How the internet is reshaping sports TV, and what the future holds

Craig Barry turner sportsTurner SportsTurner Sports’ Craig Barry

For the past few weeks, the media world has buzzed about the prospects of sports television, after brutal layoffs at ESPN coincided with record cable subscriber losses in the quarter.

The big question was whether the old business model is tenable in the world of smartphones and social-media.

But when considering the future of sports media, Craig Barry, the head of content for TV juggernaut Turner Sports (the company behind the “NBA on TNT”), takes inspiration from an unlikely source: esports.

In the summer of 2016, Turner made its first big foray into the budding world of esports with ELEAGUE, which broadcasts professional players of popular video games like “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” and “Overwatch.” And it’s been an eye-opening experience for the 25-plus year Turner Sports veteran.

“ELEAGUE is teaching us so much about the digital space,” Barry said in a recent interview with Business Insider.

For Barry, esports has been particularly useful in highlighting the difference between a “fan base” and a “community,” he said. A community is engaged, drives the conversation, and decides whether something is good or bad. A community can push Turner Sports to totally change its approach based on the community’s acceptance, or lack thereof. On the other side, a fan base, historically, has been more passive in terms of what it demands of a broadcaster.

That distinction is relevant for the future.

In the digital age, communities rule, and those who want to dominate the next phase of sports media need to understand that. These communities are all about conversation, particularly what’s happening in the swirl of social media. And old-media giants like Turner Sports would do well to react to it.

TV is not the default

“The same way that tech is evolving, content is evolving,” Barry said. Pregame shows, for instance, used to lean heavily on historical, “evergreen” content. Now the pregame show is starting the conversation around the game, and jumping into the conversation that’s already happening online.

“That’s what specifically social [media] has brought to the sports media table,” Barry said: The ability to have conversations in realtime. “You [as a broadcaster] have to be reflective of those conversations.”

Beyond reflecting the online discourse in its TV broadcasts, Turner Sports has created shows designed specifically for various online platforms, like Twitter or Facebook.

“It’s part of our DNA now,” Barry said. Five years ago, TV was the default, and Turner Sports would search for a digital extension, he explained. Now they think about whether it would play better on Facebook or Twitter from the outset.

An example is Kevin Garnett’s “Area 21.” Segments of “Area 21” appear on TNT’s NBA broadcasts, but it’s really meant for Twitter. The show recently stirred up controversy when Garnett got the old Celtics band back together — pointedly without Ray Allen — and they talked about the strained relationship with Allen (who rejected a Celtics contract extension to go to the Heat).

That moment was meant to spark a discussion on social media.

The money question

But as social media begins to play a bigger role in sports coverage, the main problem is that it’s hard to make money on platforms other than TV. You certainly aren’t getting the type of revenue you get from cable subscribers.

“The code has not been cracked to some degree,” Barry said of monetisation on social media platforms. But at the same time, the level of engagement Turner Sports is getting from these places, and in coveted demos, is compelling. “There has to be a value proposition” eventually, if five million millennials are following you on a certain platform, Barry said. One thing Barry thinks has held back the money is a lack of good audience measurement tools, which he said will improve over time.

But here’s something that’s certain: If you aren’t able to build a brand that rises above commodity items — the way highlights and scores have become a commodity — you won’t survive.

“I will tell you, ‘engagement’ is most important metric in our industry,” Barry said (whether people are watching it, liking it, and sharing it on social media). The fact is that people, even the cord-cutters and cord-nevers, aren’t going to stop watching sports, Barry said. But you need to meet them where they are, and give them the type of content they want.

So what do they want?

“Access, access, access,” Barry said, when describing what fans are looking for moving forward.

One reason Barry thinks the NBA has continued to rise in the pop culture imagination is how close people feel to the players. In the game, locker room, and on the social media accounts of NBA stars, the league has made an effort to grow that intimate relationship with its fans. (It’s good to note that the NBA is one of Turner Sports’ biggest contracts.)

But as the NBA playoffs reach their peak, it’s certainly true that its biggest stars, like Steph Curry and LeBron James, have actively showed the world their personality. Curry’s wife and daughter have even become stars in their own right.

This has served the league well, according to Barry. Fans want to be as close to the game, and the players, as possible.

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