The Netflixisation of sports

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Is ESPN's "Ocho" a harbinger of the future of sports media, asks the head of Mindshare's Invention Studio.

On Tuesday, ESPN turned ESPNU into "The Ocho" to showcase "seldom-seen sports from around the globe," providing viewers an escape from the sports doldrums of August with a chance to watch things like arm wrestling and the Championship of Bags.

But what if this day of sports obscurity was more than just a fun stunt, and in fact might be a glimpse into the future of sports media?

Like most sports fans my age, I grew up watching a combination of football, basketball, and baseball (with a smattering of hockey whenever the Rangers made a playoff run). I never questioned why those were my preferred sports because they were pretty much the only things on TV or covered by sports media. If professional lacrosse aired on NBC in the 90s, I probably would have watched that.

But now we might be on the verge of finding out what would have happened if some lesser known sportswere given equal airtime with the "Big Three".

As more viewers are cutting the cord, sports TV ratings have been declining while rights holders have been asked to pay more to the leagues. Even the NFL showed a chink in its red-white-and-blue armour with a noticeable rating slide this past season.

But at the same time, live events continue to drive an increasing portion of viewership and cultural conversation as premium scripted entertainment shifts more and more to "on demand." Sports Business Daily observed that live sporting events accounted for 93 of the top 100 rated TV shows last year (which was up from only 14 of 100 in 2005).

Enter the digital platforms that can now provide immediate, high-quality access to a host of live sports previously unavailable on linear networks. Whether it’s UEFA Champions League on Facebook Live or the WNBA on Twitter or League of Legends on Twitch, fans will soon have near endless choice in the types of sports they can watch live. ESPN themselves will soon be launching an over-the-top offering featuring sports not airing on TV. So perhaps this Ocho stunt is a trial balloon to see how deep they can delve into the wide world of sports.

This is eerily reminiscent of how Netflix (and then Amazon, Hulu, and others) precipitated the flattening of viewership of premium entertainment content.

So what would the Netflixisation of sports mean for the advertisers that have relied on live sports as the last place to find truly mass audiences? Rather than focus on the loss of the final mass media vertical, they can embrace the new sports world order to make an impact:

Focus on natural connections

Every brand would love to be an NFL partner, simply because they are literally the biggest game in town. But not every brand—including current league sponsors—shares the values of the league. As more different sports begin to build digital audiences at scale, brands can finally evaluate partnership opportunities through the lens of their brand essence. 

Is your brand all about "laid-back intensity?" Maybe surfing is for you. Trying to amplify your brand’s French heritage? The French petanque championships are a perfect fit!

Shift from sponsor to patron

It will be years before we have access to all live sports from around the world (but we will get there one day). In the meantime, brands have a chance to be more than just a sponsor of a league; they can become a patron of an entire sport by helping to bring it to new audiences.

Red Bull built its brand’s foundation on the back of very active involvement in action sports, which is an association that continues to thrive today even as the sport has grown much bigger. Brave brands can impact similar potential fandoms by funding either the rights acquisition or production costs for up-and-coming leagues.

Lean in on personalities

The obscure sports and leagues feature just as many—and maybe more—uniquely compelling athletes, whose stories can be told by brands for far less cost than an NFL or NBA endorsement deal.

Digital sports influencers like Dude Perfect have proven how much power a distinct POV has to scale. Brands that can help cultivate interest in similar personalities will make connections to influential—and growing—fan bases.

Be ready to play ball

As live sports become 24/7, the magical moments that bring all sports fans together in the moment will become more and more frequent. And at the same time, new sports can enter the zeitgeist from anywhere at any moments. Marketers will need the agility to jump in during moments that reflect their brand position or be willing to help a like-minded fledgling league just as they first arrive on the scene.

We are probably still a few decades away from the Kabaddi World Cup surpassing the viewership of the Super Bowl (in the US, at least), but there is no doubt the sports media landscape is about to be disrupted just like print and narrative TV before it, and the next 5-10 years will determine brand-sport alignments for the future.

Joe Maceda is leader, Invention Studio North America at Mindshare

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