Coming to a Screen Near You: Ultra-Niche Sports
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you might pay to watch your local high school football games live.
Maybe watching 200-pound men in onesies grappling with each other isn’t your thing. But broadcast wrestling — the sport, that is, not its chair-swinging, pile-driving “professional” cousin — might indeed be a thing for others, even a lot of others, given how much of the planet the Internet wires together these days. Now think about other sports you’ve never considered watching on TV — high school track meets, regional gymnastics competitions, bodybuilding competitions, CrossFit and more. Whatever it is, “there is somebody who breathes that night and day,” says Martin Floreani, a former wrestler. “They are underserved.”
Make that were underserved. Previously unheralded “small” sports are suddenly big business, thanks to a welter of startups and even big broadcasters like ESPN, all of which are looking for the next big sports-TV franchise. No matter that we’re largely talking Internet-streaming TV here; in the age of Netflix, that’s plenty big on its own. The goal for many of these companies — as well as mention sports organizers and the athletes themselves — is to do for, say, women’s softball what ESPN did for college football when it started airing live regular-season games in 1984. Namely, that is, to create sports’ next huge broadcasting empire, one that gives sporting obsessives a bunch of new options to watch while also showering broadcasters and athletic programs with money.
Everyone loves a good underdog story, and niche-sports broadcasting could be the underdog tale of the next decade.
Three years ago, Austin-based FloSports — founded by Floreani and his brother Mark — streamed live video of roughly 20 different live sporting events, mostly wrestling and track races; this year, it expects to cover about 300. And when it’s not bringing you the WOGA Classic (an international gymnastic competition), it’s putting together slickly produced videos and documentaries that set the stage by introducing teams and athletes, setting up competition narratives and even taking you into preparation and workouts, such as the Providence Lady Friars doing laps. FloSports provides news, stats and some videos for free, but to really follow the ins and outs of the 2015 Granite Games (a grueling fitness competition), you’ll need to pony up what a premium cable channel would cost, typically $20 monthly or $150 a year.
FloSports may be the biggest and slickest startup on the scene — $11 million raised from venture capitalists and banks will do that — but it’s far from alone. The Cube, a San Francisco startup, lets teams and spectators upload their own videos from high school sporting events for other members to stream; its coverage, if you can call it that, ranges from football, softball and volleyball to “monster dunks” and “promposals.” (Yes, it’s that high school.) The NetCast Sports Network streams basketball games. And the yet-to-launch Internet Digital Sports Network, founded by two high school students outside Chicago, aims to do likewise. Hey, everyone’s gotta dream.
Why so much attention now? First, digital cameras and editing software are cheaper and easier to use than ever. The explosion of amateur video on YouTube and, similarly, a new generation of digital-video producers (many of them self-trained from shooting amateur video for YouTube and other online outlets) are flooding the market. Live events, meanwhile, are one of the few “bulletproof” opportunities for broadcasting, says Max Negin, a professor at Elon University who’s filmed events at the Olympics, for the simple reason that no one can pirate what hasn’t happened yet.
You might not think there’s much of a business in filming weight lifters doing their warm-ups, and you could be right. On the other hand, you should also think about what’s going on in “e-Sports,” the new name promoters have hung on competitive videogaming. Twitch.tv, the leading e-Sports broadcaster, sold itself to Amazon for nearly a billion dollars last year, and claims 100 million visitors a month. Everyone loves a good underdog story, and niche-sports broadcasting could be the underdog tale of the next decade.
Which is not to say the big guys aren’t interested too. ESPN, for instance, always had smaller sports in its arsenal. But it recently more than tripled its track and field coverage to 37 hours in the past year from roughly 10 in 2014 (in accordance to a change in championship structure from two to four days), and this year for the first time it devoted roughly 38 hours of coverage to the Special Olympics World Games across its channels. Focusing on underrepresented sports is paying off: ESPN’s coverage of the Women’s College World Series softball championship averaged more than 1.8 million viewers a game during the best-of-three finals this past season, and for the first time drew more eyeballs than the equivalent men’s baseball series.
All that attention can’t help but affect the athletes and their supporters as well. Reaching new audiences “gave an extra level of confidence to our athletes to know they were being showcased,” says Special Olympics chief marketing officer Kirsten Suto Seckler. Last year, when the International Olympic Committee considered dropping wrestling from the 2020 Summer Games, protests from wrestling fans helped reverse the decision. USA Wrestling executive director Rich Bender credits FloSports with helping to energize the sport’s constituency, calling the Internet broadcaster “a key partner” in the effort.
To be sure, fans will vote with their wallets and their eyeballs (this is the Internet age). Justin Nielson, an analyst at market research firm SNL Kagan, notes that economies of scale are hard to achieve when your audiences are so small — at FloSports, for instance, most streams attract between a couple of thousand and 30,000 viewers, a far cry from the Super Bowl. Subscriptions are also harder to sell, and he remains skeptical of the “if you build it, they will come” strategy. “There’s got to be a demand for that kind of content,” he says.
But, of course, to each his own when it comes to sports. Football, Martin Floreani wants us to remember, isn’t “an inherently better sport,” he says emphatically — it’s been produced by ESPN and others like it to be dramatic and engaging. And so players are getting in the game to build the next big sport.