How do you cover local sports in an increasingly competitive digital news market? By live streaming local matches, Amedia has strengthened its steep subscription growth and connected with local fans. Much to the company’s surprise, it has became Norway’s largest producer of live sports in the process.
September 13, 2010
It’s just before 6 p.m. at Bislett Stadium in Oslo, a cloud-free and warm summer evening. Kristiansund Football Club, from the northwestern coast of Norway, meets Oslo-based Skeid in a match that might propel the team from the third level to the second in the Norwegian Football League. Kristiansund is second in the league table — and a win will take the team to No. 1. A loss might result in one more year at the same level. Interest in Kristiansund in the match is intense.
High in the stands, a reporter from Tidens Krav, Kristiansund’s local newspaper, puts the finishing touches on what will prove to be the first live-streamed match in Amedia’s history. The setup — a run-of-the-mill laptop connected to an ethernet cable and a standard Web camera pointed toward the pitch — is connected to the free Ustream service. At home in Kristiansund, editors publish the video stream on their Web site and the referee blows the whistle.
Building on long tradition
Covering sports events has always been a crucial part of Norwegian local newspapers — especially the often highly competitive local football matches (or soccer, if you’re American).
Amedia’s newspapers have always tried to serve the freshest data from football matches as possible. As recently as the ’80s and ’90s, it was not uncommon for newspapers to tape paper sheets with updated game scores in the windows of their offices, offering a glimpse into the match’s progression for information-thirsty local fans outside.
Enter the Web in the late ’90s, where live scores and text updates was, liveblog-style, piped into online editions through most of the ’00s — a great tradition that lives on to this very day. But it was obvious from early on that the greatest potential for live sports was in video — at least until you factored the cost of production and income model into the equation.
The first part — cost of production — started showing promise as early as 2010. While Tidens Krav utilised a simple Web cam and the free service Ustream that year, audience interest had propelled the newspaper and a few of its peers to upgrade to “proper” video cameras the year after.
Enthusiastic staff spent weekends rolling out hundreds of metres of ethernet cable, climbing pitch-side scaffolds in sometimes gale-force winds, huddling under flimsy umbrellas or heavy tarps to offer some meager defense against driving rain — all to deliver live streams from local football matches to local newspaper audiences.
It was still very much the operation of enthusiasts, error-prone, and often executed through sheer force of will. But when it worked, it was magic.
Amedia’s pivot to video had started.
Pivot to business
The pivot to a sustainable digital editorial business model hadn’t started yet. And it was readily apparent the pre-roll advertising economy was wholly unable to sustain anything resembling industrial-scale production of live broadcasts. Yet, our newspapers continued to experiment and racked up both viewers and production experience.
One camera, voice, laptop, ethernet cable (and later, wireless SIM-card backpacks), streaming set-up: done. We were getting good at production on a shoestring budget.
Fast forward to 2015. Amedia had one full year of pivoting to digital subscriptions under its belt, was rapidly heading toward subscription growth, and all our statistics indicated streaming live sports had the hallmarks of a sleeper hit — with the potential to become huge. Solid sports coverage was proving to be an important part of the value delivered to local readers by the digital newspaper subscription, as indeed it had in print.
So it was with some confidence (and data to back it up) and a little trepidation that we penned an exclusive deal with Norway’s Football Association, obligating us to stream 10 matches per round from the local, level three for the full 2015 season. We didn’t think about it until season’s end, but to our astonishment, with some 350-odd streamed matches, we had become Norway’s largest producer of live football.
Meanwhile, subscription sales climbed steadily upward as did views on the streams. And in 2017, we produced no less than 1,500 matches. Level two. Level three. And youth matches: from weekend-long football cups far away from home we reached absent parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, friends, and family — a whole different demographic from your regular football fan.
In 2018, we rebranded and redesigned the service under a joint umbrella, Norgessporten (“The Norway Sports”), available under all of our 63 local news sites and one national site, as an integrated part of the newspaper subscription. All matches — even if they are hyper-local — are available to the subscribers of any of our newspapers across the country.
The score when adding up 2018?
A full 3,000 matches! Men’s and women’s football. Youth matches and cups. Roughly half football. The rest consisted of hockey, handball, volleyball, basketball. You name it. What started out as simple and — honestly, quite shaky — experiments has become industrialised.
We’ve seen record viewership numbers increasing throughout the year, more viewers per match, and far higher peak viewership numbers than in 2017. We’ve noted matches where almost half the adult population in local towns across Norway have logged in to watch, and, for a local offering in small Norwegian towns, a host of other matches with simply stellar viewership numbers.
Streaming live sports played the offense in Amedia’s 2018 record high subscription numbers, and, through its contribution, a very healthy digital economy.
That didn’t happen by itself.
Overcoming pain points
As in so many other aspects of the digital transformation, changing culture and building the organisation from the bottom up to sustain such a massive effort has been a tricky part of the puzzle. We’ve trained press photographers who grew up in the darkroom to become digital video producers, and we’ve schooled sports writers to become live commentators, drawing on their massive knowledge of the local sports scene.
It’s taken time and effort, not least from the reporters themselves, but some of them have quite simply turned out stellar regardless of whom you compare them with. Truly champions league performance in the local leagues.
With the massive amount of streams and staff in the field, we’ve also had to establish a small central video desk in Oslo with five employees working shifts to oversee the daily production. They ensure everyone is in place and provide tech support. The video desk also edits the Norgessporten section and publishes highlights after each match.
But there have been other, more prosaic, problems to overcome.
Connectivity is one of these challenges. We have built an efficient and stable workflow with AviWest 4G bonding encoders, extension cords, and a lot of ingenuity. Because no matter how Internet-savvy Norway might be, at most local venues there is little or no stable broadband or proper camera platforms. We’ve even experienced lack of electricity! In one memorable instance, when the club’s vending booth fired up the waffle iron (waffles being a staple at local matches), a power surge caused a blackout in the electric circuit. The camera, which got its power from the same circuit, promptly went black, leaving fans in front of the screen disappointed. Waffle-hungry fans at the arena presumably also felt pretty let down.
Also, the number of games and sports we stream has grown so rapidly we have had to redesign the Norgessporten section twice in the last 12 months to make it easier for viewers to find their favourite games. The latest redesign went live in January.
Finally, rights management has become something we’ve needed to get good at. With our success, we’ve seen a growing number of competitors fighting for the same content. None, however, have Amedia’s strength in distribution to local audiences.
October 27, 2018
Seventy-two football matches are streamed live, the first 26 of which kick off simultaneously at noon. The next wave of matches sees 42 streams running in parallel. The video desk in Oslo manages the technical flow, troubleshoots, talks with reporters at the arenas, and answers questions. The massive number of games in the final weekend of the lower-level football divisions draw to a close with nary a hitch.
Some four years on since penning our first major rights deal, we still think that insane is the only word that covers the scale and level of effort. The technology has improved and the quality of the cameras decidedly so since 2010’s webcam pointed at the pitch. Still, where the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation and TV2 show up with trucks and the National tabloid VG.no shows up with a van, we show up with a backpack.
A typical set-up is still mainly one camera, one photographer, and one commentator who also does the graphics and replays. And very often an umbrella.
And the game in Oslo way back in 2010? Kristiansund lost 2-1 in overtime. Tidens Krav describes the loss as “bitter.” The team did not win promotion to level 2 that season.
However, it did the year after. And in 2016, the team managed to win promotion to the Premier League, where it’s been since. Kristiansund BK went from being a talented and enthusiastic semi-professional team to one of the big players in Norwegian football.
Much like Amedia in live streaming.