Are Tech-Enhanced Sports Livestreams Game-Changers or Niche Gimmicks?

How leagues, networks and streamers are trying to engage younger fans with bells and whistles

Amazon Prime Video - NFL X-Ray
Courtesy of Prime Video

Gen Z won’t sit for a three-hour sporting event on boring old TV. They want an interactive, personalized experience that feels more like a video game, one that pulls them into the action with live stats, chats and alternate audio feeds — and maybe even launches them into VR.

So goes a running narrative in the sports biz, which has spurred leagues, broadcasters and streaming partners to introduce a roster of newfangled options for fans online. The goal: to keep sports relevant for the next generation and develop new ways to monetize media rights on alternate platforms. But analysts say that while it’s smart for the industry to experiment with tech innovations, so far those haven’t really moved the needle in the context of overall sports viewership.

Major League Baseball’s out-of-market MLB.TV subscription streamer has presented alternate broadcasts with a stats-heavy presentation for tentpoles like the Home Run Derby and postseason games. Those have proved to be popular among younger demos, says Chris Marinak, MLB’s chief operations and strategy officer.

“There’s always the person who wants to watch the game start to finish on an 80-inch screen,” he says. “But there are other people who want to see different things, and it’s incumbent on us to make that available. We need to put the control in the hands of the fans.”

Amazon has streamed NFL’s “Thursday Night Football” on Prime Video and Twitch since 2017, and has exclusive rights to the games starting with the 2022-23 season. With the NFL and other sports, Prime Video’s X-Ray feature lets fans switch on live stats, polls and enhanced replays. And for “TNF,” the U.K.’s Premier League soccer and other sports, Amazon has delivered different announcer and audio feeds in the megacast mold (see: Inside the ManningCast: How ESPN and Two Football Brothers Are Transforming Sports TV).

“In the streaming environment, we have the ability to be a little more experimental — to reach different audiences and see what connects,” says Jared Stacy, Prime Video’s head of global live sports production. Amazon won’t release data on how many people actually access the enhanced features or content. But, Stacy claims, “everything we’ve done has found an audience.”

That said, the company has been conservative about introducing additional features (X-Ray, for example, is optional and not the standard view). And while Amazon has done some ecommerce tie-ins with “TNF,” it doesn’t want to overplay that hand. “Our thesis is that there’s nothing more than the main game presentation. We don’t want to bombard people with things they don’t want,” Stacy says.

Similarly, for ESPN, the play’s the thing. The Disney-owned company has enhanced the ESPN mobile app that lets users turn their phones vertically to see live stats and news below a livestream. But in general, “it’s less about creating these alternate experiences that may distract from the event,” says John Lasker, ESPN’s VP of digital media programming.

Lazy loaded image
Courtesy of ESPN

On the ESPN Plus subscription streaming service, the most popular digital enhancements are alternate announcer feeds and, for coverage of tournaments like the PGA Tour and pro tennis, letting viewers pick from a full bouquet of live action happening at the same time. ESPN’s deal with the PGA Tour now gives it access to some 4,300 hours per year of live golf play — way more than it could possibly strip across its TV networks.

“In a linear television world you can only show so much. On digital, there’s infinite capacity,” says Lasker.

For Twitch, sports content including “Thursday Night Football” has grown increasingly popular across its creator base, who “co-stream” live games and matches with their own commentary and interacting with their followers. “It’s really about trying to increase the engagement by providing different contexts around the game,” says Jane Weedon, head of creative programs at Twitch.

In addition to seeing livestreamers organically latch on to sports content, Twitch is looking to work with leagues worldwide to facilitate “authentic” distribution arrangements with creators, Weedon adds. “Sports is incredibly applicable to the core philosophy at Twitch. We want to let those people get together in real-time,” she says.

Some observers believe cutting-edge sports streaming features are mostly promotional hype. To Frost & Sullivan digital media analyst Dan Rayburn, the trend is akin to the TV industry’s failed 3D push a decade ago — something consumers didn’t want. The industry has produced no hard data to demonstrate augmented sports telecasts are growing the pie, he says.

“It’s kind of interesting,” Rayburn says, “but there’s no mass-market appeal for this stuff.”

The NBA — historically the most tech-forward of the big U.S. leagues — has tested out a wide range of digital viewing options. NBA League Pass, the streamer it operates with Turner Sports, offers not just alternate audio but also enhanced camera angles, stats, the ability to interact with on-air talent and co-viewing options. It also has tested out live game streams on Twitch and launched NBABet Stream, a wagering-based telecast on League Pass and NBA TV.

On Twitter, hoops viewers again this season can vote on which player they want the camera to follow in the second half of select NBA on TNT games. That’s not just a straight TV feed: Twitter provides enhancements like commentary from personalities like Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O’Neal and Taylor Rooks. “It’s almost like a watch party with your homies. It’s a level of personalization and relatability that doesn’t exist if you’re watching on the living room couch,” says TJ Adeshola, Twitter’s head of U.S. sports partnerships.

That said, Twitter’s sweet spot “may not be a three-hour livestream, but as a complement to that,” Adeshola acknowledges. In 2021, Twitter users posted more than 3 billion tweets about sports. “We’re leaning into things that Twitter does best,” he says.

Meanwhile, pro-hoops fans also can get a courtside view in virtual reality, through free NBA game streams on Meta’s VR headsets, and interact with others in the “metaverse” environment. And the NBA this year is testing Canon’s Free Viewpoint system, which uses more than 100 specialized data-capture cameras surrounding the court to generate 3D renderings of the live action — creating a video stream that looks like a video game and can be viewed from multiple angles.

How big a lift does the NBA see from the newer initiatives? Sara Zuckert, VP and head of next-gen telecasts for the NBA, says only that the league has seen “viewership gains across the board” and that popularity of alternate formats cuts across all age groups.

“We’ve found there’s no single way fans want to see the game,” says Zuckert. “We are focused on a test-and-learn approach.”

Down the road, one of the killer interactive apps for live sports could be gambling. FuboTV, a sports-focused internet pay-TV provider, has high hopes for betting: Last fall, it launched Fubo Sportsbook, a real-money wagering app synced with livestreaming. To date, it has inked deals to offer sports betting in 10 states (Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri, New Jersey, Indiana, Arizona, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas).

“I think [wagering] will take off in a big way in the next two or three years, especially as sports betting gets legalized in more states,” says Geetha Ranganathan, media analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.

(Pictured above: Amazon’s Prime Video “Thursday Night Football” X-Ray feature)