Summer of Sports: Stories, Stats, and Fan-Driven Content


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Whatever else may divide European nations, one thing that draws us together is our shared love of sports. But even then, there are national variations. We Brits love our cricket. In the Netherlands, the second and third most popular sports are field hockey and volleyball. Ice hockey and handball are popular in Germany, while basketball, volleyball, and cycling are big hits in Italy.

Soccer, of course, rules the roost in Europe, and, together with the Olympics, international football competitions have consistently blazed a trail of innovation around content delivery. This summer's UEFA Euro 2016 soccer tournament, together with the Rio 2016 Olympics, is set to break all records for live streaming, according to Akamai, which works with multiple broadcasters to deliver live streams for both events. Online streaming traffic is expected to peak at between 15 and 18TB per second, compared to about 1TB per second during the 2012 London Olympics.

In Rio, broadcasters competed to see who could offer the most creative interactive services. But in the 4 years since the London Olympics, much has changed. The live streaming apps Periscope and Meerkat debuted in 2015. Rio will be the first Olympics with a significant segment of the spectators equipped with social media streaming apps who are able to create their own live streams of the action.

It's obviously a concern to the International Olympic Committee, which has prohibited the use of live-streaming apps at the games. It's not clear if this ruling is intended to apply only to accredited personnel, but it's difficult to see how a wholesale ban would work.

In many ways, of course, motivated fans who passionately engage with content are highly desirable, generating buzz and invaluable word-of-mouth. The danger is that, in the hands of an engaged fan, content can spiral out of control. There is a fine line-some would say no line at all-between passionate sharing and piracy, as well as between brand-enhancing homage and brand-damaging fan fiction or comedy mashups.

According to Yiannis Exarchos, CEO of Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), the Rio games will function as "an accelerated laboratory for exploring some of these new technologies that will shape the future of sports broadcasting, such as Ultra-HD and Virtual Reality." While this experimentation will appeal to some fans, others will be just as interested in the more straightforward narrative appeal of point-of-view storytelling, tested by OBS at the 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway. Young athletes were given wearable cameras and handheld camcorders, trained in using them and in creating a script, and encouraged to film and share their personal experience of the Games.

This sort of direct, personal engagement with athletes in the thick of competition is what many sports fans crave.  In recent years, Formula 1 fans watching Grands Prix on TV have listened in as Lewis Hamilton and other star drivers spoke on the radio with their team back in the pit. Emotions often ran high, and feuds, rivalries, and conspiracy theories abounded. This season, restrictions placed on pit-to-car radios have caused an outcry as fans miss out on the behind-the-scenes intimacy they have come to know and love.

Passionate engagement is driven just as much by authentic voices and storytelling as it is by new production techniques. The other key driver is detailed, in-depth, and high-quality expertise and stats. The cricket news website Cricinfo (now ESPN Cricinfo) was launched in 1993 to meet the needs of cricket-loving graduate students based in the U.S. It was run by volunteers until 1999, with fans from all over the world compiling electronic scorecards. The company survived the dot-com boom and bust and rode out much internal turmoil. By 2006, its worth was estimated at $150 million. Today, it is owned by ESPN and boasts 10 million unique users a month.

But whatever your content subject area, powerful storytelling, personal voices, and in-depth engagement with the subject matter will always win the day.