How have live sports and sports broadcast had to adjust to covid-19; what’s the future of sports broadcast?

In the early months of lockdown, the same episode of Four in a Bed was repeated so often across Channel 4’s family of channels that I could recite it word-perfect. So, I’m sure you can imagine my relief when live sport began to return to our screens and gave me something new, and unseen to watch. Football came back in Germany in late May, followed by Spain, Italy and England in June. Other sports have followed suit since, broadcasting games from empty stadiums and arenas. We’ve seen boxing in Eddie Hearn’s back garden, darts in Phil Taylor’s living room, and pretty much everything in between. But with covid-enforced lockdowns giving broadcasters a virtual free swing to test new ideas and concepts, what have we learned about the role of tech in telly, and the future of sports broadcasting in general?

In this first blog, we’ll take a look at how the broadcast world adapted to covid-19 in the short-term, and what lockdown learnings might be applied to broadcasting moving forward.
Filing the void with new and nostalgia.

The first and most obvious implication on the broadcasters was how they were going to fill their schedules with no live content. Sports broadcasters like Sky and BT work on a subscription model – partly because securing sports rights is so expensive – and live sport is therefore their primary selling point. Obviously, covid-19 dropping some UFC-esque hammer fists on the sporting calendar was going to have an effect on the TV schedules, so how did the broadcasters react?

First of all, we should mention that both Sky and BT offered customers the option to freeze their packages – not having to pay for the sports channels until live sport returned. A good PR move sure, but there were still subscribers hungry for sports content in some shape or form, so how could they be served? The easy option was to turn back the clock and dust off the extensive archive of sports content each broadcaster is sitting on. For example, the BBC opted to show highlights of London 2012 to fill part of the hole left by Tokyo 2020 being postponed, and this was without doubt a smart move – nostalgia is a heck of a drug to fight off covid-blues.

Elsewhere, we saw broadcasters exploring new content options as well. BT Sport partnered with eSports specialist Gfinity to create formats and content such as the BT Sport FIFA Challenge, which saw BT Sport presenters and celebrities compete on EA Sports’ FIFA 20 video game. The Beeb also took a similar route, broadcasting the ePremier League trophy, where real-life Premier League players battled online on the FIFA game, with matches shown through the BBC Sport website and app.

eSports has been a growing industry for years now, with younger audiences in particular hungry for gaming content often found on digital platforms like Twitch and YouTube. However, covid-19 might have opened up the traditional broadcasters to the potential of eSports as a ratings winner in the long-term. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see things like the ePremier League becoming an annual fixture and filling more of the off-season schedules traditionally filled with archive re-runs.

Free for viewers, valuable for sponsors?

The second interesting impact of covid-19 was, once live sport began to return, just how much content was made available free-to-air. As mentioned, Sky and BT rely on subscription fees. So too does Amazon, the newest Premier League rights holder in the UK. It was refreshing, therefore, when news came that 33 of the remaining 92 Premier League fixtures of the 2019-20 season would be made free to air, split between the league’s four broadcast partners: Sky, BT, Amazon and the BBC. Kick-off times were also staggered and spread throughout the week, meaning fans had the option of watching far more of the games live than usual.

The Premier League has already stated that this won’t continue into the 20-21 season though, despite fans still not being allowed back into grounds. But the results of this good-will gesture are worth other sports leagues paying close attention to. The top eight most watched football matches on UK telly this season were all shown on the BBC, including Southampton vs Man City which became the most viewed Premier League fixture during lockdown. While the monolithic Premier League arguably doesn’t need free-to-air levels of exposure in the UK, other sports certainly do, and perhaps should consider the value of FTA eyeballs to their sponsors when negotiating future TV deals.

The downside of these increased viewing figures, and the most intriguing narrative to keep an eye on post-lockdown, will be that the broadcasters will likely push to keep the staggered kick-off times that covid brought about, even when fans return to stadiums. Social media immediacy has made traditional highlight programmes like Match of the Day somewhat of a dead concept, so the more live games the broadcasters can eek out of their TV deals the better as far as they are concerned. But, this probably means more midweek/late-night travelling for away fans. How much broadcast revenues continue to dominate the decision making of elite sport will be an interesting off-field battle in the months and years ahead.

Rise of the streamers and lockdown latency

The expansion of games made available on more platforms also brought back conversations about the rise of streaming, and the latency issues of streaming live sport. Amazon isn’t the only streaming provider wanting a slice of live action. DAZN has trebled its current package of live Bundesliga matches in Germany, Austria and Switzerland in a move it claims is the largest ever package of domestic soccer rights awarded to a streaming service.

DAZN is one of the biggest sports streaming players globally, but it’s less well known in the UK. It has invested significantly in sports rights in nine countries, hoping to offer a more flexible, comprehensive service than traditional Pay-TV broadcasters. It usually targets markets ripe for disruption, where attractive rights are available, and where broadband and mobile connectivity is sufficient to support its platform. Expect DAZN to want a stake in more UK broadcast rights moving forward.

Market challengers like Amazon and DAZN have seen the incumbents place more emphasis on their streaming offerings. BT Sport offers fans the chance to skip back to key highlights during the game when streaming on digital platforms, and both Sky and the BBC have made significant improvements to their streaming options over recent years.

Watching sport – like most forms of entertainment – is quickly becoming a dual-screen experience with fans engaging with content across Twitter, YouTube live streams, fan forums, betting sites and so on, all while watching the game. That’s not including those occasions when more than one game is on at the same time. The use of streaming platforms for live sport is only going in one direction, but lockdown has once again highlighted the need to improve our digital infrastructure and reduce latency. I can tell you from personal experience that streaming both Sky and BT via my Xbox was great in terms of picture quality and reliability (ie. the stream not freezing), but not so great in that I could hear our overenthusiastic neighbour celebrating a (usually Liverpool) goal before I’d seen it.

I’m in London with ultra-fast broadband, so if my stream is a few seconds behind the satellite feed then I’m confident in saying everyone else’s is too. The raw excitement of live sport hinges precisely on the fact that it is live. If the market wants to continue to offer more access to content, more innovation and invite more challengers to bid for rights, then latency needs to be brought in line.So that’s it for this part – thanks for indulging me thus far as we’ve looked at how eSports, free-to-air and streaming services have all factored into the broadcast world’s reaction to covid-19.

Keep an eye on our social feeds for part two of this blog, where we’ll look in more detail at the tech used during lockdown to recreate the fan atmosphere in sport, and how big data could be used to innovate sports content in the future.

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