With the majority of the sports world still on hiatus, broadcast networks have had to become more creative in the content they show in attempts to attract viewers back to their platforms. As this week marks the fourth that will have no live sports broadcasts, ESPN, FOX Sports and more have turned to the only products still available, and it appears to be working as fans are flocking to them for just a small fix of live sports.
On March 22, the inaugural eNASCAR Pro Invitation iRacing Series drew the largest TV audience for an esports broadcast ever with more than 900,000 people watching on FS1, staying in line with an actual racing audience, which saw 993,000 viewers for the Xfinity race at Auto Club Speedway on FS1 in early March. Many of the drivers streamed the race on their own Twitch channels, providing a completely new audience experience for fans, as the drivers gave audio commentary and interacted with fans who were closer to being immersed in the live race experience than ever before. Combine this new engaging format with the lack of competition on linear TV, and experts who believed it was a fluke were proven wrong – the second race in the virtual series drew 1.339M viewers, nearly 20% of whom hadn’t watched a single NASCAR Cup Series race in 2020 according to Autoweek.
After NASCAR on FOX led the charge, ESPN followed with an unprecedented esports broadcast on April 5. Dubbing it “Esports Day,” the worldwide leader aired 12 consecutive hours of gaming featuring:
- Three different Madden Championships with more than $1M in combined prize money
- The second installment of the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix, highlighted by five pro F1 drivers
- The Rocket League World Championship
- NBA 2K Players Tournament, where NBA players stream against each other
- The EXP Apex Legends Pro-Am, featuring athletes, celebrities and pro gamers benefitting the V Foundation
Esports has captured the attention of so many during this time, so it’s no surprise that others are trying to stay in the ring, most notably combat sports. In preparation for Wrestlemania 36 (the SuperBowl of wrestling), the WWE has continued airing its live-to-tape SmackDown from its training facility in Florida and maintained its 2.5M viewership. Even ESPN’s re-airings of past Wrestlemanias performed excellently, with Wrestlemania 30, 32 and 35 being aired in the preceding weekends, averaging 839K, 720K and 421K viewers, respectively. That momentum carried into Wrestlemania 36, which drew 13.8M interactions via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, marking the most social engagements for a single WWE event ever – a 57% increase from the previous year’s event.
This level of fan engagement is a main reason UFC President Dana White refused to waver from saying April 18’s UFC 249 fights will go on as expected. He not only negotiated a deal with Vladimir Putin over the weekend to get UFC Lightweight Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov to come to the United States to face Tony Ferguson, but also continued to explore new venues including a private island and tribal land to keep the sport alive despite major public backlash. Up until April 9 when ESPN and parent company Disney (the rights holders for UFC broadcasts) asked White to cancel the events, he had been set to host the fight in California’s Central Valley at the Tachi Palace Hotel & Casino, which is not subject to the state’s shelter in place order.
So what can we take back to our client partners who have a vested interest in sports? It may seem obvious, but sports sells. Brands that are able to figure out a way to keep consumers engaged in sports in a time where we are all stuck in front of our devices most of the day are going to win out. Our team at Taylor explored the World’s Greatest Games, a competition of Olympic events streamed around the world that a brand has the opportunity to host on their own channels. This opportunity (which will now start in May) is an example of something that could be an ownable opportunity for our client partners, as not only could it draw an engaged audience who had an excitement for the Olympics, but also creates affinity for a brand that would go out of its way to bring sports fans something to cheer for in an otherwise competition void.