If you stream it, (sports fans) will come

streaming sports

Major League Baseball is struggling with ratings and attendance. It’s hoping that putting more live games online, being social, and making changes at its ballparks will draw more fans – especially Millennials.

That’s a big ask.

Rating for this year’s Opening Day trio of games on ESPN were nightmarish, with the Red Sox-Mariners game taking the dubious honor of being the worst-ranked game (0.8 rating) since 2000, and off 40% from 2018’s Giants-Dodgers game.

Even its annual showcase – the World Series – has been a dud with TV audiences.

Last year, Boston’s five-game World Series win over the LA Dodgers drew the fourth-lowest TV audience ever. It averaged 14.1 million viewers a game, off 25% from 2017’s series.

(The three worst? 2008’s Philadelphia win over Tampa Bay (13.06 million average), 2012’s San Francisco win over Detroit (12.7 million average), and 2014’s San Francisco win over Kansas City (13.8 million average). It’s not pretty.)

MLB has tried a lot of things to help reverse declining broadcast ratings and declining attendance at games.

In fact, as MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said during an interview with Fox last year, it’s tried a little bit of everything, including:

  • Creating a ballpark app that directs fans to entertainment alternatives in the stadium while they’re attending a game;
  • Having its clubs redesign their stadiums to create “Millennial areas” that are more like bars;
  • Offeringd flexible ticket arrangements that lets fans choose what games they might want to go to and even where they’d like to sit; and,
  • Focusing on food, because “we know Millennials and food go together.”

So far, the jury still is out as to what’s working.

Streaming sports online is key

One strategy already generating a positive response from both the fans and the league, however, is streaming more games online. Especially streaming them on platforms younger fans frequent more often.

And, why not?

After all, a study from the Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg and ThePostGame found that 63% of fans say they’d pay for an all-sports OTT channel.

That’s just the headline. Consider:

  • 56% of fans interested in OTT would pay more for a streaming sports channel than for a pay-TV sports channel;
  • Among self-described “intense” sports fans, the number jumps to 78%;
  • For households that have children in them, that number is 70%;
  • 80% of women who self-describe as sports fans are willing to pay 50% more for some types of streaming sports content;
  • 64% of fans live far from where their favorite team plays;
  • 65% of Gen Edge and young Millennial fans consume streaming sports content on a mobile device;
  • 50% of sports fans watched supplemental sports programming; and,
  • 60% of fans say that supplemental programming is important to them.

MLB has continued to bet big on spreading rights out to get more games online in its effort to get Millennials into “America’s Game.”

Adapting to digital consumers

And, as Manfred said, streaming can help it adapt to a younger, digital audience.

“Our fans want to consume the game on the platforms that they’re naturally on,” he said.

So, last year, MLB streamed 25 games on Facebook, that’s down to six non-exclusive games this year as it continues to test other platforms. But, Facebook also will stream highlights of every game and a weekly recap for each team.

MLB also has a relationship with Twitter which, among other things, enables fans to choose what player’s at-bats will be streamed live on the platform. It also shows highlights of every homerun hit and even includes a variety of live original content.

And, of course, there’s anew deal with YouTube this year. Just this week it announced the first three live games that will stream on the platform (see the schedule here), part of its deal to stream 13 games live this season.

(But, holy cow, the games announced didn’t send any shivers down my spine.)

Manfred says baseball’s ownership of its digital rights “presents a massive opportunity” for the league as it moves forward. And, he insists, the MLB will go where the fans are.

Facebook, he said, gave the league “an audience that was dramatically different than our traditional broadcast audience.” A positive because it isn’t “cannibalizing your traditional product.” The massaged Twitter deal and the new pitch with YouTube is a good indication efforts to leverage that opportunity will continue.

Social expands the audience

The league also wants to leverage social media (as with its Twitter and Facebook deals).

And that’s a very good thing because, as another study from the Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg found:

  • 41% of male and 42% of female fans say they “sometimes” or “often” comment on games on social media;
  • Millennials (51%) and young Millennials (50%) are most active on social platforms while watching a game at home, followed by Gen X (43%), Gen Edge (35%) and Baby Boomers (31%);
  • Intense fans are most likely to comment (58%), followed by moderate fans (42%); and
  • Even 35% of casual fans say they comment often.

This year, Major League Baseball is focusing on several social initiatives, in addition to Twitter and Facebook live streams. Among them, real-time fan interaction on Facebook Watch games, allowing players more freedom to communicate directly with fans, brand partnerships and activations on social media, and, hashtag-triggered emojis are available on the MLB’s Twitter account for all 30 teams.

The bottom line

Major League Baseball is just one example of sports leagues that have invested heavily into over-the-top distribution of everything from live games, to highlights and original shoulder content loaded before and after events in an effort to reach fans.

As technology continues to improve – and with 5G mobile delivery on the very-near horizon – live streaming sports, to any device, anywhere, should be a pillar of any sports league or franchise, regardless of its size.

Stay tuned.

Jim O’Neill is Principal Analyst at Brightcove. You can follow him on Twitter @JimONeillMedia and on LinkedIn