Despite the pandemic and Covid-related restrictions, summer 2021 featured a lot of flagship worldwide sports events. Continental football competitions like Euro 2020 (great win, Italy!) and the Copa America 2021, the motorsport season getting into gear, Wimbledon’s tennis tournament, and the NBA finals, to cite some.
Of course, 2021 is also the year of the Olympic Games, finally taking place in Tokyo, Japan, after being postponed due to last year’s uncertain pandemic safety conditions. With more than 11,000 athletes and 339 different events, Tokyo 2020 is a massive undertaking for both organizers, broadcasters, the media, rights holders, and streaming partners.
From the fans’ standpoint, the Olympic Games is an occasion to express national pride and rediscover favorite athletes in a range of sports that do not otherwise command similar levels of viewership and attention. For broadcasters, OTT TV services, and sports content providers, Tokyo 2020 is a fantastic opportunity to create engagement, loyalty, and hype, and activate audiences to generate brand awareness and uptake in subscriptions.
While the Olympic Games, since Athens 1896, have changed remarkably little in terms of general format and organizing principles, the way sports fans follow these competitions today is very far from what it used to be even just a decade ago. New technologies, the rise of video on demand, and internet speed and penetration contribute to intensifying this trend.
Tokyo 2020’s opening ceremony streaming spiked a +279% compared to the previous Games. As the stands remained empty due to Covid restrictions, spectators moved from the stadium to their homes. Or they watched it on the go on their smartphones. Fans watched the opening ceremony on desktop (27%) or on their mobile devices (27%). “Bronze” went to connected TV devices with a 23% share of streaming views.
The multiple channels that are now available to fans to consume on-demand content and its worldwide distribution add enormous complexity to managing the overall user experiences (UX). Despite this huge uptake in sports streaming services, sports UX is still falling short. Sports fans deserve a different, better experience compared to traditional broadcast entertainment.
The media lifecycle of most sports events is remarkably fast. There’s the anticipation leading up to the event, the live event, results, replays, and a long tail of highlights, commentaries, and interviews. In most cases, assets production and distribution happen in a matter of hours, if not minutes.
With thousands of athletes, hundreds of competitions and dozens of sports vying for viewers’ attention and such compressed timelines, providing fans a personalized, instantaneous, and individual experience is not easy. Who needs to know that the 400 meters final is about to happen now? Or that the canoe heats highlights are available to replay?
Not all sports fans share the same tastes and preferences. A one-size-fits-all approach is simply not going to fully maximize the return on expensive licensing deals and audience building investments.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of streaming video operators still curate the bulk of their digital content programming and presentation experience manually and so, the level of dynamic and personalized UX that the sports content category demands is simply not possible.
Suboptimal sports UX leads to frustrated fans, which in turn leads to opportunistic behaviors and churn, with users subscribing just at mainstream competitions and then leave. And so media operators fail to optimize the billions worth of rights investments.
Tokyo 2020 is a good testbed and, looking at different operators strategies in covering the Olympics, we want to examine the user experience in light of these four questions:
The very nature of sports content is unlike any other media category, and sports fans are different from other personas. So the sports UI must incorporate new elements and a new structure that reflect those differences and respond to unique entertainment needs.
Superfans spend more time than other users watching sports, can have narrow and sharp likes and dislikes, are versed in the details and in data, and often seek long-tail, niche content relating to favorite teams and athletes. Also, the same kind of fan can behave differently in different contexts: the soccer superfan is different from the F1 superfan.
Casual fans, on the other hand, follow the most hyped or anticipated games and events, have limited data and information needs, are potentially curious about a broader palette of sports content.
In between these extremes lies a range of attitudes and interests, which is extremely sensitive to the local context and zeitgeist.
With this audience variance along with a range of demographic and behavioral criteria, and with so much variety in the type of sports content available, creating UI personalization strategies that can deliver a uniquely tailored experience for each viewer is very hard.
Sports fans want to enjoy events the moment they are happening. As the content life cycle rolls on, content comes online fast and the UI logic must respond in near real-time to display what the users want at the right time. Not prominently displaying an event, game, or highlight that a specific user may be interested in means losing an engagement opportunity, often to a competitor.
With more than 70 Olympic events each day, finding the right sports mix for every user without adequate technology, data and automation is a daunting task. The state of the art of UI execution across Tokyo 2020 streaming services shows clear opportunities for significant improvements.
Navigating through several sports platforms, fans mostly encounter a “flat” UI experience, with limited, if not entirely absent, dynamic personalization. At any given time, most subscribers to a platform are presented with the same UI and content selection, irrespective of their profile, viewing history, and preferences. As analyst and industry expert Colin Dixon put it, referring to a major US streaming service and its Olympics coverage: “Finding and watching all the games of a minority sport like Rugby 7s is an exercise in frustration and disappointment”.
With different time zones and more than 70 events each day, Olympics fans may find it hard to follow all the events they like. Or perhaps they do not even know when a competition they might like has just started.
With a flat UI and no personalization, it becomes nearly impossible to scout live competitions and find something to watch. Discovery is complicated, non-linear, and ultimately frustrating. Moreover, with many events happening concurrently, how can users watch them all without a smart, assistive interface? They often just give up.
Live event schedule presentation strategies are critical to maximizeg viewing time and engagement. Not knowing that an event is about to take place makes it impossible to watch it live. And even if the service provider supports catchup and replay services, users may simply miss it. Bookmarking, lists, personalized live carousels, personalized notifications, and spoiler prevention strategies can help users navigate the complexity of live and operators more effectively manage tape-delay strategies.
Again, Colin Dixon documents his dreadful Olympics experience: “Even catching a replay of an event taking place in the middle of the night is next to impossible. For example, the women’s gymnastics all-around final aired on the 27th of July (Pacific,) but if you missed it, you can’t see the replay until July 31!”.
There are plenty of live events to match with a myriad of passions and tastes. To make the experience compelling, operators should make discovery as easy and personal as possible and help users find and consume what they want, fast. Presenting live carousels specifically designed and customized for each sports fan increases consumption and engagement. Moreover, a notification service that, through SMS, app, or e-mail, warns users about upcoming events they may be interested in, can add plenty of value for sports addicts. Most of these strategies have been obviously absent across geographies and operators.
High-profile sporting events generate hype, awareness, and intent in the leadup and continued interest after the live event is over. What happens before and after the live events can be as important to drive critical UX and business performance KPIs as the event itself.
Sports fans want live, of course, but they also want much more than live: plenty of derivative content that enriches the user experience and brand engagement. Take, for example, documentaries based on athletes, series based on competitions, or movies related to sports. The right content at the right time can meet operators’ challenges to keep users engaged way beyond live competitions.
At the moment, we see very little suggesting that operators have developed the capabilities they need to execute personalization strategies that can fully harness the power of derivative, interconnected sports content. Beyond highlights collections and replays, we found little in the way of post-event, tailor-made proposals based on users’ preferences and tastes, to extend engagement beyond the live event. VOD offerings and catchups are still mostly editorially curated, and it is difficult to map similar content to deliver personalized experiences at scale. Operators cannot pinpoint and suggest the best next action without automation and AI.
Continued customer attention is an asset that can dissipate in instants and that providers must not waste. With the right technology, users can enjoy personalized endcards based on their preferences. These can relate to sports, with highlights, post events analysis, and interviews, or they can be cross-domain, displaying, for example, the next episode of a series that a user is looking at, or documentaries related to each viewer’s favorite athlete, that they just watched during a live event. That can dramatically increase engagement and loyalty while promoting catalog coverage.
Search is still a fundamental pillar of discovery. In sports, search is as complex a challenge as it is an essential path to content.
With the sports content providers’ discovery phase – as previously described – messy and not compelling, will the search functionality meet fans’ expectations? Not really.
With consumers conditioned to omnipresent search experiences in their daily media and digital interactions, sports content search must work flawlessly. A modern video streaming service search not only needs to work well, delivering results coherent with the query, but it also needs to adapt to users’ preferences and prioritize results based on their tastes. Sports data, with results, team, athlete, and event information changing by the minute, and content being produced at a hyper-fast pace, make the search problem even more complex.
Yet, many Olympics video streaming services were sorely lacking even in basic search functionality.
Moreover, the same provider allows you to browse directly for sports, so you can simplify your search phase and have a complete overview of the sport you like the most. Amazing right? Again, nope.
If you like a sport not listed in that carousel, the experience is cumbersome. At the section “more sports” several rails pop up. If you want to check the latest weightlifting Olympics competitions, you need to scroll pretty much all the pages down to see related content. That is not what we call a personalized UX.
With the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, we have plenty of recent examples of a sports streaming UX that falls short of what technology could deliver today. Of course, this is not just a problem for Olympic games TV rights holders, but also for a range of actors in the sports entertainment value chain, part of an industry worth $50 billion in sponsorships alone.
Sports is consumed in a different way compared to other entertainment content, and sports is the traditional realm of live TV. Treating sports like any other content category leads to viewer frustration, opportunistic behaviors, and subscriber churn.
To maximize their investment in sports rights, to use sports to expand their audiences, and to create effective brand engagement, sports content providers and media operators must rethink the digital sports user experience.
The four areas we quickly touched upon are a good starting point.
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