Between 2015 and 2018, Australia’s Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) was in a position where television exposure of the league was limited. The league did not have a national broadcast deal at this point and was reliant on pay television to get their games out to fans.
The difficulty with paid channels is the inevitably lower visibility of games due to the increased barriers to access, and with that the knock-on effect is a reduction in engagement, accessibility and fans’ ability to build a connection to the league. If fans can’t access the league and get to know the players, it then becomes more difficult for them to build a vital connection to the national team, the Opals. This was especially prevalent leading into the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. For an organisation looking to build its commercial proposition and attract sponsors, a limited audience and reach is challenging.
During those years, the WNBL had some very brief experiments with getting games onto YouTube and Facebook but discovered the expense would be prohibitive for scaling this project.
As we now sit in 2020 however, the barriers to accessing vital technologies to deliver quality, live content to fans have reduced and a wealth of new possibilities have opened up.
In 2019, the WNBL undertook a league-wide strategy spearheaded by Basketball Australia’s Head of Women in Basketball, Lauren Jackson, where full accessibility of the league for every fan formed one of the league’s four key pillars:
- Product Quality (players and game day presentation and experience)
- Financial Health of the WNBL and its clubs
- Brand and League Awareness and Engagement
- Accessibility (players, livestreaming and community)
The pillars are all interrelated and with livestreaming being a key driver of accessibility, as well as brand and league awareness, the WNBL has embraced the possibilities that technology provides to drive their strategy.
Prior to the start of the 2019-20 season, the league partnered with Atrium Sports to drive their livestreaming capabilities. Every WNBL game is now viewable via their online portal and Australian sports streaming service, Kayo Sports. As a result, fans can now access live games across multiple screens and distribution platforms.
Jackson gave an insight into the reasoning behind their strategy. “We aimed to lift visibility of the product via owned and earned channels and maximise accessibility to our sport via platforms such as livestreaming,” she said.
“It’s critical to our success that we partner with supportive tech partners that are aligned to our vision. A passion for the WNBL is also important.”
To deliver the best possible broadcast and livestream, the WNBL used Atrium’s automated graphics solution EVO (Enhanced Visual Overlay) over the top of their video, whilst Atrium also assisted with the distribution of the league’s livestream directly to their website.
“While this year Atrium Sports’ involvement has been providing automated graphics (EVO) and stats integration for the WNBL livestream, they have also played a much greater role in that they have assisted the WNBL in determining the most suitable livestreaming strategy,” Jackson said.
Atrium Sports’ CEO Ben Turner said the WNBL’s move into livestreaming has increased accessibility for fans and gives them the flexibility to do many more exciting things with their content in the future.
“By investing the time and effort, a high level of production is now accessible to every sports league, there is no longer a barrier to sports getting their content online. Once you capture content at high quality and make it easily accessible for fans, the commercial lifecycle of a sport can kick into another gear,” he said.
“We’re aiming to lift and standardise the quality of the stream across the WNBL, thereby increasing accessibility and providing a compelling commercial proposition,” Jackson added.
The livestreams initially ran for a two-week trial to start the season before being fully implemented thereafter and the impact has been significant.
“What we have seen is once the technical delivery issues were overcome, we increased viewership at its peak by nearly 500 per cent,” Jackson said.
The delivery issues were due to the WNBL’s website crashing, unable to handle the sudden surge in traffic and interest during the league’s early round games. A small issue that was smoothed out but a lesson nonetheless.
Averaging just under 4,400 concurrent live viewers for each game per round, there has been an upward trend occurring as the season has progressed where it has peaked at over 6,600 live viewers.
“Initially we received critical feedback regarding the livestream quality and technical issues. However, the feedback recently has been positive and the viewership numbers are indicative of this,” Jackson said.
The democratisation of content that livestreaming represents, means leagues such as the WNBL have new ways of owning their engagement with fans and creating new commercial opportunities. Turner says this ultimately provides a pathway towards sustainability.
“Sports leagues do need to invest something upfront but this investment is less than many think. Working in partnership with clubs, leveraging automation and rolling up their sleeves, like the WNBL, enables leagues to build the infrastructure needed to build value and provide options for the future,” he said.
Jackson reflected back on those times between 2015 and 2018 when there wasn’t a national broadcast deal. “The reduced accessibility no doubt impacted fan engagement with the league and livestreaming has been an important step in restoring this,” she said.
Assuming the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo does go ahead as scheduled this year, the anticipation that restored interest and easier access to the WNBL filters through to the Opals as they tackle the highest profile international tournament.
“The WNBL fan engagement naturally feeds into the support of the Opals as the WNBL has been a critical pathway for the Opals for 40 years. The livestreaming and increased accessibility of the WNBL this season was to support the lead to Tokyo,” Jackson said.
The next critical phase for the WNBL is to capitalise on their wealth of content for fans to access and in turn drive successful commercial outcomes.
“We now have access to a wealth of high-quality content to promote the league and we are building our internal capabilities in how to successfully promote this via all our channels,” she said.
“By lifting the visibility of the product via owned and earned channels and maximising accessibility to our sport via platforms such as livestreaming, we improve our ability to grow revenue, which is a key focus area for the WNBL.”