When it comes to broadcasting major games, sports leagues are striking out with fans. While regular-season matchups draw in the usual crowd — including a slight increase for the NFL and steady viewership for the NBA — broadcast audiences for “big games” are dipping overall. Ratings for this year’s Super Bowl reached a 10-year low, the 2018 World Series dipped 23% from 2017, and the NBA playoffs are currently seeing a decline.

These big sporting events create opportunities for leagues to reach wider audiences, including viewers that may not necessarily be a traditional sports fan. However, leagues limit their reach by basing their broadcast strategy around traditional cable TV.

While cable viewership continues to dip, there’s a growing pool of “cord cutters” for sports leagues and broadcasters to engage online. Streaming creates new channels for fans to watch live games via mobile phones, tablets or smart televisions. As online viewership becomes the norm for catching games and other live events, the traditional sports industry can learn a lot from the rapid rise of esports.

Esports delivers on interactive streaming

Esports has gone mainstream. YouTube Gaming says viewers watched more than 50 billion hours of esports content last year. For gaming fans, it’s not just about streaming live videos of their favorite gamers. Interactivity is a critical component of esports experiences, allowing viewers to connect with gamers as well as other fans, and even send money or “virtual coins” to their favorite personalities.

What does this mean for traditional sports leagues and broadcasters that want to go digital? The key to success will be in mirroring interactive esports experiences — offering new features that allow the fans themselves to dictate how they watch games.

In the near future, we’ll see sports live streams improve with enhanced features like personalized viewing, interactive ads, and even in-game wagering.

Streaming will let fans control the viewing experience

Watching sports on TV means the broadcaster dictates your experience. Live-streamed sports will put control in the viewers’ hands creating personalized viewing experiences that cable never could deliver.

When watching a major sporting event like the Super Bowl, for example, fans could be able to change camera angles — moving from their team’s sideline during a timeout, to the stands with other fans, and even the concert stage at halftime. Another opportunity for interactivity is layering in features such as chatting or shopping, allowing viewers to connect with other fans from around the world in real time, or purchase gear after their team wins the big game. We’re already starting to see next-generation viewing options take shape.

The NBA recently announced they’re teaming up with Twitter and Turner to allow fans to take part in the action, live streaming games from a single-player camera view. Meanwhile, European-based sports streaming provider DAZN recently debuted a new baseball show, ChangeUp, that cuts into MLB games for short periods of time. Similar to NFL’s Redzone, this livestreamed show appeals to baseball fans that just want the highlights of all the games taking place.

By incorporating these interactive features, traditional sports can mimic the success we’ve seen with esports leagues and events – making watching the game an interactive digital experience.

Advertisements will enhance, not disrupt, the game

Advertising has become an essential part of the rhythm of major sports — think the names of stadiums, sponsored halftime segments, or over-the-air reads during broadcasts. A recent study from Streaming Observer showed that the average NFL fan watched 24 hours of commercials during the 2018-2019 season.

Streaming creates new advertising opportunities that will completely change how sporting events are organized, much like how traditional television transformed sports decades ago. Soon, advertisements will become part of the overall viewing experience, instead of interrupting it.

Digital ads during livestreams open new doors for reaching viewers with engaging content. The first way is through personalized ads. As fans begin watching content online, advertisers can ensure their commercials are reaching their target audiences. Beyond commercial breaks, these targeted ads can also work during the broadcast. For example, when streaming a baseball game, the provider could dynamically stitch relevant ads on certain banners throughout the field.

In addition to personalization, online streaming channels create opportunities for interactive ads, including commercials with augmented reality or virtual reality features. Rather than commercial breaks that disrupt the game, we can expect next-generation ads embedded within the stream.

Personalized and interactive content could make “commercials” an enjoyable part of watching the game, much like how gaming platforms incorporate ads within their streams. For example, marketers could mirror advertisements after Fortnite’s recent in-game DJ Marshmello concert, or immersive ad experiences on Twitch. As brands move their ad dollars from traditional cable to online platforms, they’ll soon be able to cash-in on the interactivity live sports streaming allows.

In-stream sports betting will be at the forefront

The gambling landscape has quickly evolved. As more states legalize sports betting, fans will be presented with new opportunities to place bets on their favorite team — no trip to the casino necessary.

The biggest segment of sports gambling we’ll see is in-event wagering, where fans can place bets on real-time situations. For example, viewers can put money on who will score the next touchdown or which player will get fouled. Down the line, these wagers will be included during live streams of games, making the experience that much more interactive for fans.

Although many states are still in the process of passing gambling laws, the leagues themselves aren’t hesitating to partner with the world’s biggest casinos. The NBA became the first major U.S. sports league to join forces with a gambling company last year. Since then, many leagues have followed suit — including the NFL inking a deal with Caesars Entertainment as its “first ever Official Casino Sponsor.” These partnerships lay the foundation for the future of sports betting.These partnerships lay the foundation for the future of sports betting. Right now, we’re in the early stages of legalization; but in the coming year, we can expect betting to shoot to the forefront of online sports viewing experiences.

Tech will allow sports to model esports interactivity

Online streams have the potential to immerse fans in the big game, modeling the interactivity seen with watching gamers on Twitch or a major esports tournament. With interactive features like changing camera angles or placing bets, streams will require increased bandwidth levels supplied by content delivery networks, far beyond what the public internet can support.

As with any new digital platform, supporting technologies will be critical to delivering broadcast-quality streams with minimal viewing disruptions or worse, an outage. To get in front of these potential problems, platforms must embed their streams into middle-mile networks, enhanced with sophisticated edge-computing capabilities that move processing power closer to viewers. By making back-end technologies a top priority, platforms can ensure highly-interactive live streams that score with sports fans.

Friedrich Seifts is a Principal Architect at Limelight Networks with an extensive background in global-scale distributed infrastructure and platforms across multiple industries.