‘The Debate’ is a new feature for Exepose Sport, focusing in depth on the the big topics and points of discussion within the sporting world.
Our first article in this new feature sees Harry Richards take a look at the challenge sports coverage faces to stay relevant in the digital age.
The Digital Age presents sport with a challenge. Microsoft say the average attention span has decreased declined from 12 to 8 seconds between 2000 and 2015. The Digital Age has given people the ability to watch any TV programme or film ever produced, and the endless scrolling of Instagram and Twitter. Sport is just one industry tussling for our free time, and it cannot afford to take its huge audience for granted.
The easiest way to judge if sport has risen to this challenge is to look at viewing figures. For example, FIFA claim around 3.572 billion watched the 2018 World Cup Final on official streams, suggesting football’s appeal has not declined just yet. Nonetheless, this is the best-case scenario for sport: The World Cup is broadcast for free in most countries and is the biggest match of the four-year cycle. F365 estimate an average of 10 million global viewers for a Premier League game, a number roughly consistent with a decade ago.
Illegal streaming of sport has become commonplace this decade, making it difficult to gauge whether the decline in figures is a result of falling interest in football or people watching through alternative means.
Yet, the paywall is not the only factor – BT broadcast the Champions League final for free on YouTube, but still got 8 million less viewers nationwide (on all platforms) in 2019 than ITV did in 1999. Although this comparison is flawed, the disparity between the figures is large enough to warrant discussion.
One reason put forward for the decline is the rise of Esports. The 2019 League of Legends World Championship peaked at 3.9M viewers, just a million less than BT’s YouTube stream of the Champions League final.
Along with established Esport sponsors such as computer part manufacturers and energy drinks, the last decade has seen more and more respected brands invest in the scene, such as Audi sponsoring Danish CS:GO team Astralis, or Gilette partnering with Team Solo-Mid.
However, Esports are not there yet. The League of Legends Worlds viewing figures are the record holders: with 0.1% of the Football World Cup viewership. The investment of ‘mainstream’ corporations is a recognition that there is an audience, but it is more in hope of growth than any guarantee. The fact remains that it is incredibly hard to monetize a young audience used to watching on Twitch for free, and the investment of brands has led to a spiralling of prize pools and salaries far outweighing the growth in revenues.
Coronavirus has threatened to burst this bubble, with ‘the online era’ allowing for scandals such as CS:GO coaches cheating and restricting the top American, European or Asian teams from competing against one another. While the lockdown was predicted to give “2 years of growth in 2 months”, as in traditional sport, Esport’s reliance on big crowds and international competition without the economic incentive to rush to behind-closed doors events meant they could not take advantage.
Sport is competing with every form of media, (of which Esports is a tiny section,) for people’s time. So, in this cluttered market sport must improve itself as a product – and it has done. Technology has allowed the implementation of video referees successfully in rugby and cricket as well as football slowly catching up to these two. Technology like this improves the product in two ways – fewer wrong decisions are made, allowing for analysis of the sport being about the game, not officiating.
This is part of the reason coverage of cricket is widely seen as the zenith of UK sport broadcasting. Bar the nagging issue of bad light, punditry and commentary is about the action, not umpire’s decisions. The ‘Third Man’ goes into technical detail about the players, whether it be Nathan Lyon’s front knee generating turn or the distance between the slip cordon.
Although cricket is the clear leader in this department, other sports are catching up. UK Sport has followed America in embracing better statistics in sport, with xG appearing on Match of the Day since 2017. The face of Sky Football in 2010 was Keys and Gray, it is now Neville and Carragher. Monday Night Football has raised the standard expected of pundits, and BT have also used touchscreens to discuss technical aspects of the game related to their own career.
The Digital Age has also affected Sports Journalism, with The Athletic trying to prove a subscription service is possible against the decline of traditional print newspapers.
Sport has also embraced another consequence of the Digital Age: highlight packages and short analysis segments being posted onto YouTube and Twitter. Sky have embraced the YouTube algorithm game, with images of an angry Neville as thumbnail and “Absolutely PATHETIC” the caption, more reminiscent of Arsenal Fan TV than a sports broadcaster. Clubs have embraced social media, with intricate announcement videos for new signings, and interacting with fans as well as other club accounts.
Yet does interacting with fans provide a better experience? The truth is very few fans as a percentage attend live sport; most people will remain content as an ineffective spectator. F1 recently implemented the LED FanStand – showing the most ‘mentioned’ driver’s hashtag on the stand. While visible on TV, it remains a gimmick – drivers are going too fast for the support to register. Interacting with fans does not hurt, but it is not why most people watch elite sport.
To wrap up, The Digital Age has provided more competition for viewers, but Sport has embraced the opportunity to improve. Competition inspires growth, and I am certain Sport will remain in a strong position – as it always has.