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US sports tweak rules and presentation to keep audiences hooked

US major leagues are tweaking their rules to make sure fans stay tuned in as concerns build about distracted audiences. Data is playing a critical role, with leading rights-holders employing sophisticated, data-led decision-making to make the changes.

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  • Leading US sports are tweaking their on-field rules as they tackle falling TV audiences and sharper competition for viewer attention
  • Data is informing the changes including new measures such as excitement ratings and second-by-second audiences
  • The NBA, MLB, NFL and Nascar are among the sports to introduce changes in the last year.

When the NBA cut the number of permitted timeouts last season it joined the team of US major leagues tweaking their rules and presentation to keep hold of distracted audiences.

Driving these changes is the desire to keep fans watching. Underpinning them is the idea of today’s fan as time-poor and distracted. Enabling them are new types of data being employed in increasingly sophisticated ways by leading rights-holders.

Nascar went much further than the NBA, significantly changing its competition format for the 2017 season in an effort to make races more exciting. Changes included splitting races into three segments and awarding points to drivers based on their position at the end of each segment, to encourage drivers to compete hard for the full duration of each race. Nascar had been planning changes to its competition format for some years, but was reportedly prompted to move forward with them by broadcast partners Fox and NBC, who were concerned at the data they were seeing on declining television audiences.

MLB introduced a range of ‘pace of play initiatives’ in 2018, following a 2017 season which saw its highest average game time in history – three hours, five minutes. This figure has been creeping up over the years – in 1981, it was two hours, 33 minutes. The league hasn’t, however, been able to any get agreement from players for the most significant change it was considering: a ‘pitch clock’, putting a limit on the time a pitcher has to throw the ball.

Last year, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell went so far as writing a letter to fans to address complaints about the number of commercial breaks per match. NFL games take timeouts to allow the commercials to run. “I hate that, too,” Goodell wrote in reference to the particularly heavy sequence of breaks that follow touchdowns and subsequent kickoffs. For the 2017 season, commercial breaks per game were reduced from 21 to 16, although they were extended in length to maintain advertising inventory. The league also introduced split-screen advertisements – where ads air alongside a view of the action – for the first time.

The concern today is retaining audiences in a media landscape that offers more distractions and options than ever – often commercial-free. As Brendan Kirsch, vice-president, client consulting, at research firm Nielsen Sports says, tinkering with rules and presentation is “becoming more and more prevalent, based on the narrative that everybody hears about the changing consumption of consumers, narrowing attention spans, and competition coming with formats that are ad-free. The Netflix’s of this world aren’t hindered by having to go to commercial breaks. I think sports properties are really seeing that now, more than ever, they’re going to need to make some of these changes to align with these innovative formats that consumers seem to be preferring”.


Another contemporary twist to the tinkering is the extent to which it is informed by data. In some cases, brand new types of data have become available to guide decision-making. In April, NBA commissioner Adam Silver told business magazine strategy+business: “With our online products, like League Pass, we’re able to monitor not just sales, but usage. We know how long people are watching those games, and what portions of those games. Through our over-the-top products and our direct-to-consumer relationships, we have ways of measuring interest that just don’t exist in our conventional television relationships.”

NBA fans had been complaining about the number of timeouts at the end of games for years. “Since I was a kid, that’s an issue people have been talking about,” Silver said.

Even though there was widespread acknowledgement of the issue, the league engaged its data analysis team to discover what was actually happening before making its move.

Evan Wasch, senior vice-president, basketball strategy & analytics, says: “Trying to put quantitative support behind that, we worked with Jay [Kaufman, senior vice-president, global research & insights] and his team using…things like minute-by-minute ratings, the viewership on our League Pass product, even dial-testing to track enjoyment of different aspects of the games.” Dial-testing is a laboratory-based experiment where subjects watch a game and move a dial with their hand to indicate their level of enjoyment.

“That data ultimately corroborated the initial basketball view going in that there was some diminution of the quality of the product when you have that number of stoppages late in games.”

Armed with the data, the basketball team worked with the NBA’s competition committee – which included team owners, general managers, coaches, players, and referees – to figure out the changes. A big challenge was keeping television partners – who run commercial breaks during timeouts – happy. The final changes included reductions in the number of timeouts each team has in the last two minutes from three to two and in the overall number of timeouts from 18 to 14. The total amount of time available for commercials was maintained.

Audience measurement companies like Nielsen are offering increasingly detailed data, such as second-by-second ratings on linear television and OTT streams, and information on how audiences move from one channel to another.

“Both from an OTT perspective and linear television, data is becoming more granular,” Kirsch says. “We’re looking down at the second-by-second level across both platforms…which hasn’t been done historically. Linear TV ratings were historically at the minute-rounded level.” This is allowing Nielsen and clients to “really isolate and attempt to understand micro-moments within the game that are impacting on audience retention…so [they can understand] what may be causing somebody to tune away, and how long they are tuning away for.”

US sports have been testing viewer responses to games in laboratories in recent years. The dial-testing mentioned by the NBA above is an example. Last year, Bloomberg reported the NFL ran experiments tracking viewer eye movements as they watched games in mock living rooms. This is not an entirely new phenomenon – Kirsch says most major US sports will have at least experimented with such lab-based work in the last five or more years.

The NFL is also a client of Thuuz, the US company whose proprietary system aims to rate the excitement value of sporting events on the basis of the pace of the action, competitive balance, novelty, shifts in momentum, social buzz and the competitive context.

“Our service is based on delivering to the sports industry excitement ratings, headlines and notifications that drive tune-in, especially for casual fans and especially around events that fans were otherwise not planning on watching,” says Thuuz co-founder and chief executive Warren Packard.

“Fans want to watch their favourite teams or the game that everyone thinks is going to be exciting, and then they often miss the games that are the most exciting. The approach that we’ve taken to excitement is to actually model the sports themselves, and in real time pull in the information that describes the gameplay. We are taking an objective approach to measuring excitement by looking at what’s happening in the game.”

The NFL is Thuuz’s first rights-holder client and is using the excitement rating in a different way: to help determine the quality of play during its games. The league already does this using other data – such as points scored, yards gained, accuracy of refereeing decisions, number of fouls and their severity – as part of ongoing monitoring of how the game is developing.

Damani Leech, the league’s vice-president, football strategy and business development, says: “This is the kind of thing we will use internally to better understand the state of the game and how the game is trending, and also to help us drive policy change. So if we see things trending in a certain way, we need to ask ourselves what sort of playing rules, what sort of policies, what procedures do we need to implement to make that number go a different direction. That’s how we see ourselves using it once we feel like the underlying metric is in a good place.”

As significant as the new data that’s becoming available are the approaches to using that data within organisations. Industry leaders like the NBA are spending more time and resources analysing data and carefully building it into their decision-making.

Kaufman says: “Equally as important to the new data and tools that are associated with that…is the approach and mindset we are taking…in terms of becoming more sophisticated in analysing the data.”

Wasch adds: “It’s not necessarily that there is new data, but we are putting more resources, time and energy against going through it and understanding what it says, so that we’re able to turn around and make decisions that are beneficial to our products.”

“It’s a conversation that we’ll always have about how far is too far when it comes to innovation on the court,” he continues. “We don’t want to push it too far to the point where we alienate our core fans who appreciate the traditional aspects of the game. But if you look historically at the game, a lot of the innovations that have happened have been pretty transformative. So, for example, the three-point shot, which we believe drives a ton of interest in our game today, the advent of the shot clock – those are all pretty significant changes to the game.”

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