Niche sports find­ing homes on­line

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - READE PICKERT

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

For foot­ball and base­ball, which have bil­lion-dol­lar na­tional TV con­tracts, an on­line or over-thetop 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’s a must, even when the teams are owned by bil­lion­aires like the Buf­falo Ban­dits’ Terry Peg­ula or the Colorado Mam­moths’ Stan Kroenke.

“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,” he said, us­ing the acro­nym for over-the-top view­ing.

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 aren’t likely to threaten tra­di­tional out­lets like ESPN, the busi­ness mod­els th­ese leagues are es­tab­lish­ing may 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 most­watched net­works in the U.S. — is craft­ing a stream­ing-video ser­vice that peo­ple could buy with­out hav­ing ca­ble.

“There’s a flex­i­bil­ity now to be able to of­fer up con­tent di­rectly to your au­di­ences and get money in re­turn for it,” said Lee Berke, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of the con­sult­ing

firm LHB Sports, En­ter­tain­ment & Me­dia Inc. “Why not cre­ate your own net­work?”

The nine-team lacrosse league did that last year with NLL TV, ac­cord­ing to Sakiewicz. The ad-sup­ported, sub­scrip­tion OTT chan­nel is of­fered on­line and on TV 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 CEO of New York-based 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, in­clud­ing the Arena Foot­ball League and DeerHunter.TV, Sport­srocket keeps costs down and of­fers leagues like the NLL high­qual­ity streams 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 $34.95 a year. With NLL TV avail­able around the clock, the league has more to of­fer to ad­ver­tis­ers, which has in­creased sales and spon­sor­ships, said Ash­ley Dabb, chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer.

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

That’s es­pe­cially im­por­tant for smaller sports, said Scott Lof­fler, direc­tor of op­er­a­tions for the NLL’s Buf­falo Ban­dits, whose owner Peg­ula also owns the Sabres, the city’s Na­tional Hockey League fran­chise, as well as the Na­tional Foot­ball League’s Bills.

Un­like other pro­fes­sional leagues, NLL play­ers work full­time as po­lice of­fi­cers, bankers, teach­ers and elec­tri­cians, play­ing mostly on week­ends. The av­er­age salary is about $20,000, ac­cord­ing to Lof­fler.

The four-team Na­tional Women’s Hockey League, which be­gan in 2015, signed a deal with Twit­ter in June call­ing for 19 games to be aired in the 2017-18 sea­son, in­clud­ing the all-star game and the NWHL/Team Rus­sia Sum­mit Se­ries.

The league’s goal is to even­tu­ally move the rest of its cov­er­age off YouTube and onto a ded­i­cated OTT ser­vice, ac­cord­ing to com­mis­sioner Dani Ry­lan. The 2017 All-Star Game on YouTube drew 6,300 views, ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics at the web­site.

Weather made go­ing on­line a ne­ces­sity for the World Surf League, which was re­branded from the As­so­ci­a­tion of Surf­ing Pro­fes­sion­als in 2015 and of­fered its first live stream in 2000. Surf­ing de­pends on the right con­di­tions for waves, and tra­di­tional broad­cast­ers can’t change sched­ul­ing on the fly. Although the CBS Sports Net­work car­ries many big events and ABC airs some weekly high­lights, all WSL live con­tent is avail­able free via stream­ing on the league’s web­site or app, said Tim Green­berg, the league’s head of dig­i­tal me­dia.

Work­ing with NeuLion Inc., a Plain­view, N.Y.-based pro­duc­tion com­pany that lists the NFL and NBA as clients, the surf­ing league de­vel­oped an ad­ver­tis­ing-backed model that helps spon­sors reach spe­cific au­di­ences. The league counts bil­lion­aire Dirk Ziff among its own­ers. “If more peo­ple are watch­ing and they’re watch­ing longer, that means you can serve more ads,” Wag­ner said. “And that means you’re gen­er­at­ing more rev­enue.”


Hamil­ton’s Joey Cupido of the Colorado Mam­moth in the Na­tional Lacrosse League. The league’s streamed games are pop­u­lar.

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