Over the past couple of years, it has become more and more apparent that there is a battle taking place in the social mobile universe for the attention of sports fans.
No one could argue that the way viewers consume sports and entertainment is evolving. Remember watching NBA games before HD? Or what it was like to be without a smartphone during college football Saturday? Remember when Twitter was a great way to read 140 character posts about live events while you watched them on TV?
I have always hated the term "second screen," and I think that as of August 2016, it should be officially retired. As Facebook, Twitter, Verizon/Yahoo and many others enter the already crowded ring of social mobile broadcasters, the stakes are getting higher and higher, and the fight for engagement is going far beyond just viewership.
During July 2016, we witnessed two of the highest TV rating events on record. Game of Thrones cemented itself as one of the most popular shows of all time, and the NBA Finals pulled in its highest ratings since 1989. Even more interesting was the eclipse of previous mobile engagement records -- Game of Thrones totaled 2.5 million streams on its streaming platforms (HBO Now and HBO Go), up 70 percent over last season, and game seven attracted 96.2 million minutes streamed or 1.8 million unique viewers to the WatchESPN app, the highest ever for a non-World Cup event. It is no longer a question if fans are going to cut the cord -- the new question is what screen are they going to watch on, and what logo and user experience will be on that screen when they do.
Every branch of the entertainment industry, sports in particular, is looking for a way to establish itself as the king of mobile. So let’s play the Game of Phones.
The Lannisters in our game would be the big broadcast networks. NBC, FOX, CBS and others have had to do little more than bid just enough to win exclusive rights to broadcast with hopes to be able to sell enough in ads to make it back into the black. A lack of innovation on the mobile side of the market has led to a falling out with fans -- the drawbridge is down and the attack is coming from all sides.
A few years ago it seemed Yahoo, AOL or BAM would likely take over as the major players in the sports broadcast market. Yahoo Sports was thriving and Verizon/AOL was the marriage needed to unify against the incumbent broadcasters. Just as the Starks fell on tough times, so did the heirs to the mobile social throne. While Verizon launched GO and spent a lot of money buying content and Yahoo bought a lot of companies (one of them was mine) and spent a lot of money streaming NFL games from Europe, neither has cemented their mobile position as heir to the throne.
This wouldn’t be a proper breakdown if we didn’t include a proclamation that winter is coming -- and trust me, it is. Facebook and Twitter are scrambling like White Walkers as they buy up content and build out social broadcast infrastructure. Facebook recently signed deals with nearly 140 media companies and paid celebrities a reported $50 million to create videos for Facebook Live in an attempt to play to mobile fan engagement. Twitter has been live streaming events left and right ranging from political conventions to Wimbledon since it was announced they paid the most for the rights to stream NFL Thursday Night Football.
If GOT has taught us anything, it’s don’t count out the underdogs. Yahoo, AOL and other billion-dollar startups have created hope amongst those not yet as well-healed. The houses Targaryen, Baratheon, Greyjoy and Tyrell of our game consist of startup platforms such as GameOn, a mobile engagement platform for sports fans, SportsYapper, Slyce and Sportle -- all taking shape as new houses playing the field with a strong claim to the Iron Throne. It seems imminent that a changing of the guard is coming. There will likely be partnerships, marriages and wars before the throne is taken -- and it may even change hands many times before a new house’s reign settles.
Forecasting ahead and trying to predict how the game will play out, it might help to look at a few success stories. Bill Simmons, the former “Boston Sports Guy” who once wrote columns for AOL, became one of the most sought-after media personalities after a 14-year career at ESPN. While there, he hosted a podcast, founded spinoff site Grantland.com, appeared on NBA Countdown and conceived the idea of 30 for 30. Now he finds himself again at the helm of his own site, TheRinger.com, which mixes sports, pop culture and technology. He also has his own show on HBO. His success lies in his adaptivity: he brings great content to his audience, where they want it.
The past few years have also marked a shift in athletes’ engagement with fans. Talking on-field and at press conferences remains constant, but the emergence of the athlete as primary contributor shines in the near-universal embrace of social and the success of media platforms such as The Players Tribune and GameOn. Connecting fans with their favorite athletes drives engagement and helps grow the industry while providing fans with at-their-fingertips entertainment. Not all fans can make it to the stadium, and just as Bill Simmons has found success in meeting his fans where they want to be met, so have some of the smarter athletes that are focused on building long careers for themselves.
Next year, streaming numbers are predicted to rise once again, and with major leagues such as the NFL teaming up with social media platforms such as Twitter, and the emergence of esports and the abundance of partnerships already being struck by Turner, Riot, etc., the Game of Phones is set to be in full swing. Within the next few years, mobile platforms are poised to take the Iron Throne and become the primary screen for sports and television fans alike. Mobile apps rich with chat platforms and bots are the one-stop-shop that TV never could be, allowing fans to consume news, scores and any other information all while chatting with their friends during live sporting events.
Entrepreneurs can take advantage of this by expanding their mobile presence in the highly competitive Game of Phones. The only question remaining is: What are other media platforms willing to do to continue their stay at The Red Keep?