Digital Execs Prioritize Personalization, Continued Growth in the OTT Space

Leagues and networks will proceed with a fan-centric approach

As OTT platforms become more visible and more a part of the mainstream when it comes to fans watching sports, the sudden growth of a product can be quite difficult to maintain. Along with the idea of always trying to better the product, the business can get a bit hectic at times.

At NAB NY 2018, professionals immersed in the league/network side — Matt Panto, associate executive director, for strategic communications and external relations, The Ivy League; Michael Allen, digital product manager, NBA; Clarke Pierce, SVP, TV Everywhere and special projects, Fox Sports; and Chris Wagner, managing partner, OTT Advisors — provided helpful advice on how to progress content by further personalizing the experience.

Gaining a New Audience
The fan comes first in the streaming world. Without the fan at the forefront of the creative discussion, a streaming service can lose its public appeal and interest. The dilemma comes with the balance between the three tiers of fandom: high-end, middle of the road, and casual. For example, the Ivy League Digital Network seemed to cater to one portion of the population on ESPN3 and other streaming locations, such as Facebook Live. To solve this problem, Panto explained, the decision was made to foster the conference’s content on ESPN+.

From left: The Ivy League’s Matt Panto, NBA’s Michael Allen, Fox Sports’ Clarke Pierce, and OTT Advisors’ Chris Wagner at last week’s Streaming Summit at NAB Show New York

“We had a very intimate relationship with our fans and our subscribers, but we felt that maybe we were being a little short-changed in some of the casual sports fans’ knowledge,” he said. “Ivy League fans knew where to watch, how to watch, and they were watching with what we consider a widely successful product. We wanted more people to know the quality of sport that we think is within the league by bundling all of our content and making it exclusive with the ESPN+ relationship. We want to introduce casual sports fans to what Ivy League athletics is really about.”

Another avenue to channel a more customized experience for each type of fan is to rethink a current idea. Before the 2018-19 NBA season tipped off, the league’s digital team went back to the drawing board and restructured the payment plan of NBA League Pass. Besides typical season-length and single-game options, fans can now choose to join a game to watch the final quarter of play.

“While [the premium plan] was a great product and there was a strong demand for it,” Allen said, “we realized there was an opportunity to reach another audience that is maybe a little less hardcore and is more casual. Now there’s a low entry point for people to enjoy a premium experience.”

Along with an astonishing 64% increase in subscriptions from the end of last season, Allen sees this strategy as a positive way of garnering new fans by allowing accessibility and exposure to the game. “We work very hard to get them into new materials over time once they’re engaged in our product,” he said. “When there are great moments happening over the course of our season, we want to make it as easy as possible for fans to get into that experience.”

Breaking Away From the Traditional Mold
The 2018 FIFA World Cup was an OTT paradise, with Fox Sports pushing all pregame, postgame, and live match coverage on the Fox Sports app. When handling a large undertaking like the World Cup, Pierce emphasizes the need to bolster the strength and reliability of your infrastructure.

“We knew it was going to be big, and we prepared for that,” he said on the panel. “We took a look at the predictions [of how many digital users there would be] and saw it go 15%-20% higher than that. Then, seeing it go higher than what we thought it was going to be, that was pretty exciting but also scary because you watch this crush of people come in at the same time. You’re just hoping you can handle it.”

After the dust finally settled in Russia, Pierce and his team crunched the streaming numbers and deduced that fans will watch important content during non-traditional hours of consumption. “We had the perfect storm in Russia with the time zones, so we call it ‘internet primetime.’ When people are at work and don’t have access to traditional television, they have access to a ton of bandwidth with a screen. They suddenly have the time to watch sports,” he said. “When the U.S. Women’s National Team is playing [in the 2019 Women’s World Cup], we’re going to have huge audiences, especially if it’s during work. Those games will crush it in the U.S.”

Along with games in non-traditional environments, new ideas are expanding on the communal feeling of watching sports. For example, the NBA and its development league are adapting their platforms to enable a sense of community in a world predicated on solo viewing. “We put G League games on Twitch. Between chat and all of the interactivity around it, we saw an 8X lift in time spent,” Allen said.  “A lot of those features are communal in nature. The balance is personalization and how you watch that with your respective network of friends.”

Wagner takes the community feeling and adds the most interesting element of viewership, which was introduced this year: legalized sports betting. “If you think about how to drive more engagement into a lot of these sports, in-game wagering is huge,” he said. “The way that data is going to be used to set those bets or those odds, with large operators and casinos, I think it’s going to be massive.” 

The Fan Drives Success
With the OTT world at the start of a new calendar year, the fan continues to be the driving force in terms of pushing a streaming service or digital campaign. Wagner sees the increased importance of placing the fan at the center of an organization’s plan in 2019. “This year more than ever, it’s really how you find the fan, how you attract that fan, and how you package content in ways to grow the business,” he said. “Localizing content, making the right offers to the fan at the right time, packaging pricing — those are all big things this year and even more so next year.”