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The future of sports TV is all gambling, all fantasy and all highlights

Buzzer CEO Bo Han explains the new sports fans, and how to reach them.

Footballs

Bo Han, the CEO and founder of Buzzer, thinks he can build a new kind of sports product for the new generation of fan.

Photo: Adrian Curiel/Unsplash

The Super Bowl is an anomaly now: an event that causes 100 million people to sit in front of the TV, for hours at a time, and even watch commercials. In so much of the rest of the sports world, the fan experience is shifting. Fans are watching stuff on TikTok and following their favorite players on Instagram, not sitting down to watch three-hour games every week. They’re flipping through their fantasy teams, betting on their phones and watching the whole NFL at once thanks to RedZone.

Bo Han, the CEO and founder of Buzzer, thinks he can build a new kind of sports product for this new kind of fan. Before starting Buzzer, he worked on live sports at Twitter, where he saw first-hand how culturally relevant games can be, but also how much that viewing experience is shifting. Now, he’s trying to build something like Spotify for sports: a personalized feed of all the players, games and moments you might care about. And he’s trying to do it live.

Han joined the Source Code podcast to talk about how people watch sports now, how the Olympics shows the future while the Super Bowl continues to defy it and why gambling and fantasy are poised to change everything all over again.

You can hear our full conversation on the latest episode of the Source Code podcast, or by clicking on the player above. Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

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Let me just start by throwing my feelings at you, and you tell me if I’m nuts. It feels to me like we live in this era where everything is available, all the time, on any screen I want, and there’s this huge push toward convenience. But sports is … not like that. If I want to watch an Arsenal game, I have to check four services and eventually I just give up. Why is sports so backwards here? Is it as bad as it feels to me?

What you're referring to is the fragmentation of sports rights that are not really shaped around a sports fan and their interest. You just mentioned you're an Arsenal fan. Depending on where Arsenal is playing, you need a different subscription or a channel, right? On a Saturday and Sunday, if they play in the EPL, you need NBC or Peacock. When they play in the FA Cup, you need ESPN. If they play in the Champions League, you need Paramount+ and CBS. So we're talking about four or five different channels or subscriptions to watch one team, right?

And we're not even going into the RSNs versus the national sports. So say that you want to watch the 76ers: You need NBC RSN for Philly, you need NBA League Pass, you need TNT, you need ESPN. That's one team, four different subscriptions.

And so you're absolutely right. It gets compounded. And it really doesn't make it easy for any of us to follow what game is playing where. And no wonder the live viewership is shrinking a little bit! Because if we can just simply solve curation and discoverability, just making it easier for sports fans and consumers to jump into live content that is otherwise fleeting, I think all of us can agree that we benefit.

I just assume the answer to why everything is so chaotic is just: money. The more I slice up all of the games so I can show and sell them to different people, the more money I make. Is it that simple?

Well, there's that. But also there is the changing consumer habit that is shifting away from what historically was the predominant medium, which is television. One of the biggest trends that we're seeing that will be problematic to the broader sports industry in general is the generational gap when it comes to consumption of live sports. You have the older generation that are consuming live full-length games that are really optimized for linear television.

But you have this younger generation, specifically Gen Z and younger millennials, that are purely consuming highlights and clips. I like to call it the House of Highlights generation. And we've conditioned this generation to purely consume highlights and clips with funny memes, funny captions, funny comments that are really optimized for Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Snapchat.

We as a broader industry can all agree that live sports rights is the most valuable IP in this industry. And yet, we're not optimizing for a medium that the next generation is consuming. Therefore, you see this shift in consumer behavior to purely consuming highlights and clips that are really optimized for mobile. And so that's the area that we really would focus on as Buzzer, is how do we essentially corner this area where we can be short-form live that's optimized for mobile? Because, again, you don't want to repurpose a full-length live game that makes sense on a television screen to the mobile and expect similar results. We don't interact with our phones that way. And so it's really understanding how consumer behavior is evolving.

But there's an assumption I think a lot of folks make that the goal of something like Buzzer is to eventually roll me up into being a person who pays to watch live games. But I think what you're saying, and what seems to be true, is that this new generation, the House of Highlights people, they don't want to watch games. What they want is better access to those moments: I just want to see Steph Curry's buzzer beater, because I love Steph Curry, but I don't want to watch the 2.5-hour game. Does that balance shift over time, where the top of the ladder is not always watching the full game?

Well, I think that we're talking about different types of sports fans and viewers.

That’s fair. And that’s the challenge, I guess: There’s such a huge divide in how people watch sports now.

Of course. And I do think that the hardcore sports fan will always continue to watch full-length games.

I should ask you about gambling, which seems like the cleanest example of how to make people care about specific things going on in sports.

Absolutely. I've always thought of every notifiable moment on Buzzer as a better moment. And when you're looking at the betting market here in the U.S., it's still in its infancy compared to the U.K. or Australia. And one of the first things that we're working with FanDuel on is just simply ingesting what bets David has placed — so now, for example, if you placed a $20 bet on a 3.5-point spread between the Knicks and the Lakers, I'm going to only alert David when it's a 4-point game. I don't know that he has $20 on the line, but I know that David has placed a bet on the point spread. And so that becomes a moment of interest that we can trigger alerts.

Ultimately, we want to have deeper partnerships. Same thing with who you follow on social platforms, so we can turn the alerts for you. But those are areas that we really do want to focus on.

I do think that another addressable audience that we don't talk enough about are folks that pirate. The number that gets floated around annually is that it’s a $28 billion global problem. So on one hand, how do we get the generation that had been prone to highlights and clips to consume live content? But second is, how do we address an audience that's just prone to stealing content?

And I think that piracy is a reflection of the supply not being what the consumers demand. It’s not the most perfect analogy, but 20 years ago, when iTunes first came out, you could buy albums on iTunes, and probably you and I were like, “We want singles, we want songs.” The broader industry said, “No, you’ve got to buy albums, because we’ve got to sell CDs at Tower Records or Virgin Records.” And so what actually happened? Napster happened. People started stealing songs. And so it wasn't until iTunes went from albums to unbundling it to songs where you can buy it for 99 cents, and Apple created a mobile device called the iPod to conveniently port those songs.

Affordability, accessibility and convenience. Again, I'm oversimplifying here, but those eventually made Napster go away.

I love that example from the consumer side. But if I'm the NBA, or the PGA Tour, or whoever, doesn't that read to me like a total cautionary tale? Because it basically decimated the music business. If I'm one of those leagues, I'm thinking, “Dear God, how do I prevent this from happening?” So are they disincentivized from playing these new kinds of games just as long as there's still all this money rolling in?

The reason why I said it's not a perfect analogy is because I do think that live sports and music are very different. If you're looking at content in general, the only medium that is still retaining its live value is sports.

There is a cautionary tale element to it. But I also think that as long as that magic of live retains its consumer appeal — you know, folks say why start on sports first? I say, because it triggers behavior. When you're seeing a tweet that says, “this Bills-Chiefs game is insane, Patrick Mahomes just scored another touchdown, 13 seconds left.” When you're reading that, and you're not watching the game, you have some sort of emotional response.

And more importantly, I go turn on the game, right? If somebody tweets “‘Squid Game’ is amazing,” I don't drop whatever I'm doing to go watch “Squid Game.” Sports pulls you in much faster than anything else.

Absolutely. So that is why I think convenience and accessibility will grow the overall pie.

The other aspect is sports, unlike music, is inherently social. If you're watching an exciting Warriors-Lakers game, I'm willing to guarantee that you're going to tell someone about it. You're going to tweet about it, you're in your group chats saying, “Are you watching this game?” And so that behavior already exists.

And so for us at Buzzer, how do we equip you with that final line: David talking to his group chat saying, “Are you watching this game? Here's the link to the game, where you can watch it together.” And so one of the areas that we want to focus on is the social viewing experience. How do we make that moment shareable, very quickly, friction-free? Because that moment is fleeting. And so we are also thinking about how we incentivize consumers to tap into word of mouth to share with their friends.

This is a particularly fun week to have this conversation, because there are two things going on simultaneously, one of which seems like the absolute perfect example of what you're talking about, which is the Olympics. And the other one, which seems like the only exception left to all of these rules, is the Super Bowl.

Let's talk about the Olympics first, because if you want to talk about the atomization of sports, and how you take all the things that are going on and get really good at showing me the best stuff, I can't imagine a better version of it than the Winter Olympics. I've spent all week texting people “Hey, turn on this 19-hour-long broadcast right now, because so and so's about to break a world record.” Am I crazy in thinking that the Olympics is the most squarely in the center of what you're talking about right now?

Absolutely. And also, in addition to that is the time zone difference. The last two Olympics have been in Asia, 13 or 14 hours ahead. And so a lot of times they're playing in the middle of the night or during the day. So if you go on Twitter for every single Olympics, there are people who complain about not being able to find what event plays where, because the NBC broader portfolio: You got NBC, you got CNBC, you got NBCSN, you got USA, you got Peacock, and you have to juggle four, five, six different channels to watch a certain event that you want to watch. And so we want to be able to say, “Hey, this moment is happening live, go to NBC.”

We have started to push out editorial notifications that are not even on Buzzer, because we currently live in an ecosystem where networks are not going to push audiences to another network. So the unique proposition of Buzzer is that yes, we're short-form live. Yes, we're optimized for mobile, but also we're neutral. We’re an aggregator. We're also wanting to just curate and understand what you’re interested in. And if we don't have those rights, it's OK. We'll show you where to watch it. Once you tap into that notification, we immediately shoot you to Peacock and it opens into that livestream of the super halfpipe.

And then on the flip side, there's the Super Bowl. Is the Super Bowl the exception to the rule, in that it is a cultural event that people throw parties for and sit in front of and care about the commercials? Does it kind of just defy all of these rules?

It does. I mean, the Super Bowl, regardless of what climate we are in, will always have 100 million viewers, which is crazy. The NFL is the 800-pound gorilla, the dominant force in this industry. But they also have this similar demographic problem of, how do you engage with the next generation, live?

Is there stuff you're seeing in the NFL world that is already pushing towards a different future? Obviously, the NFL was a big stickler for highlights online for a long time and seems to have opened up a bunch. Is it starting to come along to what the future looks like, too?

Yeah. I mean, just allowing players to share highlights — Tom Brady announced his retirement, and one thing that I'm going to really miss is Tom Brady's weekly recaps on Monday. I have this weekly habit of going to Tom Brady's Instagram or Twitter profile to actually look for those videos. And Odell Beckham Jr. does a fantastic job of compiling clips and highlights and putting out a sizzle reel every week.

But you see the NFL embracing NFTs. You see the NFL leaning into sports betting — they have a five-way co-exclusive partnership with all the betting operators out there. So I do think that the NFL is becoming a lot more forward-leaning, like the next set of rights that allow the networks to also show the games on their streaming platforms. So ESPN can show Monday Night Football on ESPN+, and all the CBS games are on Paramount+.

How does all this change the actual games? Are we going to see the product of basketball on the court change because of the way that people are watching basketball now? And the same with football: Will the Super Bowl be some unrecognizable thing in 10 years, because everybody just wants to watch these interesting moments?

I don't think so. I do think that there are interesting elements of the game that could make it certainly interesting: certain elements where there is a speed-up in format, or making the game shorter. But I don't think that's going to get the next generation to consume a lot more live games.

It's just that we need to show up where the fans are, where the users are. And so, do I see a world where you can watch the last two minutes of a game in a Fortnite game? Yeah, sure. Why not? I truly do believe that we should be where the audience is, and that means you meet them in the metaverse while they're playing a game and say, “Hey, I know that you love LeBron and the Lakers — here's the last two minutes because ’Bron is popping off.” You pause your game and you watch the game within Fortnite.

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