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ESPN, MSG Networks Amongst Sports Media Intensifying Its Influencer Interests

“Sports brands need to meet [Gen Z] where they are, and the best way to do so is through creators who are cultivating highly engaged and niche audiences with authentic, engaging and snackable content,” Gamble said. 

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Omar Raja

For decades, sports brands gravitated towards the elite to propel their global reach. Whether they were award-winning musicians or blockbuster movie-stars, celebrities were often given first choice as promoters. 

In 2022 however, the sports industry — particularly in media — are turning to aspiring content creators to become digital stars. 

On September 15th, ESPN announced the launch of ESPN Creator Network, a program that will provide budding online talent access to the brand’s sports properties. Set to launch in October for roughly four months, ESPN will pick 10 creators to spearhead the nascent initiative, which will be headed by Omar Raja, House of Highlights creator and ESPN’s digital and social commentator. 

The ESPN Creator Network will focus primarily on TikTok, where ESPN has become a fan favorite on TikTok. Since launching on the ByteDance-owned app in March 2019, ESPN’s following has attracted roughly 26.4 million followers and 2.1 billion likes.

“What we’re continuing to see from our sports community on social channels increasingly is this gravitation toward first-person, authentic content creation,” Kaitee Daley, ESPN’s vice president of social media, told Front Office Sports.

ESPN’s growing investments in creator and influencer marketing is following in the footsteps of its parent company, The Walt Disney Company. Last May, the media and entertainment conglomerate wrapped up its inaugural session of The Disney Creators Lab, which taught 20 online content creators and influencers how to become better storytellers. The course included several lessons on how to better promote their content on social media as well as business-minded topics like branding, merchandising, creativity and monetization.

“It’s like a lifestyle, essentially when you become an internet creator. And they just taught me how to do all those things,” Melizza Black, one of the 20 participants in The Disney Creators Lab, told Forbes. 

Other sports media giants — both digital and traditional — are continuing to invest heavily in creator and influencer marketing efforts. 

Days before ESPN’s announcement, MSG Networks revealed the hire of social media personality Jack Settleman as a new digital host. Settleman is known for being the founder of Snapback Sports, which since its inception in 2017 has become the world’s most-followed sports account on Snapchat, attracting more than 2.5 million followers and one billion views. 

With MSG Networks, Settleman will be hosting and executive producing Settle Your Bet, a show which will give viewers an entertaining look into the latest sports betting news across the National Football League. Episodes will air on MSG Networks’ YouTube channel every Thursday during the 2022-2023 NFL season. 

“Living in New York City, Madison Square Garden has always been the mecca of sports, media and entertainment. I’m so excited to partner with MSG Networks and deliver weekly sports betting content that will tap into the next generation of sports fans,” Settleman said in a statement. “This partnership is a major milestone for Snapback Sports and our whole community of fans across the world.”

Outside of football, Settleman will also be launching several other digital and social media shows, as well as branded content. He’ll also appear across a number of MSG Networks’ linear programs and create exclusive content at select New York Knicks games this upcoming season.

“We’re excited to partner with influential content creator Jack Settleman and develop compelling content to further broaden our reach within the digital space,” Talaya Gaines, vice president of content strategy and original programming at MSG Networks, said in a statement. “Jack has an engaging and authentic personality that will help deepen MSG Networks’ connection with a younger, digital-first audience.”

While legacy media entities like ESPN and MSG Networks have accelerated their creator efforts in the 2020s, Bleacher Report’s House of Highlights brand has been ramping up creator collaborations as far back as 2017, according to Drew Muller, vice president of House of Highlights. 

Its earliest work in this space included collaborations with personalities like Sam Grubbs, Kenny Beecham and the Nelk Boys, among others. It also included partnerships with companies like Xbox, Under Armour, Reese’s and Pizza Hut.

More recently, House of Highlights completed its inaugural season of the eponymous Creator League during parent corporation Turner Sports’ Final Four coverage of the 2022 NCAA men’s basketball tournament in New Orleans. The event pitted influencers from TikTok, Instagram and YouTube against one another in a one-on-one basketball competition on House of Highlights’ YouTube channel. 

The Creator League ended its 2022 campaign with 12 of 17 matchups trending in YouTube’s Top 25 Trending list, according to Muller. Both the semifinals and finals matchups saw average viewership of roughly 50,000 concurrent viewers. Overall, the Creator League also logged more than 226 million views and 20 million engagements across House of Highlights’ social media platforms. 

The Creator League’s results exemplified House of Highlights’ success not only generating online attention, but revenue as well. According to Muller, revenue from both branded content and House of Highlights’ creator-led content has more than tripled since last year. The sports media brand also generated approximately 35% of its overall revenue from creator-led content, about 25% higher than last year.  

As House of Highlights prepares for 2023, Muller envisions more opportunities to expand its live creator competitions and also — along with its competitors — continue to legitimize influencer marketing.

“The fact that other sports media outlets, leagues and organizations have followed our lead only strengthens the space and helps with adoption,” Muller said. “It also serves as further proof that creators are not a ‘trend’ or fad, but instead a core content necessity for any brand or organization trying to have relevance with the next generation of fans.” 

Within a week of ESPN and MSG Networks’ creator initiatives, more social media platforms announced campaigns that will reverberate across several industries, including sports.

At its Made on YouTube event on September 20th, YouTube unveiled Creator Music, a new music licensing shop for creators to more easily incorporate commercial music into their videos. Previously, creators were unable to make money off a video if they utilized copyrighted music without a license. With Creator Music, YouTube is hoping to provide a solution that enables creators to use music in videos and receive compensation, and for artists and record labels to still be paid. 

Within hours of the Creator Music news, Snapchat announced that 25 Black creators will be participating in its first-ever, annual accelerator program that will provide mentorship and financial support for rising Black creatives. Each member of the Black Creator Accelerator will receive $10,000 monthly which amounts to $120,000 by the end of the year; a Google Pixel 7 Pro that features a Snapchat camera shortcut; and mentorship and workshop opportunities.

“Like other entertainment companies, sports media will inevitably focus more of their attention on Gen Z, which historically has been a challenging demographic to reach,” said Lindsey Gamble, associate director of influencer innovation at Mavrck. As Gen Z logs more minutes onto TikTok and short-form video rivals like YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels, Gamble believes that this will be a great chance for influencers to connect them with the sports industry. 

“Sports brands need to meet [Gen Z] where they are, and the best way to do so is through creators who are cultivating highly engaged and niche audiences with authentic, engaging and snackable content,” Gamble said. 

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BSM Writers

The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.

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This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.

Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.

This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.

The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.

Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.

NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.

Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.

Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.

Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.

A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.

It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay. 

MLB Network is another option

If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.

Quick bites

  • One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
  • CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
  • The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
  • ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.

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The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.

First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.

Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.

Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.

It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do. 

Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.

Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?

I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?

That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.

After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else. 

There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.

Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.

Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.

Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.

I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not

Demetri Ravanos

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On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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