SBJ/October 9-15, 2017/In Depth

Cubs pleased with Facebook livestream test

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Chicago Cubs executives have made no secret of their desire to control their local TV rights when their current deal with NBC Sports Chicago ends in 2020.

It’s still three seasons away, but the Cubs have been testing different platforms to come up with the best way to exploit their rights, and that means wading into the social media landscape.

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This season, the Cubs simulcast four regular-season games on Facebook and came away impressed with the results. Eventually, the team hopes to cut similar deals with other digital media companies.

“These are conversations we’re having today; that’s the next phase of the test,” said Crane Kenney, the club’s president of business operations. “One of the questions we’ve been asking is, What if you sold OTT rights separate from your linear package?”

The Cubs’ experience shows how social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter are using sports to grow their business.

“The opportunity for Facebook is to help broadcasters and rights holders reinvent live sports distribution, production and viewing experiences as they transition toward a digital, mobile and social-centric world,” said Dan Reed, Facebook’s head of global sports partnerships. 

The Cubs own 20 percent of NBC Sports Chicago, sharing an ownership stake with crosstown rival the White Sox, the NBA’s Bulls and NHL’s Blackhawks. During the season, Cubs games get spread around four channels: ABC 7 (WLS-TV), WGN, NBC Sports Chicago and an NBC Sports Chicago overflow channel.

Sensing the growth of digital media companies, Cubs executives have been exploring the value of over-the-top and nonlinear distribution. That led Kenney to gauge Facebook’s interest in carrying some games as a test. Facebook had been meeting with broadcasters and rights holders about carrying more live events and launched an area called Watch, where it has longer-form videos.

The Cubs' Sept. 14 game against the Mets was one of four games streamed live on Facebook.
Photo by: Enter Name Here
“There’s a strategy where widely distributed over-the-air television broadcasters can reach an incremental audience by distributing on a platform like Facebook,” Reed said. “Facebook reaches a different audience. It’s an audience that’s on the go and accustomed to spending more time on their phones.”

The key for Kenney and the Cubs was to make sure that the social media company’s stream would conform to MLB rules. That meant that Facebook would have to use what it calls “geotargeting” to ensure that only the people in the Cubs’ designated Chicago market could see the games.

Facebook worked it out. The Cubs got MLB approval to have Facebook stream the games. MLB has its own deal to have Facebook stream 20 games nationally that would be simulcast with RSNs, MLB.TV and MLB.com.

The Cubs found another willing partner in ABC, which allowed the team to take four of its games to stream via Facebook: two with the White Sox, one with the Mets and one with the Cardinals. The Cubs selected two midweek day games and two weeknight games — a mix that team executives thought would show whether streams were more popular during workdays or at night.

Kenney says he was blown away by the results. The games averaged 222,000 unique viewers for the four games, based on a metric of people watching at least three seconds (see chart).

The club promoted the first three games to Facebook users. It did not promote the fourth one, which saw its number of unique viewers drop significantly, but the people who found the game stayed longer. The average watch time for the nonpromoted game was 5 minutes, 13 seconds. Most surprisingly, Kenney said that ABC’s ratings also showed an increase for those four games.

Kenney, who has been with the team since 1997, has seen the Cubs media rights move through the rise of cable television. He believes the media business is going through another cycle of disruption.

“We’re at one of those inflection points,” he said, pointing to the popularity of social media and digital media companies. “There is enormous value right now for nonlinear distribution of media.”



TURNKEY SPORTS POLL
The following are results of the Turnkey Sports Poll taken in September. The survey covered more than 2,000 senior-level sports industry executives spanning professional and college sports.


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