The Game Ahead: How Live Sports Is Evolving at Speed in 2020

Anytime/anywhere broadcasting, global audience, OTT mark the industry

The success of an industry falls ultimately to the ingenuity of its people, and the sports-broadcast industry exemplifies this. In 2020, the new technology and evolving expectations of sports viewers will be a catalyst for change, and broadcasters and rightsholders cannot remain static if they hope to grow and take their business forward during the next decade.

The underlying force in the rapid evolution of live sports broadcasting today is digital technology, for both consumers and rightsholders. In 2020, consumers have more ways than ever to watch live sports — more devices, more mobility, more platforms offering fresh content — and broadcasters and streaming services have the capacity to deliver a much broader range of live sports coverage.

The Switch’s Joseph Cohen is a member of the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.

This situation will accelerate industry change over the next decade as new trends, technologies, and ways of doing business drive real transformation in the production, delivery, and consumption of live sports. As we start a new decade, here are some of the big developments we can look forward to.

Anytime/Anywhere Live Sports Will Become an Everyday Reality
Prior to the launch of ESPN in 1979, there were primarily three network channels offering live sports broadcasts in the U.S.: ABC, NBC, and CBS. Today, there are more opportunities to transmit live sports than ever — whether traditional linear, over-the-top (OTT), or on-demand — as broadcasters, streaming services, other rightsholders, and leagues themselves strive to capture more and more sports events. There are more than 50 services — from the big networks to cable and satellite channels to league-owned entities like NFL Network and NBA TV — broadcasting every game.

In 2020, we will see the big streaming players continue to get into the game and more leagues likely branch into “game pass” and subscription-type OTT services. YouTube TV has already secured exclusive rights to games with a new Major League Soccer team in Los Angeles, the first time a U.S. pro-sports franchise has made this type of a deal with a streaming service instead of a mainstream broadcaster. And Amazon Prime Video continues to make a big play in live sports streaming, showing English Premiership Football and NFL Thursday Night Football. Sports fans today increasingly want to be able to access live sports coverage in real time via apps that ensure anytime anywhere access to their favorite sports, teams, and athletes, and the industry is moving fast to accommodate them.

New Production Models Mean More Sports Will Reach More Fans
Innovation in live sports TV has led to dramatic improvements in production efficiency and quality in recent years, with more cameras, graphics, cutaways, replays, and visual effects than ever. But this has led to an increase in the cost and complexity of each event, particularly for smaller-scale sports. A typical U.S. college-football remote production, for example, requires specialized technical staff to be flown in from around the country — plus lots of fixed equipment and remote-production trucks — with the resulting travel, accommodation, and freight costs.

At-home production, however, is massively lowering costs — by 25% or more for a typical college football game, for instance – to the point where more sports broadcasts become commercially viable. The production model is also enabling live coverage of smaller-scale events — niche sports, lower-division college games, even high school games — while maintaining professional standards. Such events as the 2019 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Sweden deployed more than 80 remote cameras linked to a production facility in Stockholm to transmit coverage. NFL Network, supported by The Switch, is moving into at-home production for college football to help deliver more games without compromising on quality. CBS is doing the same thing with college basketball. Simply put, more leagues and rightsholders will be able to economically get great coverage of events to their fans in 2020.

The Global Reach to Every Fanbase Will Be More Direct Than Ever
Outside the U.S., growing use of internet-based broadcasting is bringing in net new audiences. A great example of this is the NBA, which in the 2019-20 season averaged 1 million-4 million U.S. TV viewers per game, depending on the game and broadcaster. Across the Pacific, Tencent Sports, an internet-service provider that holds a rights package for China, attracted 25 million viewers for the season opener between the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers.

It’s not just sports involving a ball, bat, or wheels that benefit from global audiences and OTT. Esports viewership is exceeding double-digit, year-on-year growth — 450 million viewers worldwide, and growing fast — as the technology increasingly accommodates the studio-led visuals and experiences that attract a difficult-to-engage young demographic. To put it in context, the 2019 World Series averaged about 14 million total viewers a game; The League of Legends 2019 World Championship, in comparison, peaked at 44 million concurrent viewers globally during the competition’s final round on Nov. 10.

Sports of all types are finding new fans. Whether it’s the NBA reaching new audiences overseas through its NBA League Pass service or esports picking up new demographics and casual fans through traditional broadcasters, 2020 will see more sports going more places because the technology makes it possible to reach the far corners of every fanbase without needing local scale.

There Will Be More Talking Around All the Action
OTT platforms will be increasingly used by major media sports-rights holders to create more buzz around all sports events by extending coverage and debate before and after each event, especially for fans eager for every scrap of information and analysis on their favorite team or athlete. Shoulder programming will grow as a staple of broadcast sports, with more extra programming at either end of the big game, and legalized gambling will offer even more opportunities for shows built around analysis, predictions, odds, and outcomes.

The Industry Is Poised To Thrive
There is no single technology or business path that will guarantee success for every rightsholder. The big takeaway for the leagues and broadcasters is that sports fans — whether they are in New York, Mumbai, London, or Beijing — are willing to follow their passion on the device, timetable, and cost model that suits their circumstances. Whoever brings them their favorite sports needs to adapt to meet changing and expanding demands. The result will be an industry poised to thrive and grow into the next decade.