloSports, the goal is to target regional markets with a passionate fan base and work to further enhance that base, either by elevating and providing a platform for niche sports or supporting more-established sports.

“We don’t necessarily look at sports media in a regional or even organization-driven model,” explained FloSports Director, Rights Acquisition, Lindsey Ross. “We like to think that, anywhere there’s a passionate fanbase, FloSports can come in and either create a sports community or strengthen the sports community. We’re really open to all of it. We built our model off of niche sports primarily because they were underserved, [but] it’s not a one-size-fits-all for all sports. What we do for jiu-jitsu and wrestling is definitely not the same [way] we would approach the fan base for basketball, football, and soccer.”

Similarly, Stadium has built its model on delivering live and on-demand events direct to fans to enhance the work that regional sports networks are already doing.

“What we can do is enhance or amplify the opportunities that the regionals can have, either the reach that we have or the authenticity,” said Andrew Schnell, managing director, corporate development, Stadium. “For us, as a reach vehicle — we’re in 78 different markets on TV, we’re partners with the vMVPDs, we’re partners with Twitter and Twitch — that’s just a different marketplace that we can go after that the regionals might not be able to or not have the staffing to be able to do so. We can work with our partners to create unique experiences.

“It’s not just going into a market and replacing the RSN there,” he continued. “It’s creating an amplified experience for those rightsholders and RSNs.”

The panelists agreed that direct-to-consumer OTT, in whatever form it takes, offers content creators and rightsholders the ability to connect directly with fans and provide the authentic experience that today’s sports fans crave.

“It’s an exciting time in the media space for all of us,” said Desser. “It’s a little daunting in terms of not necessarily knowing what the next thing to happen is going to be, but what’s exciting is that it forces creativity and it forces people to think of new ways of looking at their programming. You can break the pieces down and look at their composite parts and build them back together again in a different fashion, and that’s going to make the next several years very exciting.”

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