Interactive Live Streaming in Sports: Fan Engagement Lessons from Major Franchises

August 25, 2023 • Fan Engagement, Sports OTT
Anthony Mesa

When did you last sit down to watch a live sporting event without doing anything else? Chances are, it would have been a long time ago. With so many choices, today’s average sports fans switch between screens, devices, broadcast streams, and social media platforms. Younger audiences aren’t looking for one passive experience, but many engaging ones that come together seamlessly. These digital natives have grown up in an interactive age, and aren’t willing to be satisfied with anything less.

These new demands put pressure on sports franchises and broadcasters to double down on their efforts to get a larger share of their viewers’ attention. To succeed, sports OTT platforms now actively encourage viewers to participate in the action as it unfolds. Interactivity is a given, as is the need to craft a multi-pronged viewer engagement strategy.

But what are the pillars on which your sports franchise can up its live stream fan engagement game?

Transforming Digital Spectators into Active Participants

Recognizing fans’ passion and need for active engagement, sports franchises are innovating with interactive features, turning passive spectators into active participants. This participatory model not only amplifies fan engagement but also fosters a community that resonates with the pulse of the sport.

Here’s how major sports franchises are making it happen:

1) Give your audience a voice

Sports fans are as opinionated as they come. Yet, unlike TV viewers, they need not limit themselves to screaming suggestions at an unhearing TV screen. Digital streaming allows sports fans to air their views on the game in real time, with most sports streamers and franchises incorporating a live chat in their feeds. But franchises are further refining their interactive features to make them more engaging. For example, a motorsports franchise can build a short-term engagement by hosting a Fastest Lap predictor for each race and a longer-term engagement by letting viewers predict the season’s Drivers’ and Constructors’ champions.

Besides engagement, offering interactive features also brings in an additional bonus for sports streaming services – valuable customer data. By measuring conversations and evaluating polling data, sports broadcasters, sponsors, and athletes can get detailed insights about their audience. Understanding these sentiments can help them make better decisions on providing viewers with the content they desire and, in turn, build a loyal fan base.

2) Anticipate your viewers’ needs

Viewer engagement begins at your platform’s start screen, even before a viewer actually clicks on a content piece. Streaming platforms now extensively use AI and ML tools that analyze real-time viewer data to create and recommend content tailored to users’ needs. So, say, a golf fan can not only get a live stream on a tournament but get served up live stats and camera streams of their favorite player. Then, after the live-action, AI and ML can scan the captured game footage and instantly put out a highlight reel, encouraging viewers to stay on and relive what they’ve just watched. Even when fans are offline, sports platforms can push notifications about crucial moments, like touchdowns, goals, or boundaries, so that viewers stay engaged in the game.

Another interesting application of AI in live broadcasts is closed captioning and audio streams. As sports expand to new markets, AI can deliver real-time commentary in a variety of languages, either as closed captions or audio translations, to engage viewers in different geographies. This makes the live stream more accessible to viewers. NBC, for example, used AI to make experiencing the 2022 Tokyo Summer and Beijing Winter Olympics easier for people with disabilities by providing closed captioning for people who are hard of hearing and audio descriptions of the setting and action for those visually impaired. Using these tools, sports franchises build loyalty by understanding and meeting the needs of underserved viewer segments.

3) Encourage fan participation

Competitiveness is inherent to sports fans as much as it is to athletes. Gamification, therefore, is a great way to keep viewers engaged during live events. By creating challenges, awarding points, and offering prizes based on fan interaction during the game, sports franchises turn a regular viewing experience into something more immersive. And, in turn, it converts casual viewers into committed fans.

For example, fans can interact virtually with their favorite stars and get digital autographs. They can compete to predict outcomes or individual player scores. Going even further, Formula E lets fans gift their favorite drivers an extra boost of power during a race by voting for them. Drivers can use this short boost at crucial stages of the race, giving them a potentially winning advantage and their fans, the satisfaction of helping them succeed.

Besides driving fan engagement, gamification also offers sports franchises additional monetization opportunities. Co-sponsorships for prizes, tie-ups with betting sites, and extensions of franchise rights to esports all help franchises increase their reach and profitability.

4) Create and scale communities

Social media platforms are a valuable adjunct to live sports. While the live-action streams on different channels, fans increasingly use social media as a secondary point of interaction. Cricket, for example, generated 96.2 million tweets between January 2021 and 2022. Fans share content, engage with each other, and spar with opponents on social media, all while the live action unfolds. The global reach of social media means that they reach fans even in non-traditional markets. That’s a huge advantage, given, for example, that the NBA has more fans in the U.K., Germany, and China than in the U.S.

Integrating social media feeds into live streams offers sports broadcasters two significant advantages. First, it is now a leading source of interaction data and insights. This allows sports franchises considerable opportunities to create communities that foster brand loyalty among fans. Tweeting live scores, instantly sharing replays, and to-the-moment statistics encourage social media viewers to share them, creating more buzz around the live event. Equally importantly, franchises get a clear picture of social media trends. This, used with the insights from their streaming platforms, allows them to fine-tune their customer engagement strategies with greater accuracy.

5) Make it truly immersive

Finally, sports content owners should be mindful that much of what was considered futuristic until recently is already in use. Immersive technologies like Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) have a small but rapidly growing user base. Significantly, this growth is being driven by, literally, the new kids on the block – Gen Z. Already familiar with virtual spaces like VRChat, and games like Half-Life: Alyx, younger users are eager adopters of immersive technologies.

Sports franchises haven’t lagged in incorporating AR and VR-based functionalities in their live streams. The NBA-Meta partnership, for example, means that a total of 52 games in the 2023 season will be available live (and free) on Horizon Worlds, Meta’s social VR world. Spain’s La Liga now offers multiple viewing angles of live games and allows viewers to pull up overlays of real-time statistics on demand. While costs and technological hurdles remain, AR and VR will drive the next generation of live sports streaming. Sports franchises adopting them will therefore be prepared to take advantage of future developments.

Technology Meets Innovation Meets Creativity: The Future of Fan Engagement in Live Sports Streaming

Engaging with fans when they are drawn to the most exciting content a sports franchise can offer – live action – can turn them into loyal fans who stay engaged on or off-season.

Using a combination of digital streaming’s inherent interactivity, gamification of events, social media integrations, and modern OTT technology platforms, franchises can make fan engagement the bedrock of their success, now and in the future.