The playbook for how sports can beat cord cutting

By Matt Saler, vice president, sports marketing, and Stefen Lovelace, manager, sports marketing & content development, imre

Cord cutting keeps on punishing the TV industry. Younger consumers are unwilling to pay large cable fees, and they’re moving toward watching what they want, where and when they want to. Executives in the television industry are scrambling to figure out how to keep subscribers.

The distinctive live nature of sports always made it lucrative and relatively safe for advertisers. But even major sports leagues are seeing the writing on the wall, and they’re looking for ways to reach cord cutting and cord never consumers. The NBA – a league that has always been ahead of the curve in its digital offerings – has been a ratings success this season. The MLB anticipated streaming trends early, and MLB.TV is the only sports service in the top-10 for over-the-top subscriptions.

But our most popular league, the NFL, has experienced a downward trend, in part due to cord cutting. “The fact that the ratings haven’t bounced back is surprising,” said Anthony Crupi, a TV reporter for Advertising Age, in a December interview with Sports Illustrated. “Take all of the political stuff out and it feels like there are more long-lasting reasons at play. The 18-34 demographic is just completely disappearing from TV.”

The NHL saw its lowest regular season ratings last season. Sports networks like ESPN and Fox Sports 1 are losing subscribers at an alarming rate. There are several formidable companies watching these trends, and they’re looking to pounce. Amazon – the NFL’s exclusive streaming partner for Thursday Night Football games – saw a 17% increase in viewership from 2016, when Twitter had the rights. YouTube allows sports streaming, and aims to be viewed as the go-to source for millennials looking for live sports while cutting the cord. Then there’s Facebook, with money to burn, stating late last year that they want to spend “a few billion dollars” in global rights deals. They made a $600 million play for Indian Premiere League cricket matches, and they hired Peter Hutton, the CEO of Eurosport, to help pursue more sports-streaming packages. Then there are OTT-based TV services like YouTube TV and PlayStation Vue, which offer their own linear-style packages.

All of those platforms have something very important in common: They print money. As TV subscribers look for other avenues to consume content, networks could soon see a dip in advertising dollars. But as your favorite sports move from traditional cable to your phone, tablet or smart TV, new opportunities will arise.

The savviest brands that invest in sports marketing will enhance their offerings with smart, multi-platform social strategies. We already know that the majority of adults are using multiple screens when “watching” TV. Brands can reach those consumers by going beyond commercial spot buys to create integrated campaigns that address fans across screens. The shift to digital makes this a lot easier, since viewing data can be used to retarget people based on not just their browsing habits, but their viewing habits as well. Social media allows the added benefit of being a community enabler, creating shared experiences not just around sports, but the brands associated with the sport as well.

So where does this go? What’s most concerning for networks is that there doesn’t appear to be a floor for cord cutting yet. Experts have had trouble predicting just how much cord cutting will hurt the sports industry. (Put it this way: After 2016’s election cycle, many predicted professional sports ratings would bounce back in 2017.)

But there are some concrete things that brands, networks and leagues can do to weather the cord cutting storm:

  • Enhance your digital offerings. The NFL has seen the tide turning and has already been shopping its “Thursday Night Football” package to the highest bidder. Initial reports of the bidding mention several new network suitors – including FOX and ESPN – but the NFL is reportedly entertaining “digital-only offers” from the likes of Amazon and Facebook, a first for the league. This year ESPN purchased BAMTech, a major player in the streaming game. When you make your bid, you should include in your pitch how you plan to get the product to fans who aren’t watching TV. Is your streaming app up to snuff? Are you making your services available to those not watching traditional TV? Cord cutting isn’t going away. Adapt or continue the bleeding.
  • Generate meaningful social traction. If you can’t get a customer to watch a game on cable TV, at least get them to view your highlights, engage with your content, and build affinity. Turner Sports owns Bleacher Report, which routinely dominates NBA-related Twitter with dynamic content, engaging highlights, and witty commentary – the exact type of content that NBA fans seek out. Does your brand have an in-house creative team ready to cut and disperse highlights as they happen? Do you have social managers in place ready to engage with fans in the social space who may not even be watching the game?
  • Invest in fan communities. Whether it’s on a fan forum or Twitter, brands have to be present where the fans are. Brands with sponsorships are uniquely positioned to be associated with a sport at a deeper level than other advertisers; taking advantage of that to become part of the fan conversation is key to maximizing the value of the sponsorship. Our client, the USTA, mastered this dynamic during the 2017 U.S. Open tennis tournament. To activate the tech-savvy millennial demographic – both those on-site and those following the action on their phones – the USTA developed an interactive digital map that allowed users to see their location on-site, live stream matches, track scores in real-time, and identify attractions and special offers to ensure that fans maximized their experience on site.

Cord cutting is a trend that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Smart leagues and brands will be the ones who adapt, up their digital games, and reach their audiences where they interact. That’s the key to transforming cord cutting from an obstacle into an opportunity.

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