Sports Are a Big Win at NewFront Presentations

Hulu, Twitter, Time Inc., NowThis promise live and recorded offerings

The 2017 NewFront season concluded last week in New York City, and sports were a hot topic. NewFronts are online video’s answer to television upfronts: publishers present their upcoming video series to agencies and advertisers with the hope of attracting sponsor commitments.

Mike Hopkins, CEO of Hulu, speaks on stage during the company’s NewFront in New York City earlier this month.

The still-young online-video industry has already learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, and the NewFronts provide a convenient place to see those pivots. Whereas publishers used to create short-form online videos aimed at adults and starring major celebs, that audience is happier streaming long-form content from subscription services. Publishers have learned that two things succeed online: videos aimed at tweens/teens and live sports programming.

Publishers are eager to make deals with major or minor sports leagues, and nowhere was that more evident than at the Hulu newfront. Hulu took the wraps off its long-awaited skinny bundle, which offers more than 50 live channels and the company’s existing on-demand library for $40 per month. But what made sports fans take notice is that Hulu has deals in place with multiple leagues. Dig a little deeper, and it’s clear Hulu isn’t stopping at providing sports coverage but is trying to create a better sports-viewing experience.

“You can follow your favorite major pro and college teams — including the NFL, NCAA Football Division I, NBA, MLB, MLS, and NHL — and we will make sure you see when those games are on live. Plus, we will automatically record them for you when you need to catch up on the action later, which means you no longer need to know what channel the game is on,” explains Richard Irving, VP, product, Hulu. “And we are available on living-room and mobile devices, which means you don’t need to be home to watch the game; you can watch wherever you are. We also have a dedicated area on the Home screen to show you all the events and sports-related content on right now and a dedicated hub to browse all the events on now and upcoming in the future.”

The devil is in the details with these offerings, and no sports fans want to cancel their cable only to find they can’t actually get the games they want. Hulu’s coverage is a work in progress with more deals to come.

“Currently, Hulu has local-affiliate availability in major markets, and we’ll continue to add more affiliates in more local markets,” Irving says. “In addition, we have the major sports RSNs, so you can watch your favorite local sports. And we have major national sports channels like ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN News, Golf Channel, Big 10 Network, and Fox Sports. In the UI, we have an entire experience dedicated to sports. You can browse by channel, games, leagues — for example, currently, we have NHL, MLB, NBA, and soccer—as well as recommended sports content.”

Twitter held its first newfront presentation this year, indicating how important video is to its future growth. Although it will no longer stream Thursday Night Football from the NFL (Amazon nabbed the rights this year), it will stream plenty of live sports programming. Twitter’s deal with the WNBA to live-stream 20 games this season got cheers when it was announced, and the online giant is working with MLBAM to create an exclusive three-hour “whip-around”–style show featuring baseball highlights and trending stories. Twitter live videos run alongside commentary from the platform’s viewers, so it’s TV with its own built-in chat room.

Twitter will create a 24/7 college-sports stream called Stadium, stream live video from 31 stops on the PGA TOUR, and work with The Players’ Tribune on a series where athletes answer fan questions. Shortly after its newfront, Twitter announced that it’s partnering with the NFL to create a 30-minute highlights show that will air five days a week and will stream live pregame coverage from primetime and other key NFL matches this season. Perhaps the ink wasn’t dry on that deal in time for the NewFronts.

Time Inc. is expanding into sports video in a major way with the creation of a Sports Illustrated OTT network. Although details are light, it is expected to be ad-supported and available on a variety of platforms. It is likely to debut in the fall.

News brand NowThis will launch NowThis Sports on Facebook sometime this spring. The destination will create short-form videos on current sports and athletes in the news.

With a lot of editorial and advertising attention going to sports video, this is a good time to be a fan. Watch to see whether publishers’ enthusiasm for sports pays off and viewers continue turning away from pay TV and embracing online options.

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