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When sport meets social audio

The social audio sector has enjoyed unprecedented expansion over the past year. However, what are the implications for sport?


By Rory Squires for SportBusiness July 16, 2021



Social audio has been cutting through the airwaves for sports fans with increasing prominence in recent months.


The rapid hockey stick growth of the sector has left many sports properties, publishers and media platforms scrambling for a clear strategy in arguably the hottest technology start-up space in the first half of 2021.


Clubhouse

Most observers would agree that Clubhouse is the reason why social audio (LiveCast) has become a new media phenomenon and part of the mainstream conversation.


In September 2020, Clubhouse reached 10,000 users and joined the iOS App Store. By the turn of the year, the number of users had reached more than 1.5 million. By the start of February, it had rocketed to about six million – and by then some 32 other platforms had sprouted up worldwide to try to secure a slice of the action.


It is a crowded space currently, including the likes of Chalk, Fireside, Logcast, Discord, Soapbox and Locker Room, which was acquired by Spotify earlier this year. In June, Spotify launched its new live audio app, Greenroom, on iOS and Android. Having been built on Locker Room, Greenroom gives users the opportunity to host conversations about sports, as well as music and culture. Social giants have also invested in this area, with Facebook’s Live Audio Rooms, and Twitter Spaces, which hosts weekly ‘power rankings’ conversations from Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer.


Meanwhile, the NBA and the NFL are among the major leagues to have established a presence on Clubhouse, with the latter having used the platform extensively around the 2021 Draft in late April. For a platform like Clubhouse – which has now surpassed 15 million downloads, even though it is still invitation-only and only became available to Android users in May – such a position of influence in reaching fans is impressive.


However, the broader growth shows that organisations, publishers and rights-holders – including in sport – can leverage social audio or even build their own social audio platforms to engage with their fans directly, as illustrated by the recent launch of the SoundOn by Rogers Media.



Why now?

Many observers have been asking: what has made social audio so popular – and why now? A heightened focus on digital interaction during the pandemic has certainly played a part, helping to accelerate adoption.


Whilst social audio enables users to expand on the written word or pictures that drive social networks, it stops short of the face-to-face exchanges that some find to be intrusive or an uncomfortable, self-conscious experience. Specifically, social audio can provide company without requiring complete attention and can work particularly well in a variety of hands-free scenarios, from gaming to driving to cooking, allowing the listener to get on with everyday life.


In an industry such as sport, where the ‘live’ concept is so important, social audio allows users to listen and air contributions in real time – a type of live podcast that can also serve as a fans’ forum. Moreover, the technology to provide low latency real-time audio at scale is also still relatively new.


Rather than one-directional broadcasts, social audio enables two-way micro-channels to be created, fulfilling a different purpose in a passionate area such as sports fandom.


Why does sport need social audio?


The onus is now on the rights-holders to catch up with the consumer trends and try to win back fans who may have turned to other forms of entertainment during the pandemic.


From a short-term perspective, engaging more closely with followers and drawing them back into the conversation is a priority for rights-holders. With a long-term viewpoint, though, social audio can bring about profound changes in the industry by owning the data that can drive significant monetisation opportunities. Additionally, social media can break down barriers that can exist between fans and their sports clubs or leagues, by bringing them closer to the action, without the need for a ‘middle man’ such as Facebook.


Like many rapidly emerging markets, consolidation will ultimately provide long-term structure and support for growth, but there are numerous fundamental aspects of social audio that should provide solid long-term foundations. For a start, low production costs and high media efficiency, with availability across all hands-free scenarios, should ensure its durability as a platform for real-time engagement. More broadly, the continuing popularity of audio sports consumption illustrates the undiminishing power of the voice.


There are thought to be about two million podcast publishers active worldwide, while radio stations remain popular globally, despite technological innovations that have led to other sectors of the media dwindling. At a very basic level, match commentaries remain an intrinsic part of the game-viewing experience, even though they have evolved.


Real-time audio allows anyone to add commentary to a live match. Whilst commentary production costs for live broadcasts have traditionally been relatively high, bringing fans into the broadcast space allows for different opinions to be aired at a lower cost, engaging a younger audience. Bringing fans from around the world into the mix to provide reactions and comments to the action on the screen in real-time has helped to reduce production costs, whilst enhancing the appeal for younger viewers.


The nature of social audio makes it easy for people to participate in a direct and intimate fashion, with easy-to-use technology and multiple touchpoints enabling efficient feedback. With social audio, real-time conversations enable instantaneous responses and rebuttals to points of view, enhancing the community feel amongst a group of fans.


As a result, many fans, including those who have been unable to attend games live in person since the start of the pandemic, have relished the opportunity to dive into this new digital space, presenting an intriguing prospect to sports rights-holders who are hoping to reach them. Furthermore, there is always an important space for amplifying the voices of those who do not attend games.


“As sport is all about opinions and passion, social audio is a perfect vehicle for sports fans to give their views,” says Brighton Shi, Senior Product Marketing Manager at Agora, which specialises in providing real-time engagement-powered social audio and social video.


“Gen Z and millennials want to be part of the story and not just passive viewers. Therefore, bringing them into the sports conversation should help them to become engaged by sports in the long term. Social audio is giving them something they want that traditional sports media do not currently offer. It can increase fanbases and bring fans closer to the stars.”


Canvassing fans’ opinions


Social audio is also giving sports rights-holders the chance to elevate their coverage by offering a real-time voice to proceedings. Fans’ opinions can be canvassed easily, helping to boost stickiness on the platforms, as well as activate commercial partnerships and increase awareness and attention.


Furthermore, of course, such new media platforms can also increase engagement with younger fans.


The big question though is how the social audio space will develop in the coming months and years, and what impact its evolution will have on the global business of sport.


“Agora is empowering some major broadcasters and sports rights-holders to add social audio that will allow fans to talk about their interested sports topics in a closer, but much larger community worldwide,” Shi adds. “Most importantly, it will be a great way for rights-holders to win back their fans and have fan engagement via their own platforms, rather than leaving the fan engagement to traditional social media.”


In a sector that has grown so quickly, accusations of being a ‘fad’ are inevitable. Furthermore, whilst many of the social audio apps are currently free, it remains to be seen what kind of consumer-facing monetisation opportunities may emerge. Tipping has been an increasingly popular approach for content driven by users across a range of social platforms, while the likes of advertiser-funded and ‘freemium’ models are among the options on the table.


However, in an industry that is underpinned by opinions and passion, it is already clear that social audio is the perfect vehicle for engaged fans to congregate – and now it is time for sport to start listening.


This article originally appeared in SportBusiness HERE

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