Kevin McCullagh | Every second counts

SportBusiness' Kevin McCullagh looks at the shifts in consumer behaviours and the value of sport as a media product

Kevin McCullagh

The willingness of viewers to spend an hour or more watching live sport on a big screen remains the heart of its value proposition as a media product. But it is a model under almighty assault from alternative forms of screen-based entertainment engineered for non-stop action, thrills and stimulation.

The sports industry knows very well that competition for audience attention is sharper than ever and it has not simply stood back and let the new wave wash over it. Many established sports formats have been tinkered with and new versions created to meet the demand for shorter, sharper, bite-sized content.

And an incredible variety of digital content has been produced – designed for all platforms and attention spans.

But at the centre of it all, the jewel in sports media’s crown, remains live event coverage. Along with news and a handful of special events, it is considered the only form of video entertainment consistently capable of attracting large live audiences. And it is live coverage that accounts for the overwhelming proportion of value in media-rights deals.

The power of live sport is in the stories that it weaves and the emotional punches these stories deliver. But even the most enraptured sports fan knows that the emotional highs and lows are not consistently delivered. Let’s face it, elements of live sport can be tedious, no matter how skilful the presentation is. Some fans even take masochistic pride in sitting through drudgery – it is proof of their dedication.

Now consider the competition. Arguably the three most powerful sources of competition for sports watching today are: (i) social media feeds; (ii) other television entertainment genres; and (iii) games. In contrast with sport, these screen-based experiences are precision-tooled to deliver consistent emotional impact.

Social media firms have spent the last decade or more luring the world’s brightest graduates into one of the world’s sexiest industries with vast amounts of money. Their mission is to develop content which gets as many people as possible to spend as much time as possible on a particular application. They have been stunningly successful.

They have plumbed the depths of the human brain to design screen-based experiences that deliver unending stimulation and are utterly compelling. Many now argue the services have gone too far and there are fears about addiction.

Sport has always faced competition from film and television, and other entertainment shows are carefully constructed so that each scene and every shot are impactful. And for the past decade Netflix and co have invested billions of dollars to create a greater volume than ever of this high quality content. The competition from this direction is greater than ever.

Games are likewise engineered to be totally engrossing. Any which fall short of this standard simply will not survive.

By comparison, live sport, with its inevitable lulls in excitement, starts to resemble a gentler entertainment from a bygone age. Think Test cricket in the T20 era or Opera in the age of cinema. There will always be an audience for them but you have to ask how big will those audiences be, what demographic will be watching, and how commercially valuable these properties will be.

Younger generations appear particularly susceptible to new forms of distraction. Having been brought up on the hard drugs of TikTok, Snapchat, and the like, will they ever fixate on a TV screen for 90 minutes as two football teams grind out a 0-0 draw? More pertinently, will they want to do so regularly enough to pay a significant amount for a subscription service that gives them access to live coverage? An American poll recently found a big drop-off in interest in watching live sport among Gen Zers, compared to older cohorts.

I suspect that swathes of older demographics are also now hopelessly hooked on the firehose stimulation of social media feeds. Any lull in action on the big screen sends eyes, fingers and attention towards the small screen in the hand. It is habitual behaviour that is increasingly causing concern about its implications and mental health consequences. But it is hard to see it changing any time soon.

There are probably limits on what can be done to make live sport more compelling and it can be argued that, in many cases, we should accept the experience as it is, warts and all. This could mean we may have to accept consistently smaller live audiences for sport in future, with negative implications for the value of media rights.

As I said at the top, the sports industry does not have its eyes closed to the profound shifts happening in consumer behaviour. But I feel this question deserves continued consideration: Can live sport compete in today’s on-screen battle for attention, when every second counts?