By 2025, more than 25% of Americans will watch live sports digitally. While broadcast and cable networks have dominated the sports viewership market, there will soon be a new normal. In an interview with Rick Allen, CEO of ViewLift, we spoke about the industry’s areas of disruption and growth, including the broadcasting and cable influence, private-equity deals, new revenue streams for content owners, and the impact on the fan experience.
Allen has over 30 years of experience in the sports, digital and media industry, having led some of the biggest media companies, including leadership roles at Sporting News and National Geographic Ventures, with responsibility for ten business units, including TV/Film and Digital; and as an SVP at Discovery. He also served in the White House as Deputy Assistant to President Bill Clinton. In 2008, along with tech pioneer and sports team owner Ted Leonsis, Allen created ViewLift.
Excerpts from the interview;
Tell us about your journey from traditional media to the digital world.
I have always been involved with digital media, even when running traditional media companies. At Discovery Communications, I was involved in restructuring their digital group and worked on new asset acquisitions. When I was CEO of National Geographic Ventures, digital was a huge part of the ten operating groups that reported to me – vital in our strategy for what later became the National Geographic Channel. All of that was reported to me and then ViewLift, which began 14 years ago as SnagFilms, started as a digital-forward company from the beginning. So, even throughout that kind of traditional company experience – we always had a strong digital presence. With ViewLift, it’s exclusively focused on digital.
The era of broadcast and cable dominance of sports distribution is ending. What’s the new normal?
I think the new normal is all of the above. For content owners, there is a desire and necessity to distribute wherever your audience is. This means traditional linear distribution when you can get it, and in those markets where you can get it digital and over the top, distribution – wherever that makes the greatest sense frequently in the same markets, because it may be that you are linear.
Let’s say you are a sports league, you have linear carriage from only a portion of your games. The digital and an OTT space might be the only way you can offer a full package of your games. In certain markets, you do not have the opportunity to get a linear carriage. So, I think distribution mechanisms that are broad.
How has the sports fan experience changed?
There are probably six big changes.
First is the growth in new sports and new leagues. Even in a traditional sport, like American football, with the development of new leagues, a whole series of new leagues develop new sports. From the fans’ perspective, these are more choices and more opportunities to engage.
Two, the pandemic had an enormous impact on the sports world. For nearly two years, they couldn’t watch in-person most of their favorite sports experiences because it was unsafe from a health perspective. So, this season was a tremendous opportunity for sports fans to be able to attend live games. The experience of watching with a crowd is just better, even if you are viewing it from home. Players greatly prefer that kind of experience too.
Three, tremendous growth in over-the-top (OTT) has kicked off, expanding where sports fans can watch their favorite sports.
Fourth, social media changed the nature of how highlights are produced and distributed. You didn’t see fan highlights at major sports league games four years ago. The technology wasn’t quite there yet. Leagues were cautious about allowing folks to use their intellectual property and putting it out without league control. I think that’s changed. Now, the expectation is that individual fans will post their own highlights from their seats in the stadium based on what they want to share socially.
The last, NFTs have had a major impact on sports fans for their experience. That is particularly true where the NFT combines digital and virtual offerings, say a highlight which is protected by the blockchain. Therefore is a limited edition to the virtual or digital elements of an NFT. But you see, from monumental sports and entertainment. For example, here in Washington, DC, where I am — they combine those sorts of digital offerings in an NFT, which could include merchandise. So, there might be a special edition of a team jersey. Maybe, it’ll include tickets to actual games to add a tangible, real-life elements. Packaging and the whole notion of expanding the fan experience have seen a big change over the last couple of years.
What are the opportunities for marketers in the OTT industry?
Over-the-top describes a delivery mechanism. Cable was a delivery mechanism, you delivered content over cable, literally satellite. Similarly, over-the-top means it’s an internet protocol, streamed content is delivered to devices, which are set up to receive that. This is interesting because of the direct-to-consumer part of OTT, where a content owner doesn’t go through a cable operator or another intermediary to stream its content. It goes directly to the sports fan or the consumer. I think most folks, when they think of OTT streaming services, think of Netflix. And Netflix, of course, goes directly to consumers.
It’s clearest if you focus on that. Now think about how and why marketers are essential in the direct-to-consumer piece. The business depends on the efficacy of customer acquisition, where are you getting your subscribers or viewers from. It’s the same thing with engagement, that’s a marketing question. What about monetization, what are the tools? How do you get your content in front of the biggest audience, what’s the relevant data? You need to be able to evaluate which acquisition channel is the most productive for you. That makes the job for marketers tougher, but it’s also more rewarding because they’re now in the OTT space because of the data available to owners through that distribution mechanism. They’re able to track everything in real-time about customer acquisition. That opens up an enormous set of opportunities for marketers who engage in the OTT industry.
How do you see the role of the creator economy going ahead?
I think the premise of the web at the very beginning was in part, that it would provide a kind of democratization of content that more people would be able to create and more people would be able to consume. Those creators can go directly to their fans and to consumers. The whole process is just continuing to accelerate. I would’ve said that the creator economy was a little disconnected from the big types of OTT content, sports and entertainment because those enterprises are huge. You can have the creator economy, but no individual creator is going to be able to create the NFL or the premier league.
The creator economy has impacted the experience of the fan and the rights of the big leagues. We talked about highlights on social media. Even big businesses have been spawned from the kind of a creator economy perspective. Kylie Jenner created this enormous cosmetics and beauty business, which Coty bought for hundreds of millions of dollars. There was a story in our local paper in the Washington Post that the great director Francis Ford Coppola had something called decentralized pictures, which is trying to democratize the film financing process by tying it to blockchain and cryptocurrencies.
I went to the Kennedy Center to see a one-night show. Kennedy Center is one of the greatest venues in America. It was a one-night musical theater spawned out of the very popular Bridgerton television series. It started in essence as fan fiction, two extraordinary young women started to write songs based on the inspiration of Bridgerton series. They put it up on TikTok and YouTube initially. Later on, it became so much of a phenomenon that they wrote a full album of songs for a musical that won the Grammy, which is just mind-blowing, and they put it on backed by the National Symphony Orchestra. This whole concept just didn’t exist a few years ago.
There are all of these inroads where individual creators are wedging their way into the process. I think that’s tremendously exciting.
What are the industry challenges you are currently dealing with, and how?
We are on the cutting edge. By definition, technology is changing every second, all around us. I think consumer expectations are also constantly ramping up. If a consumer gets an experience that may have cost Netflix billions of dollars to develop, that in their mind becomes the example of a high-quality premium experience. And they expect it everywhere. So people will say if Netflix can do this, why is my son’s school website so inadequate? Comparing those two things is unfair, but that’s how consumers think about it. So, that’s an industry challenge.
I think legal frameworks are changing all the time — this is particularly true in privacy rules and regulations. The whole content industry will turn upside down if privacy laws prohibit cookies. Which is the way that much of the free-to-view experiences are ad-based to make economic sense through the ability to track viewer behavior.
That’s going to disappear. Over time because of privacy rules and regulations, advertisers will need to shift their position to make sense which will lead to a huge industry change. By definition, over-the-top means you must deliver on a whole panoply of devices. You have a whole number of mobile device manufacturers, iOS and Android being the biggest. You have a series of other providers like Roku – who have grown up in the OTT age. You have game consoles and all of these different device platforms.
For a content owner and its technology partner, like a ViewLift, you must provide that content across all those major devices. Now, those devices don’t have common standards. Those devices change the rules all the time, often without much notice. And so, it is a tremendous industry challenge to track all of that and provide a great experience to consumers whenever they want to watch something on whatever device they wish to watch it, and then provide the data that comes out of that engagement back to the content owner. That’s a huge part of what we at ViewLift do. And it’s very hard.
Do you think there is a saturation point with subscription services? How do brands continue to engage with fans?
I do not think there is a fixed number of subscriptions any individual household will insist on — its like any other choice and expense. If it’s worthwhile to you, you will spend on it. We have seen in terms of the number of subscriptions per household on average, it ticks up every single year.
We certainly haven’t reached the saturation point yet. I don’t think it is an arithmetic thing. You have to prove value. Then in a time when personal finances are stretched more than ever, and we’re facing that all over the world, you have to step up to make that value equation work. You have to show folks that it’s worth it to pay you for that subs.
The key to all of this is engagement, making it worthwhile for the subscriber to continue to engage and give value to their subscription. That engagement turns on personalization. When I am coming to consume your content on the device of my choice, are you giving me as close to exactly what I had in mind? You can, and that personalization comes from data from the behavior of viewers like me. So data is the key to really all of the value propositions for any streaming business, whether it’s ad-supported, subscription-based pay-per-view, or any hybrid, of business models.
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