Is the Mobile Phone the future of sports viewing?

by Paul Dobinson

Publish date:

If you saw a guy who cheered out loud on a bus recently, it could well have been me!

No, I’m not going crazy. I had forgotten I was on public transport, surrounded by commuters who’d not yet reached their optimal caffeine levels. My elevated enthusiasm was because I had seen my team score a last-minute try to secure a victory. I have recently signed up for a year to a rugby streaming website to enable me to watch Heineken Cup Rugby in Australia via a mobile App.

The Growth in Australia’s ‘Digital First’ Sporting Content

Up until last year, the premier tournament in European rugby was available as part of mainstream cable television content. However, as of 12th October, the only legal way to view this content in Australia was via an “over-the-top” digital distribution service.

This wasn’t the first instance in Australia where a ‘digital only’ provider has won exclusive rights. The 2018 Football World Cup in Russia was forecast to be the world’s most watched and most valuable sporting event. Optus, the telecommunications company, planned to provide exclusive live coverage across Australia for most games.

SBS, which held the rights to the show the World Cup, sold part of those rights to Optus so they could broadcast all 64 games via their mobile app. This left the traditional, free-to-air television broadcaster only able to show Australia’s group matches, plus a small handful of other group games and a selection of the knockout fixtures.

Optus’ subscription service was free to some mobile users if you were already buying one of their more expensive mobile and data plans but otherwise billed at $15 per month. Now known as the ‘Floptus’ saga, the streaming service seemed ill-equipped to cope with the high demand and left viewers unable to view games.

SBS had to step into the breach, ensuring again there was terrestrial TV coverage. This left Optus having to refund their subscribers and offer the service at no charge for the duration of the world cup. They also had to deal with a massive dent to their intended brand perception as a multi-media company.

This is an increasing trend, as viewers move away from cable networks to a plethora of digital subscriptions. And the trend is accelerating, with Fortune last year noting that “viewers are ditching cable for streaming faster than anyone expected.” It makes sense that sports would get in on the act.

There is a now an Australian owned multi-sport digital-only company serving up exclusive (at this stage mostly American) content. To meet this appetite for mobile streaming, the cable companies are reinventing themselves as data providers.

Are the public ready to change the way they consume sporting content?

The fact that broadcasters are offering digital solutions for the Heineken Cup and Premiership football, both mainstream sports, is clearly indicative that there is a demand for such services. Either that or as in my case, an acceptance this is my only option.

Digital-only does add some benefits but does ask some interesting questions. I can now catch up on the rugby on my tablet whilst commuting to work, or stream Premiership Football Highlights whilst grinding out a few extra kms on a stationary bike at the gym, again on the Optus App.

Commute viewing is perfect for highlights shows or programming of less than one hour. I can dive into the best action from the weekend over a Monday morning, eyes locked on my screen and noise cancellation headphones blocking off the bustling bedlam of the bus. With the difference in time-zone of both these sports to Australia, it is rare I am getting to watch the events live, anyway.

For those attending live games, it creates the opportunity to watch replays or keep up on what your team’s main rivals are doing in the other fixture of the day. For sports like cricket, it’s a chance to play-back close-ups of a contentious LBW decision or an amazing catch, the highlights that are already served up on the stadium screens, but personal and on demand.

But what about for the main events? I grew up watching the Sunday afternoon fixture live with my family, cheering together, sharing the highs and lows. Sunday ‘Football’ in the US is a family institution. When I invite the boys over to watch the Heineken cup final, we definitely don’t want to all gather around my tablet?

If budget, location or time don’t allow you to get to the stadium, live sport and big games are much more suitable to a 50-inch screen than a 50mm one! There are work arounds, like using a Chromecast to my TV from my phone or Tablet. However, sometimes the picture loads at a lower quality or pixelates. Sometimes it is a bit jumpy. It’s not ideal, especially when I’m playing host!

Also, all sports are probably not as equally adaptable to smaller screen viewing. Rugby and football are often filmed, due to the great skill of the camera man, in close up, and the balls are large enough to spot easily. Sports like Ice Hockey, where I must admit I lose sight of the puck even on a giant screen, are so fast paced that it must be hard to follow. I’ve not yet watched tennis on my phone, but I’d guess there might be the same problem.

What next?

I believe there is a great opportunity for these providers to allow me to download an application for my TV, which will download the first 5 minutes or so of the game before viewing starts, like in Netflix’s application. This would allow on-demand access to the same content as on my mobile device or allow me to start watching a game on the bus and catch the second half on my TV.

Like with digital media, the onset of online display marketing didn’t result in the instant demise of newspapers adverts or television commercials. A brand must choose their marketing to ensure they are where their audience are with the right message. The same is true for media.

Digital viewing on tablets and mobile devices opens new viewing opportunities and potential new audiences, but there is a danger of lost audience and visibility for a sport that chooses to sell its commercial rights purely to this audience and foregoes the mainstream visibility of traditional media.

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