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Two sides of digital sports

CBS Sports logoTwo pieces of news in the digital sports space have come up in recent days – one that makes a lot of sense and one that merely elicits a shrug. Both demonstrate principles worth remembering for digital media.

Our first piece of news is a little more detail on OTT service that CBS Sports plans to launch, discussed at Next TV Summit. This service will focus on sports news and talk, with no plans to include game coverage – even the “orphan” sports which ESPN’s future OTT service is rumored to include. This is an interesting choice given the headwinds both ESPN and Fox Sports have encountered with traditional sports news and with their competing sports talk programs (or sports yelling programs, if you go by usual content).

The saving grace here is the digital principle of low barriers to entry. CBS already has a large sports infrastructure set up, both linear and online, and the incremental cost of repurposing or creating new content is low. Plus, such a service gives yet another layer of “minor leagues” for developing talent in front of, and behind, the camera or microphone. Thus a CBS Sports OTT service may not set the world on fire, but it is likely to be highly manageable from a financial risk standpoint.

F1 Racing to Stream

F1 logo

On the other hand, we have news this week that Formula One – another of those immensely popular global sports that has little foothold here in the USA – will be jumping in the deep end of the digital pool. Sean Bratches, formerly of ESPN, announced that F1 will be launching a greatly enhanced digital and streaming product in 2018. For non-F1 fans (probably almost all of you), F1 was notorious under its previous leadership for barely acknowledging we are in a digital age. Its online footprint was small, and it severely restricted the ability of any of its teams or drivers to use online or social media to interact with fans.

Even though the F1 fan base in the USA is small, those fans tend to be very avid (and upscale). Here we see a couple of digital principles – serving an enthusiastic niche can be lucrative, and a strong brand can sustain an online service. In the first instance, unleashing the power of online to connect with fans only makes sense – particularly in the USA, where homegrown coverage about F1 is rare.

As for the second point, the value of a media brand, often derided nowadays, still means something. In another venue, while we see a number of strong network brands launch premium OTT or ad-free services – HBO, Showtime, FX, and so on – many smaller cable networks without strong brands will be unable to do so. In F1’s case, their strong brand among their niche audience should provide a solid foundation, especially considering that this will be a global effort across countries with both large and small fan bases.

Moving Past “Me-Too”

While these two new efforts should be successful, the more interesting question is when will someone move beyond the “me too” stage and offer something unique in online sports? It may not be possible with licenses to games and highlights tied up in very expensive rights agreements, but is there a Netflix or Uber of sports out there somewhere?

David Tice is the principal of TiceVision LLC, a media research consultancy.
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