Is social media streaming a threat to broadcasters?
It was an international clash that didn’t register on the back pages of the nation’s newspapers or with the big guns of sports broadcasting.
But the England Leopards table tennis team’s European qualifying tie against Greece last November still managed to capture 2.3 million viewers when it was streamed by fast-growing online media company The LADbible Group.
What makes that figure even more remarkable is the tie, shown on The SPORTBible’s Facebook Live page, took place on the same night that Manchester City’s Champions’ League game with Barcelona was televised live on BT Sport.
The SPORTBible is one of the UK’s most visited sports media websites. It has more than eight-and-a-half million fans on Facebook. Table tennis was one of the first sports to be screened live there alongside boxing and amateur mixed martial arts.
The way young fans in particular watch their sport is one of the drivers towards a future where more live games and events will find an audience on social media.
And the LADbible team is looking to tap into that change with its developing strategy of offering less well-known sports to its youthful audience.
However, the mainstream sports are also looking with growing interest towards exploiting social media as a new platform which could change the way we all view our favourite games.
America’s powerful NFL moved into the social media arena with a ground-breaking deal with Twitter to live stream Thursday Night Football games for a reputed $10million.
In addition to live streaming the action, that partnership included in-game highlights as well as pre-game Periscope broadcasts from players and teams, giving fans an immersive experience before, during and after games.
Twitter has also live-streamed Australia’s iconic Melbourne Cup horse race and has expanded its portfolio to include live NHL Hockey and Major League Baseball.
Meanwhile, according to reports, Formula 1 is the latest sporting body said to be looking at the possibility of live streaming in the future.
And what of football and in particular the Premier League, which is never slow to take an opportunity to increase its global audience? Clubs are already using Facebook very successfully to connect with their fans across the world.
And there have also been a few glimpses of where the future could be heading. At the start of this season England and Manchester United star Wayne Rooney’s testimonial match was made available on Facebook through the player and his club’s official pages – both have massive potential audiences.
New ground was also broken when YouTube showed the last season’s Champions and Europa League finals live for the first time. According to reports 3m fans watched both games on the platform free of charge.
This season, Sky Sports customers have been able to watch the goals and highlights from all 380 Premier League matches on their mobile phones. And Twitter struck another deal to show Premier League highlights and goals on the social network.
And all this against a backdrop which saw an 19 per cent drop in viewing figures for Sky’s live Premier League matches earlier in the season, with illegal online streaming being cited as one of the reasons why.
BT Sport has boosted its relatively low TV viewing figures by streaming extended highlight packages of its cricket action – including Australia’s series with Pakistan and the Big Bash – on Twitter.
Arian Kalantari, co-founder and director of The LADbible Group, says his company’s emerging sports strategy was partly in response to what Facebook Live was doing.
“The opportunity came to stream an amateur mixed martial arts fight and decided to take that opportunity, to test it out on our audience,” he told BusinessCloud.
“Off the back of what amounted to an amateur fight we had a 600,000 viewing figure.
“We realised if we could get those figures for an amateur fight, imaging what we could do with something professional and well known.”
That was the start of an evolving programme of streaming live sports content which Kalantari describes as “really exciting.”
He added: “We’ve done a few events, testing out a few different sports.”
Kalantari says Sky does a “great job” promoting football and mainstream sports but believes there is demand out there for sports that don’t normally get air time.
And that’s where table tennis came in.
He describes the England v Greece clash that his organisation streamed as: “A two-hour long piece of content that was really exciting.”
So too was the interactive nature of the broadcast. And this is where the way people want to watch their sport is changing, according to industry watchers.
Kalantari said: “On Facebook Live you can comment on the sport while you are watching it. It is an interactive way of watching and participating in a sporting event.
“If fully immerses you in the experience. I was watching it and reading all the comments going on. People were taking about the game point by point in real time.
“I’m a hard core football fan and I was also watching the City match at the same time, but I became more interested in the table tennis, more engaged. I felt like I was part of it.
“That’s the real turning point. If we can get the right sport and right talking point, there is a real opportunity in this.”
Mark Taffler, head of commercial at Table Tennis England, was also impressed.
“We are particularly keen to reach new and younger audiences - there is an appetite to watch our sport and, through a platform like The SPORTbible, we are finding those audiences,” he said.
Meanwhile, Kalantari says 2017 will be a year when his organisation looks at what other sports are out there that it can test the audience reaction on.
So is this move towards more live sport on social media a threat to traditional broadcasters? Kalantari believes that it actually creates an opportunity for them to work with new media.
Kalantari said: “We can complement each other. It is about the traditional broadcaster looking at it as an opportunity.
“It is how they view if, and if they embrace it they really can make the most of it.”
BELOW: Flick through the Q1 2017 edition of BusinessCloud's interactive digital magazine