Sports enters the digital age
ALSO: the future of podcasts, and THREE media predictions for 2023
I’m going to start this edition with a plea that you consider upgrading your subscription to a paid version. No, not a plea; that’s too desperate. A demand? Too aggressive. A polite request, then. It costs about the same as a coffee a month, and it gives me a vague sense that the ideas being distributed in this newsletter are i) read, and ii) appreciated. On to the show.
The first part of this newsletter is going to be about sports. But don’t let that alienate you, non-sports fans! It’s really about how sports are being used in new digital media products, and there are some generalised learnings from that.
It’s January and that means that, as a UK-based tennis fan, I am spending my early mornings with the TV tuned to the Australia Open, live from Melbourne.
Tennis is a fascinating sport, from a media perspective. It’s undoubtedly a major sport – possibly the biggest women’s sport in the world – and one with broad commercial appeal. It combines golf’s ability to sell endless apparel with the superstardom of soccer. There are few, if any, sports stars as talismanic over the past two decades as Roger Federer and Serena Williams. So why does it feel like tennis is experiencing an existential crisis?
Here in the UK, tennis has, for the past few years, generally been broadcast via Amazon, Eurosport and a subscription channel called Tennis TV. Wimbledon and Queen’s are broadcast on the BBC (and the Tour Finals event used to, when it was played in London – it’s now moved to Turin), but generally tennis is relegated to the margins. And Amazon, the primary broadcaster of tennis in the UK, has recently announced that it will be ceasing its coverage in 2023. The Times, meanwhile, recently reported that the rights to coverage of the ATP and WTA tours (the men’s and women’s competitions, respectively) are worth some £15m a year to UK broadcasters.
I really have no context to say whether this is a lot or a little. Domestically, the Premier League is worth £5.1bn, which puts it rather in perspective. But that’s football; another world. There is, however, much doom and gloom within the tennis establishment about the sport’s transition to a post-Federer, post-Williams sisters, world. The FT this weekend ran a feature on the Netflix’s documentary series, Break Point, which presents it as a hail Mary attempt to reinvigorate interest in the new generation of tennis stars.
But this is an example of where legacy sport is struggling to align itself with the demands of legacy broadcasters. What’s equally interesting are the new sports working within a new digital broadcast framework.
The most celebrated of these is pickleball, a game that’s been around for decades but has finally seen itself surge into the mainstream over the past 12 months. This has seen the creation of Major League Pickleball (MLP), an organisation that has received millions of dollars of funding from franchisees including Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes (NFL stars), LeBron James and Kevin Durant (NBA stars), and even tennis’s own Naomi Osaka. (That investment is despite a widespread belief in the tennis community that pickleball’s expansion is to the massive detriment of grassroots tennis, due to its use of existing tennis infrastructure).
MLP has signed a broadcast deal with CBS, despite the fact that pickleball’s success owes much to the ubiquity of its clips across YouTube, TikTok and Instagram. It is a rather unadventurous broadcast deal, but one that illustrates the financial clout behind the organisation. (You can also watch pickleball via the majorleaguepickleball.net website, apparently).
More interesting, from that perspective, is the Kings League, the 7-a-side football tournament created by former Spain and Barcelona defender, Gerard Pique (whose business interests also included the renovated Davis Cup tennis tournament). The Kings League is basically recognisable as football, except for a series of rules designed to increase the frenetic nature of games. The 12 teams, broadly geographically based, are “controlled” by celebrities ranging from former footballers like Iker Casillas and Sergio Aguero, to Twitch streamers like The Grefg and Spursito, and journalist Gerard Romero. Weird, right?
But also kind of exciting. The league is broadcast on Amazon-owned video streaming platform Twitch, where I’ve never seen something of this ilk before. It is clearly trying to fuse IRL sports content with a style of broadcast more regularly seen in the gaming world. The Twitch channel now has 1.6m followers.
For some reason, and despite a rather stolid playing style, Pique is at the cutting edge of digital innovation. Kings League has generated a lot of drama in the past few weeks, and a lot of press attention. Whereas tennis, meanwhile, has been reliant on the metal-hipped Andy Murray to create headlines from down under.
Broadcast rights for major sports are, I suspect, unsustainably expensive right now. And we’re beginning to see a correction to that: tennis is just an easier place to impose budget cuts than your coverage of the Premier League. The question is whether there’s scope for digital media to make in-roads into one of the most lucrative markets in the world. Amazon, for example, has already begun streaming a few rounds of Premier League fixtures on its Prime video service each season. Why don’t they put a couple of those games on Twitch instead? The Kings League have evidenced a desire, on that platform, to slip real sports in between the Overwatch and Call of Duty videos. And if I were Amazon – which I’m not – I’d be much more convinced of Twitch as the live streaming service of the future, than Prime, which is more compelling as a catalogue based system.
Anyhow, I also think that poker, chess and the boardgame Risk would do well as major sporting franchises, if anyone wants to front me some cash.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of speaking to Ian Silvera, editor of the Future News newsletter (a must subscribe, in my opinion) about my thoughts on where podcasting is headed and what the next iteration of the industry looks like. I’m a little rambling (as ever) but I think there are probably some interesting nuggets to be extracted from our video interview.
Below the line, for subscribers only, I’m going to post THREE dazzlingly insightful media predictions for 2023. And I will post three more predictions, for subscribers only, each week until my demands (for more paying subscribers) are met. You have been warned.
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