Interview | Facebook’s head of global sports, Dan Reed

THE BIGGEST QUESTION surrounding Facebook’s first concerted foray into the world of sport simply has to be: what took you so long?

Launched in time for the climax of the NFL season and at the beginning of a year which includes Euro 2016 and the Rio Olympic Games, Facebook Sports Stadium appears to be the right service at the right time because in this day and age the whole world seems to want to talk sport.

But in a world where live video is key and rivals including Twitter and Yahoo are gearing up their offerings, and getting into the rights business, sport on social is in a state of flux as platforms figure out strategies which will fully utilise the potential of the technology and maximise revenue.

For Dan Reed, who has swapped his role as president of Major League Baseball’s Minor League Operations for a major league position as head of sports partnerships at Facebook, the logic of the newly-found focus on sport is clear and he’s relishing the opportunity to make an impact on the digital world.

“Facebook is the world’s largest community of sports fans. There are 650 million of them connected to a league, team or athlete’s page and we have by far the biggest real-time audience on social around sports events. There’s a massive conversation around sport and a huge demand for a second screen during live broadcasts.” he says.

Reed has got the stats off pat.

“Research shows that 85 per cent of people on social media during live TV sports broadcasts are on Facebook and 22 per cent of time spent on mobile is on Facebook. We had 200 million interactions around Super Bowl and 350 million around the Fifa World Cup,” he adds.

A major innovator

So it’s little surprise that Reed was excited to join up with an organisation he views as “a major innovator in the media space with a mission to connect the world – of which sports is a core element.”

“The opportunity to be on the front line of the transition to digital, mobile and social was really too good to pass up,” he says.

Given the size of the Facebook audience and its shared passion for sport, the relationship between sports bodies, fans and the great connector should be fruitful for all concerned.

“We want to make sure we are serving those fans – connecting, informing and entertaining them,” Reed says.

“Sports Stadium is an early attempt to harness all that and bring it all together to provide the ultimate second-screen social experience around a game.”

He points out that social interaction has always been a part of the sports experience and the suggestion is that the shared experience of being at a live event had been lost in a granular world where individuals watched live broadcasts on their own.

“We aim to remarry the inherent social interaction that has been around sport for centuries,” he says.

He sees Facebook’s relationship with sport as something of a win-win and one which will become more important over time.

“The value provided by Facebook is shifting. In the early days it was about connecting; now it is also about staying informed and entertained, and sports is a primary use case,” he adds.

Build audience

“If you are a league team or athlete, it provides the single greatest source of potential fans. Fifty per cent of (social media) video views come from (Facebook) shares, so it is a great way to build audience. We want to support the model behind the sports business and we provide consulting to sports partners to help them understand how to grow their audience on our platforms and how to drive their business.”

Naturally Reed has a stat for that.

“There was a Nielsen study which showed that the incremental effect of a share before a game is equivalent to 1,000 additional viewers in the first minute of the game,” he says.

“We talk to teams about their strategies, about areas such as how they show content in real time during matches. Our job is to help partners be successful.”

In its role as a partner to sports stakeholders, Facebook is, says Reed, well positioned to help enhance sponsorship and advertising value by driving traffic to websites and broadcasts, while ticket and merchandise sales are areas where the platform has already established a track record.

“The (NBA) Golden State Warriors say that Facebook is their number one channel for driving ticket sales with a 29 x return on investment compared to others, while the ROI in relation to merchandise sales is 19 times,” Reed adds.

The evolution of Facebook as a global platform for live video through the launch of Facebook Live last year has naturally raised questions about the organisation’s long-term strategy on sports rights. Will it pitch up with big bucks and join the rightsbuying frenzy around major properties or be content to sit back, provide a supportive platform for rights owners and a share of the advertising revenues generated?

While Reed is firmly focused on partnership and collaboration, Facebook’s much-reported interest in buying live streaming rights for a package of NFL games earlier this year tends to suggest that any opportunity will be considered. In the end, that Thursday night streaming package went to Twitter.

Live is a driver for a number of reasons, not least because viewers spend significantly longer watching live content than recorded archive material. Having said that, Yahoo’s experience of live streaming last season’s Buffalo v Jacksonville NFL game from London produced some interesting numbers. The game had 15.2m unique views generating 33.6 million streams, but viewers watched, on average, only 30 minutes of the game.

It’s clear that live sport on social is a whole different ball game and understanding audience behaviours and preferences will take some time to evolve that understanding before really big money is spent on acquiring rights in competition to established broadcasters, most of which have a presence not only on the core Facebook platform, but also on Facebook Live.

Maybe that is why Reed’s main concerns lie elsewhere.

“We think of Facebook as a next-generation video-distribution platform. We are already developing and testing a variety of different business models and product tools to allow partners to monetise and share revenues,” he says.

“I can empathise with federations which are not the most globally popular and looking for breakthrough. With Facebook they have their own programmable distribution network without any third parties involved and you have an emerging monetisation model.

“Also, you have to remember that athletes have the largest reach on Facebook, rather than clubs or leagues. We counsel governing bodies and teams on how to empower their athletes to build up their presence, distribute content, engage with fans and utilise the broader eco-system to beef up the entire sport.”

Live on Facebook, he says, is not about competition with broadcasters: “I prefer not to think about it in those terms. It is a different distribution channel. Most people are accessing Facebook through mobile, so this is a is a brand new space for time spent on mobile.”

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