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Sports broadcasting is ripe for disruption…and creators know it

Cover image for Sports broadcasting is ripe for disruption…and creators know it

Photo: Alessio Patron

Photo of Ben Woods
by Ben Woods

The former Barcelona footballer Gerard Pique made a surprising claim last month (March 2023). To promote his Twitch football channel, the Kings League, the retired centre back unfurled a giant banner in the Catalonian capital that read: “The thought of us filling up Camp Nou really scares them”. Journalists reading between the lines reported Pique’s statement as being a dig directed at mainstream football. While clearly a publicity stunt designed to the bolster the Kings League’s profile, it raised a valid question: is sports broadcasting ripe for disruption, and are creators on track to do it?

Disrupting traditional sport dominance

The Kings League is among those posing a challenge. The competition forged by Pique and Twitch streamer Ibai Llanos is football, but not how conventional fans know it. The league dials up the theatrics by borrowing characteristics from video games to create a spectacle more akin to World Wresting Entertainment (WWE). The seven-a-side matches take place over two 20-minute halves, with each team choosing five golden cards that provide bonuses, such as removing an opposition player or being awarded an instant penalty. It has led to some barbed comments claiming that the Kings League is more of a circus than a sport. Yet, it is mobilising fans in their masses. The Kings League Final, held at the end of last month, attracted 92,522 into Barcelona’s Camp Nous stadium, with the competition’s Twitch channel peaking at more than 2 million viewers across Twitch, YouTube and TikTok.

For traditional football executives, the main concern is the fragmentation of fandom. Football’s biggest fans are always likely to subscribe to a pay-TV service to watch their favourite team. However, casual fans could be drawn to a freely available offer on social media, like the Kings League, especially during the cost-of-living crisis. The concern will be that a whole new generation of football fans could begin to associate with spin-off competitions like the Kings League. Such a trend could erode the global value of football in the long term. Whether you are an advocate or a resistor of the above-mentioned format, truth is that the demand for football-inspired entertainment formats is clearly there. The question is if this opportunity will be captured and capitalized on by organisations that are traditionally associated with the business of football, or will it actually be the disruptors who will end up benefiting.

Catering to digital natives

To understand the severity of the threat, the football industry needs to appreciate entertainment consumption behaviours of digital natives. The Kings League’s cards system plays to younger sports fans’ love of gameplay. Gamification is a savvy move considering more video sports fans played games on their computer every month than the consumer average in Q4. The decision to broadcast the Kings League through Twitch also ensures the competition is catering to Gen Z’s preference for leaning in and engaging with the content they are consuming, such as chatting with a community or sharing emojis.

However, perhaps the biggest issue lies in distribution itself. The Kings League has leaned on the star power of Pique and huge popularity of Ibai Llanos (13 million Twitch followers) to funnel hundreds of thousands of fans directly into the channel, which is then distributed globally on Twitch. The competition is free of the complex distribution rights agreements governing traditional sport. While less lucrative, the Kings League’s distribution through Twitch is streamlined and simple, which will make growing fandom much easier.

So, was Pique’s banner right? It certainly shows that traditional sport is not a sacred cow. After all, the long-guarded financial ecosystem surrounding live sport is clearly vulnerable to disruption, and creators, as well as streaming platforms, are waking up to the opportunity. 

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Sean Longworth
They really should create their own platform and use Twitch as a way to draw in users. They will never really get to own their IP or user base if they continue to use Twitch