Are over-the-top services—or direct-to-consumer, as it’s been called as of late—threatening the cable bundle? No siree, say sports league and programming execs. A more accurate assessment is that business models are a-changing. “While TV is obviously critically important as a consumption device, I think it’s also really important that this content become available across a whole range of devices,” said Chris Schlosser, vp, digital, MLS at SBJ/SBD’s NeuLion Sports Media & Tech Conference in NYC Thurs. Take MLS’ recent long-term rights deal with ESPN, Fox and Univision. Schlosser said it was critical for the MLS to retain the ability to show games on any device, so the league partnered with ESPN on an out-of-market package. “Going forward in 2015, we’re going digital exclusive,” he said. “We’re working very hard with ESPN… to bring those games directly to consumers… so stay tuned for that in the months ahead. You’ll see some pretty cool new technology and some innovative pricing models.”
At WWE, which offers a direct-to-consumer package online to 731K subscribers 8 months in, it’s more about exploring new business models that are continuing to shift, said Michelle Wilson, chief revenue and marketing officer. “We are not advocates of cord cutters. We’re platform agnostic,” she said, adding that while the net puts its primetime programming on USA and Syfy, it’s also exploring the best way to offer its premium content. A segment of consumers are still watching pay-per-view on cable, she said, which puts WWE in “coexisting” space. “Yes, it’s cut into our pay-per-view business… But not at the rate we expected,” she said. So what might these new business models look like? At UFC, “one of the things we’re looking at and exploring inside our organization is the idea of being able to direct deliver content to places where we really can’t be,” said Christy King, UFC and Zuffa, vp, digital, technology R&D. That includes bars in NY that can’t access a signal. There are instances in which a service can be “tailored specifically to a business” at low cost. “It’s inexpensive enough that we can actually deliver to those niche audiences,” she said. To be sure, opportunities beyond linear viewing are plentiful. “There’s a real hunger; there’s a demand for it,” said Perkins Miller, chief digital officer, NFL Media. But with the NFL, reach is imperative. Online technology does not currently support that—but cable does. “We’re able to reach our fan base, from our perspective, in a really simple and easy way… The notion that the cable bundle is not relevant to our ecosystem is not true,” Perkins said.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of offering OTT services to consumers is the degree to which you can personalize consumer experiences, panelists agreed. At all-digital sports platform 120 Sports, “everything that we do is mobile first,” said pres Jason Coyle. “The video and the experiences that we create are fundamentally different from something that would be on television.” For young millennial fans, very often the mobile phone is the key device, said MLS’ Schlosser. And in the digital world, you can create better fan experiences, he said. Wilson added that a bonus to delivering content over-the-top is access to granular data about your viewers. “Delivering a personalized experience is really the next wave,” she said, adding that “now there’s so much information” that the next step is sorting through it all.