Is (Legal) Live Streaming the Next Step in Elite Football’s March to Digital Dominance?

In just the last decade, social media has become a constant in the lives of billions. YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram are accessed daily, garnering profits that have allowed some users to make millions off of regular posts.

It is therefore no surprise that the footballing world has begun to take notice. Almost every European top flight club, including the likes of Manchester United, Barcelona, and Real Madrid, have official social media accounts across multiple platforms. United, for instance, boast a giant total of 106 million followers across the key platforms, while the Catalans command a following of 177 million.

This social media presence allows clubs to not only broaden their global fan bases, but also acquire additional revenue streams from advertising deals. Similarly, it’s now the norm for players to be active on social media, whether it’s Juan Mata sharing his eloquent blog posts, or Jesse Lingard with his own brand of digital tomfoolery. And it’s typical to see footballers plugging the brands they’re sponsored by in their Twitter bios; Pogba, for example, is “Proud to represent @adidasfootball across the world!”

Now, another emerging trend is set to accelerate football’s colonisation of the online realm – that trend is live streaming.

Is the stranglehold of the traditional big broadcasters coming to an end?

Premier League matches currently reach billions of households via TV networks such as Sky and BT in the UK, and beIN SPORTS in Africa and the Middle East. The UK networks purchased the television rights for Premier League matches back in 2016 for a total cost of £5.14bn and generate profits by selling valuable ad space and charging sizeable subscription fees to customers.

However, the aforementioned advent of social media has opened up a whole new range of opportunities beyond the TV screen. In fact, videos on various social media platforms, which in some cases reach larger audiences than established television networks, can now be monetised through advertising at equally profitable rates. And with the next Premier League TV rights deal set to be negotiated later this year, live streaming of not only the English top flight, but also Champions League matches, will become a real possibility.

For one, it is important to note that the live streaming of popular sporting events is not an anomaly. Thursday night American football matches will be shown live on Amazon Prime this season, and the Football League and Sky recently agreed a deal that could see midweek matches live streamed as well. Moreover, Facebook demonstrated significant interest in the digital rights of the Indian Premier League, seeing a £445m bid rejected.

There is also precedent for the successful implementation of match coverage via an online live stream. NBCSN, for example, owns the TV rights to Premier League matches in the United States. The network, in addition to their regular television showings, provides a live streaming option via a website and app. Most importantly, NBCSN’s online services offer comparable quality to that of a television, while also providing a greater ease of accessibility.

Ed Woodward foreshadows the next frontier in football’s digital future

And recently, United’s own chief, Ed Woodward, spoke on the potential of live streaming Premier League matches, indicating that he believes Facebook and Amazon will enter the new Premier League TV talks.

“Absolutely I think they will enter the mix and we would welcome the interest,” Woodward said per BBC Sport.

It seems there is strong interest not only from online entities, but the Premier League and UEFA themselves in expanding match coverage to live streams. Woodward notes that the two football organizations expressed “strong interest” in such an endeavour when negotiations took place in 2015.

He said: “Anecdotally there was strong interest in the last cycle.

“We are hearing it round the Premier League table now and from a European perspective as well in terms of the Champions League rights and Europa (League).”

The ability of large online media platforms to compete with the extensive fees of their more established television counterparts is perhaps the primary reason as to why match coverage may soon be spread to live streaming services. Woodward, citing Facebook’s deals with both the IPL and MLS respectively, logically predicts a trend of football’s increasing migration into the digital space.

“We are going to see an increasing engagement from these organisations and it is going to be increasingly important to digitally engage with fans,” he said.

“We think we can be complementary to partners like this.”

The extensive opportunities up for grabs in the digital arena all but guarantee a greater online footprint for the Premier League. Will it become increasingly normal to see United fans huddled around a smartphone on match-days, or is there still a certain attraction to watching the game on a traditional TV screen?