InPlayer CEO George Meek on How Live Streaming Pay-Per-View Is Booming During the Pandemic
We’re living in strange times. Across the country, the NFL season kicked off inside a series of empty stadiums. Summer music festival season has come and gone without the spiking of a single water bottle – or, for that matter, the purchase of even one ticket. The NBA Finals concluded…in October. The pandemic has skewed our natural biological entertainment clocks and sidelined our inner fan, and it may be a while yet before our systems recover to baseline levels. But in the meantime, our games haven’t gone dark. They’ve gone digital. And some of the adjustments we’ve made as part of the new normal have opened our eyes to better ways – or at least some compelling alternatives.
Chief among those discoveries: Sometimes our BarcaLounger is the best seat in the house. Fans are gradually making the transition from the stadium to the sofa, and at the same time learning just how satisfying the journey can be. We now have more entertainment options at our fingertips than ever before and seemingly endless devices on which to watch them.
Meanwhile, those bringing the broadcasts to you are rapidly improving their delivery, production and packaging methods to help narrow the gap between a virtual experience and the real thing. Frequently, one of those methods has been pay-per-view streaming.
Live games, highlights, condensed games, behind-the-scenes footage of practice and off-court content supply deeper coverage and enable greater access to content which are essential to ultimately offering exceptional value and attractive pay-per-view or subscription packages to fans.
Back in May, it was mixed martial arts that first dipped its toe back into staged sporting events, with UFC 249. But many wondered how successful a postponed fight card with rejiggered matchups and no major headliners would sell on a subscription app during the middle of a pandemic and economic crisis. The show did a reported 700,000 buys in the U.S., won over new MMA fans and converted some into ESPN+ believers (and subscribers). It was a wise marketing move by both UFC President Dana White and ESPN, utilizing one to benefit the other.
The pay-per-view price of $64.99 was palatable to fight fans who got to enjoy a co-main event featuring the bantamweight title and lightweight interim title bouts. The dually genius move, however, was offering a bundled package of the fight and an annual subscription $84.98. With ESPN+ annual subscription tagged at $49.99, for those who intended to buy the fight anyways, the difference of $25 was an enticement to get fight fans to engage with ESPN’s streaming service.
Likewise those looking for a subscription deal for the sports streaming channel found an opportunity with UFC 249 and, likewise, the promotion was able to attract more casual fans who may buy ensuing pay-per-view cards.
One night later, WWE aired its final “Money in the Bank” pay-per-view, and the buy rates that followed were mostly considered a disappointment. But even pre-pandemic, pro wrestling had suffered from some of the same creep that had hushed the UFC’s buzz of only a few years ago: too many events at too steep a sticker price. Rather than viewing soft numbers as an indictment of a single event, a streaming-video platform or PPV in general, the lesson to be learned is this: You must provide quality content at a frequency and price that are appropriate for your audience.
AppleTV and Amazon have been streaming movies for some time now, but the concept is relatively new in the realm of sports and live music. On-demand pay-per-view is also something the public, conditioned for decades to find its games and shows on network TV and basic cable, has been slow to embrace.
Content providers had little reason to update their models. If you are just beginning your video distribution this can be the perfect way to introduce people to your content without expecting them to immediately sign up for a subscription package.
At the same time it is an excellent way to attract a casual viewer – someone who doesn’t necessarily spend a lot of time online but has spotted your brand and wants to interact. And it is working. University of Oklahoma football fans were able to watch the Sooners play Missouri State in their season opener on SoonerSports.tv. The $54.99 price tag might seem an exorbitant ask for viewing a predictable blowout of a bottom-rung opponent, but … have you ever met an Oklahoma football fan? Fandom really is at the heart of what drives pay-per-view prices. Oklahoma understands the team is by far the most watched in the state. Heck, its fans subscribe to sites like Rivals.com just to be in the know as to which five-star recruits have the Sooners high on their list. So $54.99 to watch an actual game? That’s a no-brainer.
For franchises and schools with less active fanbases, pricing becomes more difficult. But other factors like competing events can be weighed in conjunction with the pricing for a pay-per-view event. Ultimately, analytics are going to be the best indication as to whether your pricing is optimum.
And it’s not exclusively viewer analytics either. Schools and professional franchises can offer discounts to those who purchase a pay-per-view event well in advance, building up a groundswell that creates buzz around the experience. A discount guarantees revenue up front, allowing properties to take chances with their pricing closer to the event. In some cases, free trials might be worth it too. For Oklahoma, they know their market. But what about that Missouri State team that took on the Sooners? That’s a mid-major college football program that competes with the likes of the big state school, Missouri, for viewers.
A free pay per-view event could help them attract fans, helping to build the fanbase necessary to monetize these events on a one-off basis.
More classes in Understanding Your Market 101: On September 26, Showtime offered a PPV loaded with title fights, exciting fighters and compelling matchups. For a sport that has relied more on spectacle than substance to fuel its recent pay-per-views, it’s a welcome sight. Yet even smaller events can draw a niche audience and turn a tidy profit when priced accordingly. Relative no-namers Alejandro Santiago Barrios and Willibaldo Garcia Perez recently headlined a fight card from a bar in Tijuana, Mexico – for roughly a tenth of the price of the Showtime PPV.
Where there is fan interest, there is OTT opportunity.
Want to catch the Funky Butt Brass Band doing their thing? A company called HYFI is streaming a series of shows – a “digital tour” – from The Pageant in St. Louis. Bummed that you won’t be able to attend this year’s Braemar’s Highland Games? Don’t be. Just tune into Facebook for your fill of caber tossing, bagpipes and large men in kilts. As fans adjust their habits, it’s clear there’s a willingness (and, in some cases, even a preference) to tune in when they can’t turn out.
Content providers and OTT companies that believe the appetite for on-demand digital entertainment will disappear with the pandemic do so at their own peril.
George Meek is CEO of InPlayer, a leading monetization and subscriber management platform with over 400 customers worldwide. George has almost two decades of experience selling broadcast technology and almost as long operational experience in scaling high-growth technology companies.