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19 August 2021

US sports faces generational epidemic – fuboTV bets on interactivity  

“People come for the sports, stay for the entertainment,” is how the fuboTV mantra goes. Yet the sports-first streaming platform faces an epidemic of younger generations falling out of love with live sports, forcing content providers like fuboTV to experiment with interactive features to bridge the gap between streaming a game on fuboTV and streaming on something like Twitch.

fuboTV’s strong marketing push as a full cable TV replacement package has attracted plenty of cord cutters – surging 138% in a year to 680,000 subscribers – but these pay TV defectors bring a higher average age. This is fine, but fuboTV wants a larger share of the pie that sports executives across the US are scrambling for a slice of – which will be won by whoever can figure out how to get younger generations to view more live sports.

The strategy at fuboTV is to introduce interactive features including betting and free to play games into the viewing experience this quarter, with more to come, which Isaac Josephson, SVP of Product Management at fuboTV, described as “layering in an immersive interactive experience.”

Speaking at another SportsPro OTT webinar, Josephson picked out a feature called Sportsbook which is arriving in a couple of markets later this year. This is essentially a sports betting feature, another example of the encroachment of gambling into the streaming experience, which is neither healthy for younger generations, nor will it automatically encourage them to spend more time on the platform.

This is why fuboTV plans to create a wagering experience that doesn’t necessarily have to involve money. It can be an interactive experience simply asking a viewer questions like, “Which team do you think will score next?” or “Who’s most likely get sent off?” – creating an experience which his less about the business of wagering and more about interactivity.

This is essentially layering a free to play game on top of the live sports experience, to increase engagement. To this end, Josephson cited fuboTV data showing that those who have played games on fuboTV watched 33% more content than average, which is precisely why fuboTV is doubling down on this area.

“I definitely spend more time than I should figuring out how to leverage the things my kids do on Twitch with fuboTV – I think there’s something there,” he added.

Another surprising statistic is that 1 in 4 sports viewers are time-shifting at least one sporting event, underscoring how there is still a desire to make sporting events work around your schedule, while the popular narrative is all about how live sports is the only thing keeping pay TV from implosion, based on the notion that live sports has to be a live linear experience, and nothing else will do. Josephson noticeably enjoyed trying to bust that myth.

This came in response to a comment from WarnerMedia’s Peter Scott, VP of Emerging Media and Innovation for the Turner Broadcasting division, who spoke about live TV keeping all his company’s fandoms engaged. “Live sports is fundamentally the reason people still have cable – but the ability to have all the technology around to access live sports when you want and where you want has totally changed live viewing around the world,” said Scott.

This sent the discussion into something of a data spiral, as Scott waxed lyrical about how the TV industry has been embarrassed by the FANGs of the world which have been rooted in owning and controlling whole ecosystems based around being data-centric from day one. What makes this tough for an outfit like Turner (money and power aside), is recruiting the right people to understand how to acquire data and clean data in such a way that can tell a story to multiple constituents inside the multi-faceted AT&T empire.

Scott made an interesting point about the pay TV business model, whereby networks get paid whether someone watches their channel or not, comparing this to if a retail store made revenue from people simply walking past the storefront every day without ever coming inside and purchasing anything. “Isn’t this the most amazing business ever?” Scott pondered, rhetorically, “who wouldn’t want that model now?”

The problem now is about recouping costs. If there are 80 million pay TV homes in the US today watching traditional cable, which will fall to say 50 million in the coming years, then where do these companies expect to make up that 30 million shortfall? Of course, he didn’t provide an answer, because not even Turner or WarnerMedia or AT&T has even the foggiest idea of how to do that.

“We even see that with NBA players today signing these crazy contracts, because they don’t know economically if sports fans will be able to pay a premium to allow guys like us to buy rights in the future,” he added.

That said, he believes viewing numbers for the NFL, MLB and NHL are going to “crush it” this year, circling back to in-sports betting as being a huge part of this. “The future is about creating as many different versions of one game for multiple viewers, with multiple cameras, co-viewing, betting, gaming – a diversified approach to how we look at different audiences,” Scott signed off.

We also got the technology perspective from Eric Bolten, VP of Business Development at live video over IP specialist Zixi. There were no surprises to hear him talk about how Zixi is carefully watching virtualization and guiding clients to the cloud for content acquisition, with partners then picking up content for delivery, namedropping its ongoing work with the NHL in this regard.

With both WarnerMedia and fuboTV being customers of Zixi, we scratched the surface of how the vendor is assisting with creating bespoke programming and bringing signals into cloud-based environments with virtualized workflows to create curated optimized experiences.

“Technology is becoming more and more connected to business models, and it underpins what can be done commercially,” commented Bolten.

As a few quick examples, he spoke about how taking a common piece of programming and making many variations of it – as Scott alluded to earlier – has a good cost basis. Bolten also sees technologies like 5G changing how interaction is done as well as the quality of video signals, referencing Zixi’s work with 8K and the NHL’s use of 10K cameras. He also celebrated editing workflows including highlighting and clipping as having made huge strides, while there was hardly time to even touch on the advent of AI and ML, for which Zixi is plugging away with its intelligent data platform.

“The engine at the end that tells a consumer what’s available is only as good as the data behind it. It will surprise people how intelligent these systems will evolve to be,” Bolten mused.