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Just a few years ago, if you wanted to be “in the know” about the sports world, the first place you turned was ESPN. However, that’s no longer the case. There are now all sorts of websites – such as The Athletic, Action Network, Barstool Sports and Bleacher Report – that are arguably more influential, more popular and more “on trend” than ESPN.com. And, thanks to a dizzying number of mergers, restructurings and assorted transactions, media conglomerates such as AT&T and TBS are now big players in the world of digital sports media.
It’s hard to ignore the fact that sports-focused online sites are having a moment right now. In some cases, it’s because they are staffed with top-tier journalists and savvy analysts who once used to work for big networks like ESPN. In other cases, such as Bleacher Report (which is owned by TBS), it’s because they benefit from all sort of cross-distribution partnerships and brand relationships already in place.
New business models
Moreover, digital sports media properties are coming up with innovative online business models that are much more enticing to consumers than typical cable TV business models. In an era when many people have “cut the cord” to cable, sports-obsessed fans are looking for ways to get their sports fix without paying a hefty tab. For that reason, a website like The Athletic has been having a lot of success with its subscription-based business model. It’s all part of the a la carte model of digital content consumption – people only want to pay for what they actually watch, listen to, or read.
Live sports programming is key
There are several big trends in the world of digital sports media that are having a huge impact on consumption habits and the way that big media conglomerates view digital sports media. One of these, of course, is the emphasis on “live” sports programming. According to top executives at the big media conglomerates, the one area of TV programming that has been least impacted by the digital revolution is live sports programming. The reason why people hang onto their cable or satellite TV subscriptions is for the chance to watch live sports. It’s the reason why any cable TV alternative – such as Hulu or Sling TV or FuboTV – is having an easy time signing up new subscribers. They offer people a way to stream and record live sports from any digital device.
The rise of legalized gambling and daily fantasy sports
Another big trend is the emergence of legalized sports betting and the rise of daily fantasy sports. People who play fantasy football, for example, have an insane craving for the latest news on starts/sits, injuries, and new coaching strategies. People who gamble on sports want actionable insights that can help them make money. In the past, a website like ESPN might have focused on inspiring human interest stories or the drama behind pennant races. Sports gamblers, unfortunately, have very little interest in this type of content. They want to know about spreads, over/unders and moneylines. This has given rise to new betting-oriented sites like Action Network, which has already lined up more than $17 million from investors.
Social networks enter the mix
And perhaps the most dramatic storyline of the past few years has been the entry of the big social media and digital tech players – such as Amazon, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – into the digital sports landscape. It no longer sounds strange to tell a friend that “the Phillies baseball game is streaming on Facebook right now.” Social media has moved from being a purely second-screen experience to being a first-screen experience as well.
Things are going to get really interesting in 2020 and 2021 – that’s when the live broadcasting rights for NFL football games are going to be awarded to the highest bidders. In the past, this was basically a bidding war between the big networks like CBS, NBC or Fox. Now, it could see a whole range of new entrants, including Facebook, as everyone rushes to jump aboard the live sports programming bandwagon.