Sun, Aug 06, 2017 - Page 11 News List

Small sports find a home on Twitter

Bloomberg

When ESPN streamed the professional indoor lacrosse playoffs for pay-television subscribers last year, about 4,000 people tuned in on average. This year, the National Lacrosse League (NLL) averaged nearly 344,000 viewers for each “Game of the Week” streamed on Twitter.

For football and baseball, which have billion US-dollar national television contracts, an online or over-the-top (OTT) viewing option is a smart bet on the future and a way to please the most loyal fans.

For professional lacrosse and other small sports, it is a must, even when the teams are owned by billionaires.

“We’re not on the big linear networks,” NLL commissioner Nick Sakiewicz said in an interview. “We may be someday when those networks may want our content and they want our audience, but for now, OTT is the absolute best way.”

Until recently, small leagues had few options for national exposure.

Unable to attract large audiences like football and basketball, they often received no rights fees or even paid to get their games on the air. Other times, they maybe had just their finals on live TV.

Independent digital production companies like Sportsrocket Inc and NeuLion Inc have enabled smaller sports to economically reach more viewers.

While moves by minor sports to online streaming are not likely to threaten traditional outlets like ESPN, the business models these leagues are establishing might be a window into the future of sports broadcasting.

More consumers are shutting off their cable subscriptions in the Internet era, and even ESPN — one of the most-watched networks in the US — is crafting a streaming-video service that people could buy without having cable.

The nine-team lacrosse league last year created their own service NLL TV, Sakiewicz said.

The ad-supported, subscription OTT channel is offered online and on television via streaming devices such as Roku and Apple TV.

“The smaller leagues, even though they had fans who were just as passionate and demanded great quality, didn’t have the resources,” said Brian Bedol, founder and chief executive of Sportsrocket, which does online broadcasts for the NLL.

He calls his OTT services the “media version of fracking,” letting less-popular sports tap riches from smaller, hard-to-reach audiences.

By working with multiple clients, Sportsrocket keeps costs down and offers leagues like the NLL high-quality streaming at a fraction of what conventional TV would cost, Bedol said.

The NLL now has new revenue sources: ad sales from weekly Twitter games and its own NLL TV, along with more than 25,000 subscribers paying up to US$34.95 a year.

With NLL TV available around the clock, the league has more to offer advertisers, which has increased sales and sponsorships, NLL chief marketing officer Ashley Dabb said.

“More importantly it gives fans a place to go,” Dabb said.

That is especially important for smaller sports, said Scott Loffler, director of operations for the NLL’s Buffalo Bandits.

Unlike other professional leagues, NLL players work full-time as police officers, bankers, teachers and electricians, playing mostly on weekends. The average salary is about US$20,000, Loffler said.

The four-team National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), which began in 2015, in June signed a broadcast deal with Twitter calling for 19 games to be aired in the 2017-2018 season, including the all-star game and the NWHL-Team Russia Summit Series.

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