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2013 Covington & Burling Sports Media & Technology Conference Insights Report

Everyone knows sports fans can be loud. Loud at a live game. Loud at a sports bar – even loud on the couch at home watching the game solo. So it’s no surprise sports fans have made their voice heard to the ‘shotcallers’ in the industry. These fans – aka media consumers – are embracing technology on a large scale. Their changing habits and behaviors are rippling through the sports industry, forcing leagues, broadcasters, cable companies, and teams to take notice, and action.

The 2013 Covington & Burling Sports Media & Technology Conference focused on these challenges and explored the evolving landscape of sports media and technology. Here are some of the insights that the conference produced:

The DirecTV Challenge

Earlier in 2013, AllThingsD reported that Google was interested in bidding on NFL Sunday Ticket. This prompted the question: Will DirecTV get the rights to NFL Sunday Ticket again? DirecTV chairman, president, & CEO Michael White said that talks are in progress but couldn’t divulge any details.

Moving on from company and industry secrets, White did expand on the challenges he and DirecTV are facing. Today, subscribers expect (and demand) the widest and most relevant availability of channels (such as a specialty network for a local sports team); however, DirecTV is faced with the challenge of fees that come with increased selection due to premium service licenses. Many subscribers simply can’t afford the increase in cable fees that would come with the increased content selection.

With the online streaming alternatives for sports fans, a typical satellite subscriber is taking a closer look at their monthly bill and exploring options to get the sports content that they want “a la carte” without the packaged bundle of channels they aren’t actually interested in (and avoid the pricing premium trap that comes with it). Options such as NBA League Pass, NFL Game Pass, and NHL Centre Ice come to mind.

Twitter Gets Its Game On

Twitter is bringing its A-game to the sports world and given their recent IPO, why not play in the big money game of pro sports? Ali Rowghani’s (COO, Twitter) interview at the conference touched on the impact of social media on sports, how the social media juggernaut is playing a pro-active role in engaging with the industry’s top brands, leagues, broadcasters, and sports to ensure the service works well for each organization. The fruits of their labor: they recently signed a deal with the NFL to serve up content and clips. The partnership marks the first time the NFL has partnered with a social platform. Fans can engage with the unique content integrated into Twitter, the service they discuss and share information on.

Historically, Twitter has never dictated the trends; rather, its users are the trendsetters, and it is merely the facilitator. Despite it starting to share original content from the NFL, I don’t think that their approach will deviate much; Twitter saw their users loved football, so they will share that content and enable more discovery. Fast forward to next June 2014 when the World Cup kicks off in Rio, I’m sure we will see record-breaking engagement numbers.

In my opinion, soccer is surfacing in the US as the sport to watch. While some may laugh that soccer has taken 30 years to reach North America, there’s no denying that a lot of money will be spent by ESPN to secure the World Cup and other popular soccer engagements. Since soccer is growing so rapidly, I believe that Twitter use during the World Cup is going to break records like we’ve never seen before.

The World Cup event itself lasts 30 days, longer than the Olympic Games. More importantly, each team gets to play a guaranteed three games in the first round, which means that fans will be able to not only start conversations, but follow stories from beginning, middle, to end. If team members are Tweeting and each official team’s Twitter account is active, the World Cup is going to make some serious waves on Twitter. It’s a numbers game with the world interest trending on the pitch.

NFL Programming and Presentation

More than ever, television executives are forced to focus on fan wants and desires. The panel featuring Mark Donovan (President, Kansas City Chiefs), Neil Glat (President, New York Jets), Stephen Jones (COO, Executive Vice President, & Director, Player Personnel, Dallas Cowboys), Jon Miller (President, Programming, NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network), and Bill Wanger (Executive Vice President, Programming and Research, Fox Sports Media Group) explored the demands of fans.

These business leaders all agreed that fans want more content: inside access, more audio, new camera angles, and more mic’d up clips featuring not just players but more coaches and referees (dare I say, access to “under the hood” while the officials review a play under challenge). The panel all agreed, the challenge is not simply in creating this content, but in delivery.

In the history of modern sports, TV broadcasting has traditionally brought in the majority of revenue for the teams. However, with cable companies’ landscape evolving and the sports business models changing, sports teams must now decide which medium to deliver this content with. For example, should all this new content only go to digital fans? Or should it only be available in-stadium? Or should they stick with delivering it through the broadcaster?

With in-stadium experiences becoming much more immersive, coaches and staff could also use media to take home field advantage to the next level by improving fan morale, or to making their opponents uncomfortable. As long as it increases fan engagement, it should be explored.

Closing Thoughts

These three changes are symptoms of a new age of sports. The 2013 Covington & Burling Sports Media & Technology Conference selected a great group of thought leaders in the field – if you’re in the industry and could pick one conference to attend, this one would be a good bet.

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