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Q&A with Turner Sports: The new landscape in sports broadcasting

31 October 2018 Maria Aguete Matteo Marchello Tim Westcott

Editor's note: Ahead of next month's SportsPro OTT Summit, IHS Markit analysts spoke to Matt Hong, chief operating officer of Turner Sports. The Summit, to be held 28-29 November in Madrid, Spain, will include discussions on current trends in sports broadcasting, strategies and best-practice business models for maximizing audience, and the role of technology and social media to drive engagement and consumption.

Across Turner's rights portfolio, what are the key factors in choosing which events to live stream on your online properties and which to cover live coverage on your cable networks?

We're at a unique time in the evolution of the sports media landscape in that TV and digital are both in their own right robust and popular platforms for the consumption of live sports. Given this dynamic, it's rarely an either-or, or binary situation between the two platforms. For instance, our partnerships with the NBA, NCAA and UEFA are all multi-platform and involve live coverage on both television and direct-to-consumers on digital. Our goal is to collaborate with each partner individually to identify the best opportunities to grow their brands and connect with their audiences, while also optimizing our collective business goals.

Many times, that includes television as our largest reach vehicle, in tandem with digital and social platforms to generate the maximum level of cross-platform engagement. At other times, partners may prefer the flexibility offered by an OTT platform to program content within specific windows that best align with their target audience. It's a combination, but among TNT, TBS, truTV, Bleacher Report and B/R Live, we're fortunate to have the right blend of platforms and resources to offer each partner the right mix to tangibly evolve their brands.

How do audience numbers compare across the traditional and online platforms?

There's no question that television is—and for the foreseeable future, will continue to be—the primary destination for a majority of sports fans. It is still unrivaled in terms of reach. That said, consumption across digital platforms continues to materially rise year-over-year. It's particularly powerful surrounding marquee events—such as the NCAA Tournament in the US—when there is a high concentration of highly anticipated games happening during daytime hours during the week or on a weekend, as opposed to during prime time. In recent years, for instance, we've had nearly 100 million live video streams during the NCAA Tournament, and we saw double-digit increases in live streams and hours watched this past year.

Ultimately, though, it's not one or the other, and we don't evaluate our success on any one metric. In today's media environment, we're focused on total audience delivery and fan engagement that is aggregated across all of our platforms. That's the only way to truly capture the way fans interact with content in our current ecosystem.

There have been many teething troubles with streaming, such as latency. To what extent have the technical issues surrounding live streaming been resolved?

The industry has made considerable progress in this area over the past 5-10 years, with HD-like streams now available with low latency and high consistency on mobile devices. Between Turner's acquisition of iStreamPlanet in 2014 as well as now being part of AT&T, we—as well as others in our space—have considerable reduced latency across streaming services and will continue to invest in the technology to best meet the expectations of sports fans across all platforms. But with many sports fans in the US watching entire games on digital devices with no issues, it feels like our industry is collectively on the right side of the hump as it relates to live streaming.

You have the US rights to the Champions League and Europa League soccer from this season. While it's early days, are you happy with the results so far?

Our new partnership with UEFA and their agency, TEAM Marketing, was formed with a common belief that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg of how popular European football can—and will—be in the United States. And our pitch to them back in early 2017 was that in addition to airing live matches, we would make an investment in growing Champions League and Europa League with 24/7/365 coverage via digital assets such as Bleacher Report and House of Highlights, as well as through B/R's popular accounts on social media. And despite both entities being based in Europe, they were familiar with how we've made similar investments with the NBA and March Madness across multiple platforms and Turner brands, and the success we've had with basketball.

We're thrilled with our partnership with UEFA and TEAM to date and could not be more excited to build on our strong start with the properties. Fan engagement with our UEFA Champions League coverage has been very strong. Viewership on TNT has increased more than 50% over the previous year's English-language coverage, and B/R Live has had considerable growth in streams and time spent viewing from Matchday 1 to Matchday 2. On social, B/R Football's accounts posted more than three million engagements for Matchday 2 alone.

A couple of your key deals—the NBA and NCAA—are very long-term contracts. How much has the streaming landscape changed since they started, and how different will it look when they renew in a few years' time?

A year in this business right now feels like a decade in terms of the pace of change. When we did our first March Madness deal with the NCAA and CBS in 2010, we spent hours negotiating provisions of how games could be distributed via DVD, if that tells you anything about how quickly things are evolving.

Our digital products continue to transform each and every year. We're constantly evaluating all aspects of our digital portfolio, with an added emphasis on the overarching content experience and delivery of it. Every decision we make is centered on the fan and creating ways for them to engage with meaningful content, whenever and however they choose. This is what our fans are demanding and what they deserve. I'm proud of the Sports Emmy our NCAA Digital team at Turner Sports won for March Madness Live earlier this year as a small validation of our prioritization of our fans' user experience.

As another recent example, we've redesigned our NBA App in the US for the 2018-19 season with a higher concentration on video and enhanced personalization tools. Within our NBA League Pass US product, we've introduced more opportunities for fans to directly access NBA games. Fans can access an entire game, or if they only want to catch the final moments of a game, they can purchase in-game during the final quarter—as well as at the beginning of the second and third quarters—all at reduced prices. It's part of an ongoing effort to create multiple touch points for fans to access live NBA games in customized packages or micro-transactions, and we anticipate rolling out a number of additional in-progress features in the future.

The US leagues have been highly proactive developing a direct relationship with fans with sports passes, social media sites, and so on. Where do you see this going? Do you think you will face an increasing battle to encourage rights holders that deals with broadcasters, and cable networks are a vital part of the mix?

I do think it's fair to say US leagues have been more—or the most—progressive in this regard. It matches the DNA of Turner Sports and Bleacher Report as well. And an entity like UEFA is working to be more assertive in growing via direct relationships with fans, which is why I think this made us mutually attractive to each other in our new partnership.

We embrace opportunities for leagues and our partners to market their brands and athletes directly with consumers. It's vital for their continued growth and ultimately elevates all involved. Through our partnerships, as a media rights holder, we provide an entire portfolio—across our multiple TV networks and the Bleacher Report portfolio for digital and social—of robust assets to leverage as opportunities to connect with those passionate fans. That's also why it's essential for us to have rights that span all platforms—including those created over the life of our deals—so we can stay nimble and create new, relevant touch points to build and enrich those connections with fans. Just in case DVDs don't make a comeback!

Maria Rua Aguete is Executive Director for Media, Service Providers and Platforms at IHS Markit.
Tim Westcott is Research & Analysis Director for Programming at IHS Markit.
Matteo Marchello is Senior Analyst for Channels & Programming at IHS Markit.
Maria, Tim, and Matteo will all be speaking at the SportsPro OTT Summit.

Posted 31 October 2018

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