Magazine article ADWEEK

The New Rule Book: Sports Team Leagues Stream Live Games-And Marketers Prep for a Different World Order

Magazine article ADWEEK

The New Rule Book: Sports Team Leagues Stream Live Games-And Marketers Prep for a Different World Order

Article excerpt

NEW YORK With the National Football League now streaming, for free, Sunday Night Football--arguably the most valuable intellectual property in U.S. sports--a clear signal has gone out: live streaming, gaining ground for some five years, is officially a game changer.

"Streaming is one of the big waves of the future," said Andrew Zimbalist, sports economist and economics professor at Smith College. "And the quality of streaming is going to continue to go up, such that it's going to be almost indistinguishable from HDTV. So, there's tremendous potential."

Currently, all the major U.S. sports team leagues--including Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League--are implementing or revamping mechanisms in an effort to capitalize on the revenue stream, both in terms of advertising and the capturing of new viewers.

But while live streaming seems like a slam dunk for league owners, the platform raises some pressing questions for them as well as advertisers and the channels that run the games. Perhaps the biggest one is how advertisers are going to portion out their ad dollars--a question that won't be answered until they see whether the streaming cannibalizes exposure to their ads in the games carried on broadcast and cable TV. One possibility, of course, is that advertisers might forego TV buys in an effort to reach viewing audiences during the day.

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For the NFL, the impetus to create "Sunday Night Football Extra"--which began streaming on NBC.com and NFL.com this month--was driven in part by a desire to use the Sunday night games' untapped online assets (per contract agreements both the league and NBC could not exploit these resources on their own). The decision to partner with NBC came about because the network owns the rights to Sunday Night Football and its aggressive and successful streaming tactics with the Beijing Olympics, said Brian Rolapp, svp of digital media at the NFL.

Rolapp said one of the league's intentions is to "adopt a [advertising] model for the medium." Currently, he noted, "we are extending the same [opportunities] for online game distribution as we have on television." Among the four advertisers supporting "Sunday Night Football Extra" are Sprint, Toyota, Gillette and Adobe. (Sponsors can also use the NFL logo offline to show their affiliation with the league.)

MLS delivers live game streams--full regular season matches and playoffs--through MLSLive.tv, which is part of the league's Web site, an initiative it began in 2005. Initially free, it's been sold on a subscription basis, without advertising, since 2006. No games shown by its broadcast and cable partners--ABC, ESPN2 and Fox Soccer Channel--are included in the subscription package, since those rights are held in agreements with those networks. The league's intention next season is to provide the service again for free through an ad-supported network, possibly with one or more of its corporate partners.

"As Soccer United Marketing [the league's marketing arm] now represents the new women's league for their sponsorship sales and online advertising, that will give us two properties, MLS and WPS, [for which we] own the rights to for live games. So, we're looking at how to get creative in putting together a significant sponsorship program," said Dan Courtemanche, svp of marketing and communications for MLS and SUM.

This week, the NHL is revamping its live streaming effort through the relaunch of its video player on NHL.com. The league, which began live streaming last year, has an out-of-market subscription-based product, Game Center Live, which offers advertisers sponsorships on the site. (Out-of-market refers to matches that can only be seen by viewers outside of the local game coverage, honoring local broadcast agreements.) The NHL does not have current plans to run video ads, so viewers who pay for the service will have no interruptions. …

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