Facebook's exclusive live stream of 47 college basketball games this season will include social elements, such as interaction with fans’ comments and more.
On Thursday morning, Stadium—the multiplatform sports network that has worked with Facebook and Twitter to stream live sporting events—announced a 47-game lineup of college basketball games it would be broadcasting exclusively on Facebook this season. The slate began with Belmont’s 69-63 win over Middle Tennessee on Thursday night and runs through the Conference USA quarterfinals in March, featuring programs including Minnesota, VCU, Wake Forest and Pittsburgh, among others. The deal comes after Stadium partnered with Facebook to air a 15-game package of college football games this fall and, not unlike the NFL’s experiments with Yahoo and Amazon, offers a glimpse at what might soon become a more standard way to consume college sports.
SI spoke with Adam Anshell, Stadium’s senior vice president of properties, about what fans can expect from the broadcasts, how they differ from traditional ones, and where things may go from here.
SI: From the football experience, are there things you’ve learned or tinkered with?
AA: We’ve been tinkering throughout the football season and we’ll continue to do so. A lot of the stuff we’ve learned with football we’ll be able to put into basketball, and some things change just because it’s a different sport, a different venue, a different length of broadcast, things like that. We’ve found we’re able to listen to what the audience is saying and react to it both within the broadcast and within the comments. Probably the coolest experience we’ve had with any of our broadcasts was one of our Wyoming games. There was a hashtag started in the comments that we didn’t know what they were talking about, about interviewing a cheerleader [named] Sydney.
We’ve beefed up personnel in the truck to monitor social and work on social stuff. So everyone’s watching this and trying to figure out what people are talking about. As it went on we had our sideline reporter go find the cheerleader named Sidney and told her people were asking us to interview her for some reason. We assumed it was her mom. We came to find out through the continued conversation about this that it was her dad that was in the service in Germany. Because Facebook’s global, he’s able to watch her cheerlead for a game. So then we went back and talked to her and she got emotional about it. It was just such a cool, unique experience that you don’t get on other platforms.
So it’s listening to that conversation, it’s taking part in it, it’s asking questions both from the talent in the broadcasts and monitoring the social feed, and one of the things we’ve tried to do more of is encourage people to post both in-stadium and watch on Instagram and be able to utilize things from that platform in the broadcast too. So if we have someone whose grandparents were watching from home and they posted a video of them watching their grandson play, we can bring that into the broadcast. It’s trying to make this a conversation with our audience as opposed to just throwing on a game and talking at them.
SI: That level of interactivity is an interesting twist. How have the on-air talent reacted to that new aspect of the broadcast?
AA: You know, they like it. As we continue to do these games on the air and do things socially, we want to have the right talent for these broadcasts, to kind of get it and understand it and appreciate the interaction with the audience. I think they’ve really bought in. They’ve really had fun with it. When they make a mistake, the audience and the people watching are quick to let them know. Now we can have them immediately call themselves out and respond to it. [Last week,] a sideline reporter said the wrong first name for a player on the team. And as they are accustomed to do, the audience was sure to let her know, and she kind of raised her hand—my bad! I got it wrong, here’s the right name, thanks for letting me know. And people were even appreciative, like, thanks for calling yourself out.
I think it’s energizing for the talent because they get instant feedback on these games. And the thing I’d say that probably surprises me the most with what we’ve done with football is the overall positivity of the audience. Generally my experience with social and the internet in general is it’s not usually the place for compliments and positivity. As you probably know, anytime you go read the comments on anything you post, you’re gonna hear anything you’ve done wrong. This has been crazy positive. It’s been a lot of thank yous, a lot of “this is the future, this is the way I wanna watch games.” I’m shocked at just how positive the reaction has been from fans.
SI: How many people are monitoring these various social media platforms?
AA: During a broadcast, we have a team of three or four people back here in Chicago that are monitoring all the social platform conversations and are in communication with the truck. In the truck itself, in addition to the regular game producer that’s producing the game, there’s also a social media producer working with our sideline reporter and with the other talent and the game producer to incorporate things like that. Sometimes we’ll also have, in the truck, a social monitor, someone who’s really just watching those channels and can pass specific comments, trends, and conversations on to the talent. Compared to a regular, non-Facebook broadcast, there’s close to double-digit additional people working on this.
SI: Where do you see this sort of interactive broadcast going? We’re in the early stages, so how different do you imagine it might be five, 10 years from now?
AA: Considering five years ago we hadn’t even streamed a game yet and now we’ve probably streamed over 15,000 games, I never would have even imagined we’d be doing what we’re doing now. I do think the benefit that we have with over-the-top and mobile, which is a ton of our viewership, is that you can tap on the screen, you can do different things and interact with it. Interacting with your TV in the past didn’t do a whole lot. Having the audience be a part of the broadcast—we could bring fans on visually to ask questions or call a play or things like that. Nothing’s been implemented yet. It’s all just kind of spitballing ideas. There are so many things out there to make the fans a part of and more invested in the production. We don’t really look at them as viewers. We look at them as active participants in the broadcast. I think that will just continue as technology advances.
SI: One of the things that seems to be happening across media and that social media interaction lends itself to is a more informal tone. Do you approach things in that way, with things a little bit looser, so to speak?
AA: No doubt. It starts with our talent. We don’t want them in suits and ties. That sets the tone for the broadcast. We want them in something more comfortable. We want it more casual. We want it conversational. It’s hard for some of these guys who are traditional play-by-play and color guys who have been doing games for years and are really good at doing it in the way that we’ve always seen on TV. It’s hard to break out of that mold. But we’ve seen guys that do more than one game continue to get more and more comfortable. These games, it’s not a carnival. We don’t want it to just turn into a joke or anything. It’s still a basketball game at its heart and we need to tell the stories of the student-athletes and member institutions and be able to really promote that. But we want the guys to have fun with it and I think it shows a lot in the broadcast. Some of the guys that we’ve had with our football games, the word that gets used the most at the end is “fun.” It really is a fun broadcast. It’s just different.
SI: Looking at the schedule, there are a lot of mid-majors with some power-conference teams mixed in. How much of this is a bellwether to potentially go after bigger programs and bigger leagues down the line?
AA: We have our current partnerships. You can see what conferences those are. We’ve partnered with the Mountain West for four or five years now. Same thing with the West Coast Conference and Conference USA. The Atlantic 10 is a new deal this year. A lot of rights are locked-up long-term. When you’re looking at the Power 5 schools, most of those are tied up for a while. But I think as we see this part of the business and this area continue to expand, I think that’s where we have our sights set, is being able to grow and build this thing. We love our partners that we have now. Call them mid-majors, call them what you want. We’ve seen already that these are passionate, underserved fanbases. We’ve been able to target those. I don’t think we’re turning our backs or anything as we look ahead. But there are plenty of fans to go around. I don’t think sports enthusiasm is going anywhere.
SI: Could there be a day that we see a conference get an exclusive deal to be broadcast on Facebook for a full slate of games?
AA: I don’t know. I would love it. We’re certainly interested. We still think this is just the start. As there are more opportunities, I honestly think that conferences are in a really good situation right now. Some people look at it as the sports rights bubble bursting and ESPN is getting killed on the contracts they bought into as subscribers cut out—I don’t know that that’s the case. I think there are more players and I think this is a great example. A partnership with Facebook gives us a great opportunity to really bring these conferences to new audiences and go places they haven’t been able to go and I think the conferences are craving that. I don’t think they would rather be tucked away on one of the smaller tiers of a cable package when you can reach two billion people like you can on Facebook.
SI: For fans and viewers, what sort of things can we expect down the line? What are the next advances in this field?
AA: I think it’s just continuing to increase the fan involvement and the fan experience within the broadcast. We’ve talked about having guest alumni contributors, whether that’s in chats where fans can watch the game with famous alumni, or having people on the couch on the broadcast. It’s just continuing to enhance the audience involvement in the broadcast. The specifics are still there to be figured out. We have a whole laundry list of ideas and part of that is working technologically with the team at Facebook, who’s been great, to try to implement new things, and just figure out ways to have fans even more engaged.