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Face in the Crowd

FACEBOOK APPEARS TO have fumbled its debut on the global sports stage, as its Sports Stadium offering lagged minutes behind the live game at Super Bowl 50 and left North American sports fans resorting to Twitter to vent their annoyance.

While the Denver Broncos were lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy in San Francisco, Facebook executives were issuing statements apologising for the lack of performance under pressure by its newly-launched feature that was positioned as ‘the world’s largest stadium’.

In simple terms Facebook Sports Stadium has been designed to offer a digital destination for fans to meet and share sports events. The honeypot is real-time scores, play-by-play coverage, stats and other game information supported by commentary and posts from experts. That creates a core buzz which, the theory goes, will draw users from among Facebook’s claimed 650 million sports fans to get involved and share the experience with their own posts and conversations.

For Facebook, which claims over one billion interactions a day, the launch of Sports Stadium has been seen as a move to capture some of the ground occupied by Twitter, which has built a reputation as the vehicle for sharing live events, whether in the sports arena or general news. Having been launched for the iPhone in the US in time for the NFL’s Divisional Championship games – effectively the Super Bowl semi-finals – the showdown in San Francisco was its biggest test. Although it appears to have fluffed its lines on this occasion, Facebook does plan to roll out the service worldwide for major events and expand to other platforms.

Second screen

Facebook describes its Sports Stadium as “a second screen experience that we hope will make watching the broadcast even better. This product makes connecting over sports more fun and engaging, and we will continue to listen to feedback to make it even better.”

Digital fan engagement within and beyond the confines of a stadium has become sport’s latest gold rush, and everybody is looking for a slice of the action.

Real Madrid, the world’s wealthiest football club with a global fan base of 450 million, is positioning its digital partnership with Microsoft as a project that the company’s president of business development, Orlando Ayala, said is about “creating a Bernabeu of the world where people come to live their passion for Los Blancos – a stadium without limits.”

The commercial rationale is straightforward. Digital engagement creates new opportunities for advertisers and sponsors, and a revenue boost for the platform or rights-holders involved.

The adoption of second screen viewing as an apparently unbreakable habit among armchair sports fans and the desire of in-stadium fans to share their experience with the wider world continue to create a perfect storm of opportunity. While the Madrid and Facebook offerings are entirely different in many ways, they are based on the understanding that connectivity equals money.

William Field, partner at the London-based media consultancy Prospero Strategy, said that it made “perfect sense” for Facebook to move into the space.

“They know a huge amount of their community is interested in sport and that by creating content they can sell advertising. They have to be looking at the big things the community is doing and enjoying, and sport is one of them,” he told SportBusiness International.

“In the past few years there has been an increasing focus on improving in-stadium connectivity and opening it up to those who are not at the event. For Facebook, adding a communications level – that is combining messages with content – makes sense and commercially I am sure it will add genuine value to advertisers.”

However, Field also warned that there would be complications ahead.

“Everybody is after this opportunity,” he said. “Everybody knows that if you can get people’s attention and find out all about them, you can then sell them stuff. But you have to provide relevant bespoke content from the events. Real fans don’t want loads of dross and it may take years to identify what really works. Look at TV. It has taken decades to hone the televised sports experience, but over time businesses get smarter.”

Threats

Digital sports expert Carlo de Marchis, chief product and marketing officer at Deltatre, which recently marked its 30th anniversary, said that he had identified both threats and opportunities arising from Facebook’s move into the space.

“I instinctively see a potential threat for many other players in the sports media business, including other social platforms, global digital platforms such as ESPN, and federations and leagues whose own digital properties may become less relevant and see their appeal to sponsors and advertisers diminish. There is also an issue for them about how they are presented and how data is shown accurately,” he said.

“There is also concern about the impact on rights-holding media companies and their relationship with the second screen experience. Which broadcaster will be included in each territory? The one who bought the rights or the one which has a partnership with Facebook?

De Marchis is also concerned that new second screen opportunities through a powerful player like Facebook will impact on the value achieved by previously exclusive sponsors and that the arrival of Facebook may result in a reduction in the diversity of voices and access to alternative content. However, there are also potentially positive results.

“In general, it may become a global destination for sport and a truly adopted second screen experience that will only increase sports content consumption overall and push Facebook page traffic for those involved. It may open up new partnership opportunities and new ways for brands to advertise,” he said.

Real fans don’t want loads of dross and it may take years to identify what really works

“Will this dominate the market or become an additional platform on which to focus our efforts to make sport more entertaining? When YouTube introduced free live streaming, we initially thought all rights-owners would use it and there would be only one streaming platform going forward. That clearly did not happen.”

With the Olympic Games and Uefa European Championship only months away, the battle for fan engagement looks set to move up several gears and, despite the disappointments of Super Bowl 50, Facebook is up and in the game.

According to Field, as the battle for second screen success develops, the winners will be those who can get to grips with the complex ecosystem of commercial relationships between clubs, leagues, broadcasters and sponsors around events.

“That will take a lot of work, because it will be a big old bun fight and working out the detailed choreography is vital,” he said. “Whether Facebook will be a winner in all this remains to be seen.”

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