What and where is the future of sports media?

Date published: Friday 7th April 2017 11:10

So, where next? Who knows; perhaps in a few years you’ll be able to watch live coverage of games on the inside of your eyelids and download match reports direct to your brain without even having to bother reading them. Or perhaps I’m talking rubbish and the really smart ideas are being dreamt up by a bunch of 12-year-olds as I type.

While us Luddites wait, let’s go back to that day in May 2013 when Twitter nearly melted over the news that Sir Alex had decided to retire. United’s cross-city rivals Manchester City released their own news which, although it passed most people by, will likely have a far greater impact on the game in the long term. They revealed they were going to install high-density Wi-Fi at the Etihad Stadium, creating one of the most “immersive, video rich experiences in sports”.

What does that actually mean? Well, apart from the fact everyone in the stadium will be able to text, tweet or access the web at the same time without any problems, it will effectively turn every smartphone in the ground into a live video scoreboard.

By opening up the City MatchDay app, fans can receive live commentary and watch a feed of match highlights from several cameras (a live feed is not allowed due to Premier League restrictions) or a ‘tactical camera’ view of the whole pitch from high up in the stadium. They can also take part in ‘be the ref’ quick polls about in-game incidents, vote for their Man of the Match and access live in-game statistics, and the hope is that soon they will be able to order food from their seats.

The club has also launched an app for the Android smartwatches – a world first. The club say that at the moment this is an experiment, but the upshot is that the second-screen experience is moving out of your living room and into the stadium, whether that’s on your phone or on your wrist. In short, even watching a game live will become a mediated experience.

But if fans can get all this straight to their smartphones while they’re at the ground watching a match, where does this leave older forms of media? Cheaper hardware and quicker, easier ways to disseminate content hasn’t just democratised the means of production, it has also changed the nature of consumption.

Previously, primary consumption was buying the newspaper and secondary consumption was borrowing a copy from a friend, picking up a discarded copy on the train or in a pub, or maybe looking at a back issue in a library archive. But this rudimentary social network was limited by the number of people you knew or the distance you were able to travel.

New and social media have made it much easier to cross the boundaries of time and space, meaning your social network is much larger. A blog post, video or a tweet can be liked or retweeted by just one reader and it’s instantly in the possession of all their Twitter/ Facebook/Snapchat/NextBigThing followers.

There is no escaping the fact that fans are no longer just consumers, they’re producers too. “The power of that fan-created, community-sourced content is only going to grow and that’s going to be a significant focus for us now,” said Trickett.

In particular, he sees Twitter becoming a more visual medium. “When Twitter started, the immediacy was still there – that was the founding block – but it was about text. Today Twitter is about the rich media you put into it, by which I mean video specifically but also pictures and emojis.

With sports probably more than anything else people want a visual frame of reference because they want to be placed at the scene; they want to see it with their own eyes. For us video means video that’s natively placed in a tweet, so it plays the moment you open that Tweet. It means Vine, the six-second video loops that highlight a particularly outstanding moment that you just want to see again and again, and of course it also now means Periscope real-time live broadcast. The key thing with Periscope is that beyond being broadcast live, it’s effected in real time by the people watching it. So if I’m watching a live broadcast from ITV or Sky or the BBC, that’s brilliant, but I don’t have a direct interface to change it or affect it in any way. With Periscope the comments that flow through the screen as people are broadcasting take it to a new level because not only can they respond in real time to questions but they can also change the nature of what they’re filming in response.”

Some media are better equipped to deal with this than others. TV and radio are immediate and intimate and are less restricted by time and space. Just as TV has already gone digital, so radio will have made the switch by 2019. It’s significant that the BBC and Sky are just as strong now as they were before the dotcom bubble burst in other people’s faces, but what about the Grand Old Man of the media? What about newspapers?

In 2011 the Daily Mirror’s chief football writer Oliver Holt told an interesting anecdote on Sky’s Sunday Supplement about the incident in which Manchester City substitute Carlos Tevez refused to come on during the club’s Champions League match with Bayern Munich. Holt had been covering the game but said that because of the position of the press box at the Allianz Arena he didn’t see Tevez’s confrontation with manager Roberto Mancini. The first he knew about it was when he started receiving texts and Tweets from people watching the game on TV. OK, the stadium’s layout played a part but the fundamental point remains: here was a journalist who was writing a report for a newspaper which wouldn’t hit the shops until the following morning, finding out about the game’s top line from people watching the match live on TV via a social networking site accessible to all.

But Trickett thinks that far from undermining traditional forms of media, social media can enhance what they do by changing the way that journalists go about their job. “Your point about Oliver Holt is a good one,” Trickett said. “He was blind-sided by that particular incident because he couldn’t see what was going on. But he was able to rely on his huge number of followers on Twitter to help him put the full story together. It’s really just a case of traditional media responding to the digital age in general, not just Twitter, and working out how that fits with what they do.”

Football journalism is thriving; we’re probably reading more about football than ever before – but newspapers as a delivery mechanism for that journalism? Well, that’s a different issue altogether. Really their days have been numbered since 1936 when BBC Radio’s Richard Dimbleby scooped them all from a phone box with his live report on the Crystal Palace fire. Newspapers as we know them were born in the age of railway time.

They might have been at the cutting-edge of media technology when the Sheffield Evening Telegraph took less than 10 minutes to get the result of a match nearly 80 miles away into the paper and onto the streets, but that was in 1889. The fact is that in the age of the multi-screen ‘transmedia sport experience’, of smart stadia and of internet time, newspapers just can’t keep pace. To stave off the inevitability of death, newspaper companies have been forced to evolve.

The internet is increasingly central to their plans and many have made great strides to adopt other new and social media techniques to drive traffic to their websites. Also central to their plans is football – the most popular sport on the planet. Which just goes to show: the more things change the more they stay the same.

This is an extract from From The Back Page To The Front Room, a fully revised and updated book by Roger Domeneghetti. It is utterly brilliant and available here.

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