Saturday, February 14, 2015

Facebook Launches Sports Desk, AOL Teams Up with Players Tribune

Two of the world's biggest publishers of content made major moves this past week to solidify themselves as destinations for sports fans.

Facebook, the top referrals site on the web, announced the launch of a new social sports desk. The social network will be taking the desk to big events. The desk could potentially host Q&A's, such as the sessions currently posted with Harrison Barnes, Victor Cruz and Lolo Jones as well as other supplementary programming which will help promote major games while providing user engagement via video between famous sports figures and their fans. The new initiative was introduced during Facebook's first ever sports summit.

The most interesting thing about the desk, as pointed out by CNBC, is how similar the look is to traditional TV and offerings that are already available such as "SportsCenter" and "Fox Sports Live." But according to Facebook, they are only looking to strengthen their relationships with sports leagues and the network partners who own their rights. This is not an attempt by Facebook to compete against them but rather a way to collaborate with them.

You're more likely to see a Facebook sports desk program feature personalities from ESPN, Turner or Fox than Facebook hiring a slew of it's own sports journalists. Facebook will also only use the desk and produce sports video for the site as needed. The sports desk will not be a daily feature added onto the site.


The first big example of Facebook's foray into sports since the announcement was a partnership between Turner Sports, the NBA and Facebook. Turner hired comedian JB Smoove to interview some of the NBA's young rising stars in quick 5-7 minute clips and ran the interviews on the NBA's Facebook page to promote the 2015 All-Star Game. The interviews included questions submitted by fans.

Turner Sports previously collaborated with Facebook during the MLB Playoffs last season and helped integrate content being posted by players and fans on FB and Instagram onto Turner's pre- and post-game broadcasts. Facebook has also partnered with Sky Sports and BT Sport, two rival British sports TV networks, to promote their sports programming via video chats hosted on their Facebook pages which gave users a chance to interact with the two networks' own respective hosts and analysts.
Facebook wants to give fans a chance to feel more connected to the action and is partnering with leagues and networks on a non-exclusive basis. This new initiative is also being established to help grow their original video content production. While these partnerships are non-exclusive and the leagues/networks have free reign to partner with other social networks, the content and videos they post on Facebook as well as broadcasts in which the social sports desk is being included will be exclusive to their Facebook pages as well as Facebook's sports website, "Sports on Facebook." The company also announced that they will be turning on their "trending hub," which curates content about a specific topic, for all NBA and NHL games for the rest of the season.

AOL also made a huge step in it's push for sports content by teaming up with Derek Jeter's website The Players Tribune.
As part of the partnership, AOL will distribute The Players' Tribune content on and across AOL's network of 92M monthly unique viewers*; co-produce exclusive content on both platforms; and co-produce sporting events together throughout the year to bring the offline experience to life for fans online.
With this collaboration, AOL could solidify its place as a must-see website for sports fans given their access to ESPN highlights combined with exclusive access from players who play the games courtesy of The Players Tribune. 

AOL is also on the verge of launching its own sports show featuring the winner of the "AOL Sports Search," Nick Creegan. The show will aim to be the internet's version of "SportsCenter" but will focus on the social, viral side of things. Could this new AOL/Players Tribune partnership provide AOL Sports' new show with access to star athletes for exclusive interviews which they may not be inclined to give to another outlet?

This is also a huge move for T.P.T. Why? Because they've been lacking on the video side. AOL is an experienced producer of online video content and also has a wide distribution base which will help any videos from T.P.T spread like wildfire across the web.

Right now, Facebook and AOL seem solely interested in helping drive the conversation for sports fans instead of airing live sports. Facebook has confirmed to Sports Business Daily's John Ourand that they will not bid for the NFL game being offered over the top while AOL hasn't given any indication that they're interested in bidding either. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

NFL Could Livestream A Game on Google or Yahoo

Sports Business Journal's John Ourand broke some interesting news this morning:
The NFL is preparing to negotiate with digital companies (think Google, YouTube or Yahoo) to distribute one 2015 regular-season game via an “over-the-top” webcast.
Goodell surprised media executives during Super Bowl week when he announced plans to stream a game next season over-the-top. 
“It would be carried on broadcast stations in both team markets, but it would also reach a worldwide audience, including millions of homes that do not have traditional television service,” Goodell said during his annual state of the league presser. 
NFL executives are convinced they will be able to find a willing partner to buy the rights. “It would have to be a partner who would get behind it promotionally and make sure that people are aware that the game’s available and be able to reach a big audience,” said Hans Schroeder, NFL senior vice president of media strategy, business development and sales. 
Until the league figures out the digital company with which it will partner, it will wait to decide who will produce the game and handle ad sales.  
As for which game gets streamed? The most likely scenario would be one of the three London games on the 2015 schedule, which start at 9:30 a.m. ET. The NFL has not made a final decision, but sources say it is looking closely at the Bills-Jaguars game in London on Oct. 25.  
“That 9:30 a.m. time slot is interesting internationally when you start to think of parts of Asia, where it reaches into Sunday night, as well as parts of Europe,” Schroeder said. The one-off, over-the-top game is more of a test to see if digital companies can handle the large audiences that watch NFL games. 
“We really want to figure out if the landscape is ready for digital-only distribution of a game,” he said. “A lot of this is trying to anticipate, as the world changes, who our partners are going to be and who may be interested in NFL game rights when we look seven or eight years down the road, or potentially earlier, with ‘Thursday Night Football.’ Is there nontraditional media who would be interested in those games?”
How did they choose the Bills/Jaguars game?

As mentioned in the article, the 9:30 a.m. time slot is ideal for international audiences. I also think with CBS already investing so much money in TNF, the NFL didn't mind taking 1 game off of it's hands to do some experimentation. The ability of the NFL to take a game off of CBS's hands might've been written into their recent TNF contract where it says:

"The programming relationship between the NFL and CBS will expand to include, among other elements, the development of new programming initiatives across the various CBS and NFL platforms."

I wouldn't be too surprised if CBS ends up playing a role in this game by helping out with production, promotion and/or letting whoever wins this game borrow some of their talent. I also think CBS doesn't have much to lose by letting the NFL re-sell this game since it's the Bills and Jaguars playing versus a Patriots/Broncos game which are usually ratings monsters.

Don't be surprised if we see more CBS Sunday afternoon games used by the NFL as labs for experimentation with virtual reality, referee cameras, GoPro cameras and other technology which could evolve the way fans watch games.

Who are the contenders?

Google and Yahoo are the contenders being reported but I wouldn't be surprised to see Apple, Netflix, Facebook, Perform Sports EPlayer, Verizon, ESPN, Turner Sports. Google and Yahoo are the favorites since they both have strong relationships with the league and have experience live streaming big events. Google recently launched the NFL's first official YouTube channel while Yahoo signed up as an official partner of the NFL's over the top network, NFL Now.

Apple, Netflix and Facebook could use the game as a way to promote their new products (Beats streaming service, House of Cards and Facebook's video service respectively) while Verizon could use it to launch an OTT service of it's own. ESPN and Turner Sports could use it boost their newest online offerings such as ESPN's new OTT network with the NBA or B/R's expansion into video. Perform Sports EPlayer would be able to distribute the game online to a large audience reach through their syndication deals and also has a relationship with the league through Sporting News.

How would the game look like on Google or Yahoo?

Google and YouTube don't have an official team producing sports programming for them but they have relationships with sports content producers such as The Whistle, Vice, SB Nation, Bleacher Report, Fox, ESPN and could rely on one of them to help produce. They could also rely on NFL Network who already produce all of the content for the NFL's YouTube channel. The other option would be to hire a brand new staff of producers, production crew, graphics staff and talent for the one-off event but that might be a waste of money if they won't serve any purpose with Google other than this game.

I'm sure Google would enlist a slew of YouTube stars to promote the telecast if they won the rights to this game just as they've done in the past with other big events like their interview with President Obama. Google has done a great job of hosting video content on their site but hasn't produced much original programming of their own, something which will be a big focus for them in 2015. This game would be a great way to cajole talent looking to join an MCN or move to another video service like Vessel or Vimeo that they should stay with Google.

Unlike Google, Yahoo has a sports team full of a production crew and talent that could participate in this game. Their team probably isn't as large as the crew in charge of producing an NFL regular season game but they could borrow folks from their partners at NBC Sports or NFL Network to help out. I wouldn't be surprised to see CBS helping out either, as mentioned above.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

ESPN Acquires World Cup of Hockey

The NHL recently announced that it is bringing back the World Cup of Hockey, a tournament of national teams from Canada, the U.S. and Europe who are competing to decide the best hockey country in the world. This new competition, which starts in 2016, has led to speculation that the NHL will ban its players from the Winter Olympics in 2018.

The tournament will begin before the NHL season in September and will be telecast nationwide in the United States and Canada. The only question hockey fans had was where these games will be seen. Canadians got their answer last week when the NHL signed its rightsholder, Rogers Sportsnet, to a deal. Fans expected TSN to win after they lost NHL rights to Rogers and executives at the network thought they submitted the higher bid. It is believed that Rogers matched TSN's offer and that the NHL never gave TSN a chance to send a counter offer, according to The Globe and Mail (owned by TSN's owner).

The biggest shocker came in the United States when a reporter from TSN tweeted that ESPN outbid Fox and NBC for the rights to the WC of Hockey in the United States. It was expected that ESPN would put a bid in but the real competition was believed to be between Fox and NBC since Fox only has one marquee winter sport (Big East college basketball) and NBC is the current NHL rightsholder for years to come.

ESPN has been criticized in the past for neglecting hockey during its talk shows and on SportsCenter. No one really believed ESPN had real interest in anything hockey-related since their schedule is already so packed.

This is not the first time ESPN has "cooperated" with the NHL since ending their partnership in 2004. They've recently allowed their singular hockey analyst, Berry Melrose, to analyze games during the NHL Network's studio shows over the past couple of years.

This new partnership has more questions than answers but I'm sure we'll learn more details as the day progresses.

1. Will ESPN promote the NHL more during their talk shows and SportsCenter as part of this deal? Coincidentally, Tuesday night's (February 3rd) episode of SC featured an NHL highlight at the top of the show and a run through of more NHL highlights at 11:20 p.m.

2. Could this deal end up helping NBC inadvertently? If ESPN is able to build WC of Hockey into a legitimate fan favorite, it could draw more interest to hockey and its stars who play during the regular season on NBC. Given NBC's relationship with the NHL, I wouldn't be surprised to see them promoting ESPN's WC of Hockey telecasts. NBC's EPL coverage benefited after soccer's World Cup on ESPN because of a fan desire to watch more high quality soccer. 

3. Why did ESPN acquire this property? I believe this is a direct effect of ESPN losing NASCAR rights. It also shows that despite being a juggernaut, they're not complacent.

4. Why didn't NBC or Fox bid more? NBC spent a tonload of money on the Olympics and is probably saving up for EPL while Fox is saving money for Big Ten rights in 2016. I wonder if the NHL's threat of pulling athletes from the Olympics had anything to do with NBC submitting a lower than expected bid?

5. Fox is the biggest loser. Their two Canadian gems, Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole, will now lose yet another opportunity to make their mark on the network and won't get a chance to take part in covering their beloved national sport. They also needed this property in order to bolster FS2. Will it be the final factor which pushes Jay and Dan to another U.S. network or back across the border?

6. Where will these games air? I anticipate ESPN2 being the main carrier of these games with ESPN3 carrying first round games. I'm not sure if ESPN2 will be willing to preempt their talk shows for the WC of Hockey until the ratings prove themselves as worthy of preempting their popular shows. ESPNEWS is another possibility. Two wildcards? Fusion and the ESPN/NBA OTT 24/7 network which needs other sports to bolster its necessity besides the NBA.

7. Will any supplementary programming come out of this? 30 for 30's based on hockey? EPIX documentaries? All-Access documentaries similar to HBO's show? Does ESPN bring back NHL Live? Would this programming air solely on ESPN or would it be seen on NHL Network and/or NBC Sports Network as well? Any online or social media collaboration?

8. Did ESPN win because the NHL was threatened by the NBA's expanded relationship with ESPN? Under ESPN's new deal with the basketball league, NBA talk will increase on TV and radio exponentially throughout the Worldwide Leader's airwaves. Without this deal, the NHL could've become even more cut off from ESPN's ecosystem than it already is.

Whether Fox and NBC want to believe it or not, ESPN still controls sports conversation and what fans care about. Once in a while, sports radio hosts or an online commentator or someone from one of the league-owned networks or TNT's Inside the NBA will say something which stirs attention but majority of the time it's ESPN which shapes what sports fans are talking about.

I wouldn't be surprised to see more hockey topics on shows such as "First Take" and an actual set at the Stanley Cup Finals after this deal is finalized.

9. Both ESPN (through the X Games and Jon Gruden) and NHL have deals with GoPro and I expect the device to be utilized during ESPN's telecast of games. Shots from GoPro cameras will become content which is easily shareable on the NHL, GoPro and ESPN's massive social media pages.

10. Is NBC's deal with the NHL under threat? No. I think it's the opposite. NHL's ability to get back to ESPN shows how good of a job the Comcast-owned network has done with the sport. Worst case scenario? ESPN and NBC split hockey rights. But that's not until 10 years down the line.

Fans on Twitter are wondering whether Gary Thorne, who only calls college hockey for ESPN nowadays, will make a triumphant return for these games. I'm sure today is a good day for some of ESPN's puck lovers such as Steve Levy, John Buccigross and Linda Cohn. 

Michelle Tafoya Prefers Men Calling NFL Games

There is no doubt in my mind that Michelle Tafoya is one of the greatest sideline reporters and sports journalists to ever work the craft. 

The Sunday Night Football reporter who just finished reporting for the Super Bowl on NBC spoke with about her career and had some interesting things to say when asked about whether she ever wants to do play-by-play:

My personal belief is that at this moment in history NFL fans want the sport - it’s a kinda violent, kinda rugged, very masculine sport – and I think that calls for a male voice to narrate it for you. That’s just me and I may make a lot of people, a lot of women, angry with that statement. It’s not a sexist thing. To me, the voice I want accompanying this sport is a male voice.

When asked whether she would ever want to participate in the analysis of a football game in the booth, she said:

I would love to be part of a three-person booth. Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth and me in the booth, and I can chime in.

I'm surprised at how honest she was. She unfortunately spelled out the realities of the typical football fan and the way they perceive sports commentators of a different gender. Pam Ward, who calls college football games for ESPN, is ridiculed and criticized on a consistent basis. The only women I've seen break the mold and do something different on sports television are Ashley Fox, an ESPN reporter who does analysis on NFL Insiders as well as Anita Marks and Amy Trask, who analyze plays on CBS Sports Network's TOPS.

How long will it take before sports fans stop caring about eye candy and start caring about intelligence and poise on camera? We're starting to see a movement towards this direction but it's taking longer than expected. If there's anyone more prepared to call or analyze games, I think it would be Michelle Tafoya.

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