ESPN airballs its NBA live stream (Cybercultural Daily Update 6-2-2019)

Tags: audience development; online marketing; tv; streaming; espn; twitch

It’s the NBA Finals and ESPN is looking for ways to entice teens to watch it. For Game 2, which screened today my time, ESPN did a special broadcast aimed at the 12 to 17 year old market. Called ‘Full Court Press’, it was a cartoon-enhanced live stream of the game available only on the ESPN app.

Unfortunately, it was a terrible experience. Let me explain why…

In a Variety writeup before the game, ESPN’s special live stream was compared to the Amazon-owned live streaming service Twitch – which is hugely popular with young male gamers. But there were several problems with how ESPN delivered its stream.

Here’s how it panned out. The four presenters were Katie Nolan (host of Always Late with Katie Nolan, on ESPN’s streaming service ESPN+), analyst Jay Williams, Snapchat “SportsCenter” host Gary Striewski and a YouTuber “who specializes in basketball-related content” named Mike Korzemba.

These four sat on a couple of sofas and were only seen during the timeouts and in other breaks in the game. They were personable enough, but their in-game commentary style soon grated on me. They were apparently told by ESPN they were “free to let loose” with their commentary. But in reality, what that meant was inane in-game chatter with very little basketball analysis. The commentary was so devoid of calories, that after five minutes I was begging for Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson’s trademark banter (I didn’t think I’d ever utter that sentence!).

Indeed, the whole ESPN live stream experience was a poor imitation of what it set out to copy: Twitch. The main reason ESPN’s version sucked? There was no interactivity.

During the 15 minutes or so I could bear to watch it, there was zero interaction with the audience. In fact, there wasn’t even a group chat that viewers could participate in. As you’ll see from my analysis below, that’s the complete opposite of what happens on Twitch.

Admittedly, there was no shortage of the promised emojis and cartoon graphics:

Viewers will see various emoji-like symbols pop up during game play – like a ‘fire’ graphic if a shooter has a hot hand – or data nuggets about steals, assists, rebounds and more. ESPN executives see the whole thing as an experiment in the ongoing quest by TV networks to give viewers between 12 and 17 a feed of game action that best suits them.

I hate to tell ESPN execs, but it’s going to take more than pointless chatter from four sofa-bound hosts and a bunch of cartoon flame graphics to appeal to teenage basketball fans.

My further analysis of ESPN’s ‘Full Court Press’ follows the Tracking and Data Points sections…

Tracking 👀

  • Digiday: ‘We’ve just gotten smarter’: Why ESPN is rolling out more Snapchat shows; hmmm, I’ll believe it when I see it based on the NBA Twitch experience! 📱

  • Broadcasting & Cable: Inside the NBA Conference Finals: An Advertising and Viewership Deep Dive; a bunch of interesting facts for digital-minded hoopheads. 🏀

  • MacRumors: Apple Wipes iTunes Pages on Facebook and Instagram, Begins Moving Away From iTunes Links; Apple’s ancient iTunes software may finally be on its way out…good riddance! 🎵

  • What’s New in Publishing: How Glamour made the transition from print magazine to digital first; Instagram is its “best and most loyal channel, where we feature episodic stories with a 95 per cent completion rate and a three per cent swipe up rate.” 👢

  • PublishersWeekly: Keeping Up With Tech Should Be a Publishing Priority; what works for publishers when marketing books. 📚

Data Points 📊

  • Hypebot: 8 Surprising Statistics Shaping The Music Industry; including… 2 weeks is the average time that it takes Spotify to “quickly surface new, popular songs”, as compared with three (3) entire months for the usual FM radio stations. 🎸

  • WNIP: “300% increase in new digital subscribers”: WIRED’s Nicholas Thompson on lessons from a year behind a paywall; the tech mag had 108,000 new subscriptions in the first year of its paywall. 💲

  • Multichannel News: Smart TV Penetration in U.S. Now up to 32%; but only 14% of U.S. adults are streaming shows on their smart TVs daily. 📺

More of today’s analysis: ESPN’s digital quest for teen viewers

I was pretty harsh in my opening about ESPN’s Twitch-like live stream of game 2 of the NBA Finals. So let me explain what ESPN was going for, and why it fell so flat.

Firstly, the reason ESPN did a special broadcast on its app for teen viewers is because digital native youngsters are used to watching live events in a different way from us oldies. The following quote in the Variety article from Tim Hanlon, CEO of media and advertising consultancy Vertere Group, had the right intentions:

This is really the Twitch-ification of television. A whole generation of younger males are looking at data, graphics and interaction with others as their primary focus and the game is almost sort of the background to that activity.

That’s what should happen, “the Twitch-ification of television.” It’s just that ESPN failed to deliver it with this broadcast.

In case you’re not familiar with Twitch, it’s a live streaming service predominantly used by young males to stream video games and esports. It evolved out of, a famous app during the Web 2.0 era that was a pioneer in live-streaming. Twitch is now owned by Amazon, and its scale has grown accordingly.

I interviewed a Twitch creator back in March and learned that a big part of its appeal is the prolific use of emoji and other cartoon-like elements, by both the host streamer and the audience.

A Twitch stream is kind of like a graphically enhanced group chat, so it’s much more interactive than (for example) watching a TV set in your lounge. Or for that matter, watching the game on tv and tweeting about it on your mobile phone (as millennials and people of my generation are apt to do). On Twitch, everything happens on the one screen – the live action and the audience participation – so it feels much more immersive.

It was clear that ESPN wanted to tap into that Twitch magic, although a tiny alarm bell rang in my head when I read this quote in the Variety article:

Ed Placey, an ESPN senior coordinating producer who has been supervising the experiments […] likens the NBA Finals stream to “a fan-friendly comic-book experience,” with fans able to see symbols pop up on screen “when notable events happen – a dunk, a big three-pointer, a block.”

That’s a broadcast mindset right there, because it focuses on what fans will be able to “see.” Placey made no mention of what fans will be able to do.

I had thought they’d have a group chat during the game, at the very least. But that didn’t eventuate (at least during the 15 minutes I sat through it).

Just how popular is Twitch anyway?

Twitch isn’t in the same league as the likes of Snapchat or Twitter, which have tens of millions of users. But Twitch’s audience is seven figures; and more importantly, it’s a very specific user base (80%+ young male).

According to specialist stats service TwitchTracker, in May Twitch had an average of 1,262,560 concurrent viewers, who could select from just under 50,000 channels to watch.

Just over 1.2m viewers is also small compared to ESPN’s tv ratings for the NBA Finals, which these days number between 10-20 million.

But part of the reason ESPN is doing these app experiments is that tv viewership is down this year. According to Variety:

In the overnight ratings, Game 1 drew a 3.9 rating in key 18-49 demographic and 10.77 million total viewers, though due to the nature of live sports those numbers will be subject to adjustment. That rating is a significant dip in comparison to last year’s Game 1, which drew a 5.1 and 13.6 million viewers.

The NBA itself attributes the lower ratings and viewership to there being no LeBron James in the Finals this year, plus Canada’s viewing figures don’t count:

Canadian viewership does not count toward the metered-market ratings formula used in the U.S.

Despite the overall lower ratings, even ESPN’s pre-show game got over five times more viewers than on a typical Twitch day: NBA Countdown before Game 1 attracted 6.8 million viewers.

But it’s not about the scale of the audience for ESPN and its Twitch-like app experiment. For ESPN, it’s about hooking teens on its content. And how teens consume content these days is on mobile-centric services like Twitch and Snapchat, not on television sets.

While the game 2 experiment failed, at least in my eyes, it could still work – if ESPN adds audience interactivity to the live stream and cuts back on the inane commentary. I think they also need to do better with the data nuggets, which were few and far between when I watched the stream.

Provided ESPN eventually gets it right, this experiment may yet provide a gateway for some of us older folks (i.e. not teenagers) to experience a more interactive style of live sports than we’re used to.

But first it has to convince the kids to tune in.

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