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On the eve of Super Bowl 53, Axios illuminates the rapidly changing ways we devour live sports, and what that means for how the sports industry does business.

  • The team includes Kendall "Axios Sports" Baker, Sara Fischer, Michael Sykes and Ina Fried, with managing editor Kim Hart as head coach.
  • Sign up here for Axios Sports, Kendall's early-morning newsletter.
1 big thing: The coming sports boom

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Facing shrinking stadium attendance and cord-cutting at home, sports leagues and networks are clamoring to get ahead of new revenue-rich opportunities, Axios Sports Editor Kendall Baker and Axios Media Reporter Sara Fischer report.

  1. Esports, despite still being a baby, is exploding in terms of both revenue and audience.
  2. The legalization of sports betting could cause the sports market to balloon by tens of billions of dollars, driving an entirely new content industry.

During tomorrow's Super Bowl, more than 100 million of us will do something that's becoming rarer in the era of streaming and smartphones: We'll watch a live event — together — with friends and family.

  • In an on-demand world, live sports — especially the Super Bowl — are unique in commanding eyeballs and ad dollars.

But there's already a certain nostalgia to the day.

  • Despite rising rights revenues, almost every sport except professional football (for now) is experiencing viewership declines.
  • Even live attendance has leveled off. Despite league expansion and the new facilities, weaker demand has driven down ticket prices, per PwC's 2018 Sports Market Outlook.
  • And sports leagues are cutting back on game time to meet young sports fans' demands for faster entertainment experiences on TV and online.

The big picture: The global esports economy was estimated to reach nearly $1 billion in 2018, and is expected to nearly double by 2021, thanks in part to the incredible success of games like Overwatch and Fortnite.

  • Traditional teams are striking partnerships with esports teams.
  • Brands are scrambling to sponsor esports competitions and content that's being evangelized by young athletes.
  • Media companies are also launching gambling shows and platforms.
  • And sports betting companies are leveraging data and partnering with leagues to integrate more live and on-demand media content into their betting experiences.

The bottom line: The sports industry is booming. But the ways people experience, consume and engage with the game are changing faster than ever.

Bonus: Reality Check
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Data: PwC Sports Outlook 2018 and Global Entertainment & Media Outlook; Chart: Axios Visuals 

For all the chatter about the promise of esports, sports media rights still drive most of the industry's revenue.

2. Sports rights arms race
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Reproduced from GroupM (includes properties with annual media rights over $500m and individual deals over $200m). Chart: Axios Visuals

After tomorrow's Super Bowl, the NFL will officially be able to exercise its option to exit from its current NFL Sunday Ticket deal with DirecTV, starting with the 2020 season.

  • Why it matters: That would open the floodgates for new and bigger bids, serving as a litmus test for how much Big Tech is willing to spend to meaningfully enter the sports streaming market, Sara Fischer writes.

The big picture: Years ago, the NFL turned down the highest bidder, Google-owned YouTube.

  • Thanks to their massive audiences, TV networks have secured exclusive sports rights for decades. YouTube simply didn't have the same reach.
  • But the league may have a bigger incentive this time to distribute the programming to tech platforms, which have growing audiences and appeal to younger sports fans.
  • And it will be the biggest sign yet of how much Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Twitter are willing to invest in the sports streaming business, says BTIG media analyst and managing partner Rich Greenfield.

Tech companies have won several big-ticket rights to streaming platforms over the past few years.

  • For example, Facebook landed a deal to exclusively stream MLS regular season matches in 2017. Amazon won a two-year NFL deal to stream Thursday Night Football games.

Yes, but: These rights are still considered small ball. Most of the biggest games are up for renegotiation over the next few years.

  • What to watch: Disney needs to divest the 22 regional sports networks it got through its acquisition of most of Fox's assets. A bidding war is expected, but Fox may have to buy them back.
3. Betting on the future of sports
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Reproduced from Deloitte. Chart: Axios Visuals

The legalization of sports betting is putting pressure on casinos, leagues and media to find ways to get a piece of the action, Kendall Baker reports.

  • Casinos: MGM, the largest casino operator in the U.S., has already paid tens of millions of dollars to become the official gaming partner of the NBA, NHL and MLB.
  • Leagues: In the future, leagues will fight to ensure that the benefits of gambling flow back to them more directly — whether that's by taking a percentage of all money wagered or even operating their own in-stadium sports books.
  • Media: Networks like CBS and NBC Sports launched a wide array of betting-centric shows last year. Upstarts like The Action Network, which aspires to be the "ESPN of betting," are churning out content and tools specifically for bettors.
“The reality is, it’s a category of consumer entertainment coming from the darkness into the light, and it’s only going to continue."
— Patrick Keane, CEO of The Action Network

The big picture: In the mid-20th century, television redefined the way we experience sports. Sports betting could be just as transformative, with Deloitte Global predicting that 40% of U.S. adult sports TV watchers will bet on sports at least occasionally in 2019.

  • Yes, but: According to an Axios/SurveyMonkey poll, only 10% of Americans who watch sports believe broadcasts should include more discussion of sports betting than they currently do.

Go deeper: The high-stakes game for sports betting dollars

4. Esports, the new social square
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Data: Newzoo 2018 Global Esports Market Report; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

Video games were once seen as a brain-rotting distraction from good old-fashioned sports. Now, those same games are the bedrock of a burgeoning esports industry that is rapidly maturing, Kendall Baker and Sara Fischer write.

  • Why it matters: The combination of streaming and social networking is seen most visibly in esports, where millions of fans have come together. And where there's a big audience, there's big business.
  • Esports-related revenue reached nearly $1 billion ($345 million in North America) in 2018, per research firm Newzoo. This was driven largely by corporate sponsorships — with ticket sales, merchandise and media rights bringing in additional revenue.

The big picture: Esports are becoming the new social media.

  • Exhibit A: The massive success of Fortnite, the game that has become as much a way to socialize as it is to play.
  • Half of teens say playing Fortnite helps them keep up with friends, according to a study from Common Sense Media. And 44% say they've made a friend online through the game.
  • Fortnite reached 200 million users (nearly 80 million monthly active users) in a little over a year, per Epic Games. By comparison, it took Twitter roughly five years from launch to reach 100 million monthly active users.
5. Trying to be the "Netflix of sports"

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Former ESPN boss John Skipper made waves last year when he joined the relatively unknown sports streaming network DAZN (pronounced "Da Zone"), hoping to build a service akin to the "Netflix of sports."

  • He's wooing leagues that already have a line of digital and TV companies waiting anxiously for existing contracts to expire, Sara Fischer writes.

The big picture: Sports are one of the few types of content that are still watched live. But consumers have shown a propensity to engage with digital sports content on a second screen while watching games live on television.

  • That's why legacy networks such as CBS (Sports HQ), NBC (Sports Gold) and ESPN (ESPN+) are also pushing into the sports streaming space, hoping to create new direct-to-consumer relationships.
  • But their efforts are mostly focused on niche sports so far, not big-ticket events that could cannibalize their lucrative live TV viewers.

The bottom line: If tech or streaming companies can eventually win over rights to stream more and bigger events, they can capitalize on the data they collect from consumers to offer people more choices in how they watch sports.

6. Athletes as brands

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Today's athletes have more power than ever to build their own brands and significantly bolster their own earning potential, Michael Sykes reports.

What's happening: Social media has created new outlets for athletes to communicate directly with fans, take part in conversations around issues that matter to them, and attract endorsement money.

  • LeBron James made more money from endorsements ($52 million) than from playing basketball ($35.6 million) last year. He also has a combined 111.9 million social media followers, 10 million more than his primary employer, the NBA.

It's not just superstars: Even lesser-known athletes are using their platforms to land smaller-scale sponsorship deals, while others are launching their own product lines and businesses.

Be smart: Powerful athletes are changing the way sports are marketed — and even how they're consumed.

  • A new partnership between the NBA, Twitter and Turner Sports will let users vote on which player the camera should follow with an isolated camera feed. It's a prime example of a league, a network and a tech company all coming together to leverage the power of an individual superstar.
7. But there's still a pay gap for women athletes

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

From Serena Williams to the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, there is clearly no shortage of women at the top of their athletic game. And yet, for most sports, the pay gap between elite female athletes and their male counterparts continues to widen, Ina Fried reports.

Why it matters: Economics speak volumes and the dollars just aren’t there for nearly all female athletes, even those playing professionally. 

  • Professional women’s leagues in softball, ice hockey and soccer have struggled to survive.
  • Women's sports and leagues are less likely to be aired on big networks and during prime TV spots, decreasing their exposure.
  • And trends such as esports and legalized gambling seem only poised to exacerbate the matter by focusing primarily on men's sports.

Yes, but: Women have had some success in collectively bargaining for better pay. For example, the U.S. women’s hockey team threatened to skip the world championship if they weren’t better compensated.

  • And while it hasn’t necessarily helped their wallets, the rise of social media allows female athletes, and smaller sport athletes more broadly, to increase their reach and impact.
8. China's esports ambitions

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

China's tech giants have invested aggressively to expand esports in ways that U.S. tech platforms, like Amazon's Twitch and Google's YouTube, have not, Sara Fischer reports.

Why it matters: Those investments are what could drive the Chinese gaming community ahead of some international rivals, despite being smaller in reported revenue ... for now.

The big picture: Alibaba and Tencent use unparalleled reach across e-commerce, logistics, entertainment and tech to change the way users consume, interact with and participate in sports.

  • This allows them to collect an enormous amount of user data to use for cross-platform promotions for games.