MINNEAPOLIS — Just because you’re a celebrity athlete, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be great on Facebook.
It was an opening comment from Dan Reed, the company’s Head of Global Sports Partnerships, before a private screening of the Tom vs. Time docu-series last Friday around Super Bowl LII.
Building community, engaging with a developed audience and possessing an authentic voice were the key highlighted characteristics of athletes that Facebook looks to partner with for Watch, the company’s six-month-old video platform. According to the former NBA chief executive, no athlete has arguably done that better than New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
“As we started going down the list of athletes of who we’d want to work with to develop a show and start to prove out this concept, Tom was obviously the No. 1 person on our list,” Reed said to a small crowd.
Facebook is willing to spend upwards of $1 billion on content through the end of the calendar year, per a Sept. 2017 Wall Street Journal report. Reed told Sports Business Chronicle that Tom vs. Time was funded for an undisclosed amount by Facebook and production firm Dirty Robber.
Part of partnering with Brady and creative filmmaker Gotham Chopra was, more or less, the eye test and sifting through Brady’s Facebook to know his quirky and goofy persona resonated with a wider community. His 4.4 million followers also make him the most followed NFL player on Facebook.
As Reed explained to the private audience and reiterated to Sports Business Chronicle soon thereafter, athletes are the largest distribution channels when compared to teams, leagues and brands … combined. In other words, of the 650-plus million sports fans on Facebook, which is measured by their connections to all four previously mentioned groups, more fans are connected to athlete pages.
Reed said that the athlete data is an “important element” of Facebook’s Watch strategy but not the only criteria pushing forward the personality and athlete-driven sports content, such as LaVar Ball-starring Ball in Family and Bleacher Report’s No Script with Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, among other recently-launched shows.
In the Fall, three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade also brought a docu-series (BackCourt Wade) to Watch that pulled back the curtain on various business ventures, chronicled overseas travels to Paris and Milan for Men’s Fashion Week and examined his mindset heading into the current season.
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Reed didn’t specify a particular number of views needed to determine the success of a Watch show, saying that because it’s the early days of video, “a lot of our audience is still learning that this content is on Facebook and how to find Watch.”
For example, the five episodes of Tom vs. Time thus far have averaged more than 7.5 million views while BackCourt Wade episodes have spanned between 346,000 and 567,000 views over the five-part series.
When asked how Reed and Facebook are balancing the priorities of Watch and also ‘live’ sports — which has included MLS, MLB, World Surf League and UEFA Champions League, among others — he said that “sports fans, I don’t think, distinguish between different content and formats. They watch what is great and appeals to them.”
Added Reed: “We want to make sure to serve this community of fans with the content that they care about.”
He highlighted Ball in the Family, which is currently airing Season 2, and the Big Baller Brand Challenge Games that were live streamed on Facebook and featured the two younger Ball sons, LiAngelo and LaMelo, competing in five friendly contests in Lithuania.
“We jumped on that opportunity,” Reed said of the January matchups. “We know that that fan base is there, and they’re already engaged in the storylines that are happening and have the opportunity to switch from the show and see it play out on the court in real-time, live. Watching these top prospects perform just deepens the engagement with that audience.”
Below are further points discussed with Reed.
1) Reed declined to comment on the reported hire of Eurosport Chief Executive Officer Peter Hutton, who will oversee securing live sports rights on a global scale. Facebook has not officially announced a new hire, though Hutton is expected to join the company following the Winter Olympics.
“We’re really bullish on live sports as a fit for Facebook Watch,” Reed said to Sports Business Chronicle.
He commented that whoever is hired for the role will be responsible for driving the entire live sports strategy and effort in addition to working with the Facebook product team to ensure that they’re building the right environment for sports content to be successful.
Said Reed: “It’s in the very early days, but our goal here is to collaborate with broadcasters and rights holders to really reinvent the way that live sports are produced, distributed and ultimately monetized on a platform like ours and transition that into a digital, mobile and social-centric world that we’re all headed into. In some ways, we’re already there.”
It was reported by Bloomberg in mid-January that Facebook opted against bidding for NFL’s Thursday Night Football package, something the company has done in years prior. Reed couldn’t confirm the news and declined comment to Sports Business Chronicle.
2) Forbes reported two weeks ago that Facebook and the World Surf League inked a two-year exclusive digital live streaming partnership that would see the non-traditional sports property net $30 million over the life of the deal.
“The World Surf League, for a variety of reasons several ago, started investing their time and energy into how to optimize their usage of platforms like Facebook and Instagram to engage their audience,” Reed said.
“Surfing hasn’t always been available through traditional television based on the unpredictable nature of the surfing and weather. They realized very early on that this could be a really compelling way to distribute their content in the future. Like Tom Brady, they got really good reaching audiences on Facebook. … When it came to evaluate partnerships in the live sports area, we already had a great working relationship with them. Based on their data, their content performed really well.”
Though surfing and the WSL in particular may not be top of mind for mainstream sports content, the global community on Facebook “can get pretty significant,” according to Reed. As he further explained, video consumption, engagement metrics and sports fans connected to surfing-related pages, among other factors, all contributed to the partnership making sense for Facebook.
3) In Sept. 2017, Facebook reportedly tried to pay $600 million to stream Indian Premier League cricket matches for five years. Ultimately, broadcast and streaming rights were won by 21st Century Fox Inc’s Star India for $2.55 billion.
When asked about the learnings from the reported failed cricket bid and how those key lessons would impact the live sports strategy moving forward, Reed declined comment. Still, he did say that his sports partnerships group is constantly learning about what sports are popular on the platform, what does the product experience need to look like around Watch and how the live product can be continuously shaped to “maximize the performance and engagement.”
Based on ‘Liked’ team and athlete pages, soccer still remains the most followed sport on Facebook, Reed said.
4) Reed addressed a sports-specific comment made by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg on the company’s recent Q4 2017 earnings call last week. Sandberg specifically called out the UEFA Champions League and college basketball, saying that “we’re going to continue to experiment with developing many different forms of content for Facebook.”
Reed didn’t elaborate specifically on Sandberg’s remarks, but did say that Facebook is “particularly bullish on format evolution and continuing to push the boundaries of what traditional video consumption looks like and marry it with the social environment.”