With the 2018 World Cup in full swing, it’s worth reflecting on how changes in social media engagement are coinciding with major shifts in sports consumption.

These converging trends are positioning social media at the center of sports entertainment, not just as a way of connecting with fans away from the screen, but as a way to broadcast the sports content itself.

Rights holders and leagues in the sports industry are increasingly looking to online distribution channels to extend their reach, grow their audiences, and drive engagement among younger consumers.

This opportunity has led to a situation in which tech companies like Facebook, Twitter and Amazon are sitting at the table bidding alongside traditional broadcasters who, up until now, have largely dominated their own market spaces.

Sports Consumption on Social is Growing

Social media in particular sits in a unique position to add new value to sports broadcasting, especially in terms of reaching younger fans.

The shift to video and the widespread adoption of live streaming across social platforms have corresponded with events and changes in the sports industry, allowing social media to make a beeline towards sports distribution.

This growing appetite for social sports consumption is plainly shown in our latest research:

4 in 10 sports fans say watching sports is a main reason for using social media.

This is a behavior which has increased year-on-year. Industry events have also reflected this rising appetite.

Recently we’ve seen Facebook acquire distribution rights for Major League Baseball games in the U.S., and YouTube TV gain exclusive rights to broadcast games for Los Angeles’ new Major League Soccer team.

We’ve also seen the FIFA World Cup tie-up between Fox Sports, Twitter and Snapchat, which sees Twitter streaming a live show for the event and Snapchat showcasing stories with match day highlights.

These deals often come with a much lower price-tag than that seen for traditional broadcasters, and for good reason.

On the horizon in the next decade are the expiry dates of major TV agreements in sports, such as the NFL and NBA in the U.S., for example.

By experimenting with online distribution channels, these leagues and rights holders can stress-test the capabilities of these channels to prepare themselves when these crucial upcoming contract negotiations take place.

Social Networks are Key for Commentary

Away from the main distribution channel, we already know that social media is a hotspot for commentary surrounding sports.

In the past month, 27% of sports fans on Facebook have commented on the platform about an event they’re watching.

21% have also done so on Twitter in the past month.

The record-breaking 36 million tweets surrounding the Brazil-Germany semi-final match during the last World Cup demonstrated why social media is so central to sports events in building hype and promoting discussion between fans.

It’s no longer just about using social to promote commentary, however. It’s now about providing interactivity and experiences alongside the main distribution channels.

New functionalities incorporating augmented reality, location-based data and QR codes have spread quickly across social platforms, and are now available for advertisers to buy programmatically.

Although our data does show that this kind of technology remains fairly niche, there have been some effective recent examples of social campaigns surrounding sports events.

Social media’s new value proposition to sports entertainment lies in providing new and creative ways for leagues and sponsoring brands to drive engagement and garner interest among younger consumers.

With these newfound functionalities and a seat at the table alongside traditional broadcasters, the next few years will be an important opportunity for social media companies in demonstrating to sports leagues that they have the right credentials to move sports distribution forward.

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