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Watching sport on TV
Something old, something new: bridging the digital divide in sport

How desperate have you become to watch live sport in recent weeks?

Are you part of the recent spike in horse racing viewership? Or watching the Professional Darts Corporation’s Home Tour? Is your love of soccer is being sustained by the Belarus Premier League? Perhaps you’ve started watching marbles race instead of people.

Maybe you’ve recently joined Ashes, AFL or Ryder Cup ‘watchalongs’, where the events’ protagonists provide real-time insights into how they felt as the action unfolded.

Whatever you’re watching, it’s probably quite different from this time last year, and it’s certainly not what you expected from April 2020.

Switching in or out?

Dr Hunter Fujak, lecturer in Sport Management at Deakin, has been keeping a close eye on consumer behaviour during this period of social distancing, and is keen to ensure we understand the broader context.

‘As part of a much bigger ecosystem, any forced shift away from watching sport would typically be to other leisure pursuits such as cinema, beaches, theatre and music,’ Dr Fujak says.

‘However, as well as removing most alternatives, this unique set of circumstances, which is impacting the entire sport and leisure sector, has created three new sporting phenomena among viewers.

‘Some people are watching the small amount of live content available, much of which they would turn off in normal circumstances; others are engaging with modified sporting content – live or reruns; whilst other sport fans are completely switching to entertainment content on over the top (OTT) platforms.’

It’s clear the sport industry – leagues, tournaments, competitions and tours – and its broadcast partners are facing customer engagement and retention challenges they could not have envisaged in even the strangest of dreams.

A stream of consciousness

Those sport fans who are content to switch away from sport have never had it so good. The extraordinary range of content available across OTT platforms – such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Stan, Apple TV Plus and Disney+ – is undoubtedly helping to keep many people sane at the moment.

This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that, as COVID-19 has gripped the world, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google (FAANG) stocks have risen close to or over 20% in the last month. While most businesses are shrinking under lockdown, Netflix added 15.8 million global subscribers in the first quarter of the year, doubling forecasted growth projections. Since premiering on March 20th, Netflix’s Tiger King has been watched by 64 million people, equating to 35% of total subscribers.

'This unique set of circumstances, which is impacting the entire sport and leisure sector, has created three new sporting phenomena among viewers.'

Dr Hunter Fujak,
Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University

Sporting life in lockdown

Many of the sports that have been forced to completely shut down their professional competitions have become innovative content creators over the last couple of months.

‘The cliché of all being in this together has definitely played out in the sporting arena in recent times,’ Dr Fujak says. ‘We’ve seen player-led initiatives such as the Roger and Rafa event on Instagram, as well as broadcaster and governing body collaborations such as the Sky Sports, Test Match Special and England Cricket watchalong of last year’s Headingley Test Match.’

Arguably the most important content to come out of lockdown though, has been the blurring of the lines between sport and esports through athlete involvement. Whether it’s current Formula 1 drivers lining up on the grid for the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix series or NBA players competing in an NBA2K tournament, it’s been unexpected and great fun to watch for many. Reflecting the surprising popularity of such alternative content, the NBA and ESPN are currently exploring formalising a H-O-R-S-E competition to be played in the homes of superstar players.

More than a game

Dr Fujak believes there are some serious points to consider, when it comes to consumer engagement beyond this pandemic.

Prior to COVID-19, James Ruth, senior director of properties at Major League Soccer (MLS) in the States, explained that more fans cite playing FIFA as a reason they follow the MLS than playing the real game. ‘Gaming is actually more important to us than people playing soccer itself,’ Ruth said.

‘International sports that have invested in a high-quality video game could be the big winners from this period,’ Dr Fujak says. ‘They have a great tool for retaining and acquiring new fans, especially digital natives, which they’ll continue to utilise on the other side.’

It appears the AFL is mindful of the potential for gaming in this period of recess. The release of AFL Evolution 2 brought forward to accommodate football-starved fans, with the league following NBA’s lead by using current players to compete.

A digital divide?

It’s these digital natives who provide the biggest concern for sport’s re-emergence from the shadows, with Dr Fujak concerned about the emergence of a digital divide.

‘Our segmentation already shows that sport rejecters are over-represented in the 18-29-year-old age group,’ Dr Fujak says. ‘The concern is that the uninterrupted availability of esports and OTT content will make this demographic harder to reach than ever for traditional sports.’

There will undoubtedly be a big first-mover advantage for the sports which can return to live broadcasts most quickly – the die-hard fans are desperate for live action.

However, Dr Fujak believes ‘the long-term competitive advantage will rest with the sports who blend the old with the new, virtual and real, live and on-demand.’

As the old adage goes, never waste a crisis.

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Dr Hunter Fujak
Dr Hunter Fujak

Lecturer, Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University

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