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Volume 23 No. 18
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Facebook Watch positions sports streams as ‘participatory video’

Facebook Watch ran a poll during a Phillies-Giants game this season.
Facebook Watch ran a poll during a Phillies-Giants game this season.
Facebook Watch ran a poll during a Phillies-Giants game this season.

During one of the CrossFit Games’ Facebook Watch live streamed in March, viewers were asked to vote on the type of workout they wanted to do. The request generated 316,395 comments while it was live.

Facebook used a similar programming strategy in May during one of its first Major League Baseball games — a Phillies-Giants matchup — when a poll popped up asking viewers to rate the performance of Phillies manager Gabe Kapler.

Facebook has not taken to live sports as aggressively as sports leagues and conferences would like. But these examples show the social media company’s strategy as it pertains to acquiring live sports rights. Facebook will emphasize its ability to produce what it calls “participatory video.”

In other words, Facebook viewers interact with their video more than traditional television.

“This shows the promise and potential we can bring to live sports,” said Dan Reed, Facebook’s head of global sports partnerships. “We can capture the best parts of watching in an arena.”

Sports leagues have spent most of the past decade hoping that deep-pocketed digital media companies such as Facebook will step up and bid against traditional TV companies for their media rights. League executives view participation of these digital companies — including Amazon, Google and Twitter — as the surest way to keep their rights fees high.

So far, Facebook has not been a huge spender on live sports rights. Facebook has some deals with sports leagues — most notably a deal with MLB for weekday afternoon games. One year after launching Facebook Watch — and days after announcing its international expansion — Reed said the company still wants to have partnerships with broadcasters, rather than competing with them for sports rights.

“We view ourselves as a platform, not a broadcaster,” Reed said. “We are about enabling rights holders, leagues, broadcasters, athletes and clubs to reach an audience and build a community around their audience. We’re very interested in working with broadcasters. We are actively engaging broadcasters all around the world. That’s a priority of ours.”

Facebook’s sports strategy goes beyond live games. Through its Watch platform, Facebook has found success with some of the biggest personalities in sports, like quarterback Tom Brady (“Tom vs Time”), basketball’s Ball family (“Ball in the Family”) and Shaquille O’Neal (“Big Chicken Shaq”).

Reed specifically brought up “A New Breed of Golf,” with golf instructor Michael Breed, who critiques videos that viewers uploaded of their swings. That’s the kind of interaction that Reed believes sets Facebook apart.

It’s not about having viewers scroll through 300,000 comments. Rather, Facebook executives point to statistics that show viewers who comment spend more time watching a specific event.

Reed offered a window in how Facebook will go after sports rights, pointing to the 10 Chicago Cubs games it simulcasts into the Chicago market as an example.

“The comments section was like you’re sitting in the bleachers, following the highs and the lows with the fans,” he said. “People who communicate view 2 1/2 times longer. It shows the power of engagement.”