Collins | Getting Back Into The Game

While the COVID-19 pandemic has battered the live sports industry, including broadcasting and cable networks, creative minds have been working on a variety of new cross-platform opportunities to attract fans and advertisers.

It’s no secret that sporting events provide important content for media and entertainment companies. When I worked for Chicago’s regional sports channel, then-NHL Blackhawks owner, Bill Wirtz, often remarked that he was putting on a live performance every night. Unfortunately, live sporting events, like all live performances, are among the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic is also wreaking havoc on team and league finances. Writing for the World Economic Forum, Stefan Hall points out that sports leagues are dependent on three revenue streams — broadcasting rights, advertising and sponsorship deals, and match-day sales, which include ticket sales and all the in-stadium purchases. While diversified, all three components rely upon the leagues’ ability to hold live events.

Naturally, the leagues are doing everything they can to produce the events that are the mainstay of their revenue. We’ve all seen the photos of ballpark seating filled with teddy bears, fan photos or even live feeds of super fans recreating the ballpark experience from their living rooms. They’ve shortened the season, moved the teams, limited travel and even created player bubbles to reduce the chance that infections will stop the action.

Media businesses also thrive on creativity. Yet, there’s only so much they can do to stretch library content. They need new live programming.

Creating New Content

Shortly after the lockdown began in March, the Leyton Orient Football Club, a professional soccer club based in London, England, pulled together the FIFA 20 tournament featuring 128 professional football teams from across the globe. In April, The Brooklyn Nets took on the Miami Heat in “NBA 2K20,” part of a 16-player video game tournament organized by the NBA and shown on ESPN. In July and August, EA hosted the online EA Sports FIFA 20 Summer Cup Series. A series of worldwide regional events, the competition featured top players vying for hundreds of thousands of dollars in prizes. The tournaments were shown on


These are all efforts by major sports leagues to move the action from the real world to the digital realm to fill the hole left by live sports. None has been more successful in this effort than NASCAR. In March, NASCAR debuted its eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. The live competition shown on Fox Sports 1 featured actual drivers including Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who’d recently retired. Drivers competed from simulators in their homes.

Results from the race, which Denny Hamlin narrowly won, were impressive. Nielsen says that an average 638,000 homes, representing 903,000 viewers (P2+) tuned in, and 1.6 million unique viewers watched for at least six minutes. Moreover, it was a social media success. Twitter reported 213,700 interactions and 912,500 video views for the day of the event. NASCAR ultimately produced seven races between March and May of this year.

Cross-Platform Opportunities

WarnerMedia’s Turner Sports division has a whole department focused on esports. In mid-August, during the virtual version of MFM’s annual conference, Jennifer Dill, Turner Sports’ vice president of esports, sat down with media industry veteran and Forbes’ columnist Howard Homonoff to talk about “Mass Appeal: Gaming Entertainment, Esports and the Cultural Zeitgeist.” Among other topics, they explored the ways WarnerMedia is creating cross-platform content that extends beyond the professional matches known as esports and crosses into the wider umbrella of gaming culture.

During a later session in that virtual conference, in a panel called Cross-Media Opportunities, Stuart Lipson, executive director of the Esports Ad Bureau, raised the same subject. He commented that Turner sports and TBS are working together to create shows around FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association — international soccer) and the Sims videogame.

Esports Reaches New Audiences

Beasley and Tegna are also taking advantage of the opportunities. Beasley Media Group has an esports division, which it launched a couple of years ago. In addition to owning an Overwatch League team, the Houston Outlaws, the company produces podcasts as well as programming for the company’s radio stations.

Tegna, on the other hand, was new to esports when it teamed up with Beasley this May. The idea seems to have grown out of the desire to create great local content during the pandemic.

According to a Media Post piece by Zach Oscar, the two companies created a month-long event that included both live event content and a series of documentaries. Viewership met or surpassed goals. Tegna also reported new viewers for its digital properties. Additionally, the Outlaws reported that both new and continuing sponsors were satisfied with the program.

One of the compelling things about esports is the connection between the players and viewers. Twitch’s Drew Smith, who was a panelist for the Cross-Media Opportunities session during MFM’s virtual conference, compared the experience to that of the old-time baseball fan who waited outside the gates to get a player’s autograph. Now they can interact with players in real time. This means that viewers feel they have a relationship with the players; that makes big names in esports great product spokespeople. They are influencers who casually weave product messages into game play. Smith says this is the best approach to reach about 80% of younger consumers and the approximately 40% of GenX who deploy ad blockers.

The Esports Ad Bureau’s Stuart Lipson closed the Cross-Media Opportunities session by saying there are lots of ways for media companies to meet audiences where they are. Certainly, events like the eNASCAR races, Turner Sports’ FIFA and Sims’ series, and the esports series from Beasley and Tegna are proof of concept. Despite the moratorium on in-person events, there are still a number of opportunities for creative media companies to reach audiences looking for live action.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has battered the live sports industry, including broadcasting and cable networks, creative minds have been working on a variety of new cross-platform opportunities to attract fans and advertisers. Click To TweetUpcoming MFM Programs

With travel still a concern for many, MFM has opted to make its signature fall program, Media Outlook 2021, a virtual event. Scheduled for four hours spread over the afternoons of Oct. 20-21, the Outlook will feature a futurist, a media industry analyst, along with other programming intended to help companies and their employees plan for 2021. MFM’s CFO Summit, scheduled for March 2021, will also be a virtual event. Details about these and other MFM educational event are available on the association’s website:

Mary M. Collins is president and CEO of the Media Financial Management Association and its BCCA subsidiary, the media industry’s credit association. She can be reached at [email protected] and via the association’s LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts.

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