Once upon a time, being a sports fan meant sitting on the sidelines cheering on your team or gathering around the television with a few mates on a Friday night. But in the digital age where smartphones and tablets provide everything from breaking news to those oh-so-important status updates, live streaming is changing the way punters get their sporting fix.
Gone are the days where the choice was either getting to the ground or watching it on the telly. With live streaming, broadcasters can reach anyone, anywhere, as long as they’re logged on.
And it’s not just the big guns aiming up at elite level sport. While multinational companies such as Optus are shelling out millions of dollars for premium football content including the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and sporting bodies such as cricket and rugby league are investing heavily in their digital assets, sports fans are also being dished up a dizzying array of second-tier sport.
Competitions that would have never seen the light of day via traditional broadcasting outlets are pulling plenty of hits online as millions of fans’ tune in to watch grassroots sport at its best.
At the forefront of this movement in Australia is a small hybrid sports broadcaster based in the Newcastle suburb of Tighes Hill.
Born out of a simple idea to put local rugby league matches on television screens at Newcastle pubs, Bar TV Sports has grown into a grassroots broadcasting behemoth, with contracts spread across the country and millions of viewers all over the world.
Above: On the ground at Central Coast Stadium
Top: Ben Ross
The brainchild of schoolmates Josh Mason and Brendan McCormick and their business partners Mark Priest and Garth Wasik, for whom they previously hosted pub trivia nights, Bar TV is a success story that has grown far beyond any of its founders’ dreams.
Initially launched using video footage filmed by the clubs, the company soon saw the need to up their game and film the content themselves.
Newcastle Rugby League was the first Hunter sporting association to sign on to their dream, with Bar TV broadcasting a live stream of four matches each round during the 2014 competition.
Thanks to a lot of hard work behind the scenes their stable of sports began to grow, with local rugby union, AFL, football and cricket competitions soon added to the schedule.
“I wouldn't say that it's keeping up with Jones's. But in a way, you know sport in general, they're competitive people, from the administrators to the people that play, and I think that probably as much as any other business, it's good luck, good timing that we were on that cusp with streaming becoming bigger and more cost-effective,” Bar TV Sports Managing Director Josh Mason said.
“The other thing is, we really hussle. We ring and say, ‘You should stream your match, have you thought about this?’
“We're happy to put ourselves out there, we certainly never waited for the phone to ring, that's for sure. We were looking through the book on every single association or footy club and went, ‘Ooh, maybe those guys should stream’. We'd ring them and try and essentially get them to pay us for the job. But at a super low rate, just to try and get ourselves in the market, you know?”
Now in their fifth year of production, Bar TV is virtually unrecognisable from its fledgeling days.
From initially covering a couple of local footy matches a week, they now live stream from at least three different states every weekend, recording and streaming more than 100 matches and 280 hours of content.
“Our main areas now, in terms of geographic areas, are still Newcastle and the Hunter, as well as the ACT and Illawarra/South Coast,” Josh said.
“They’re our biggest and busiest areas. Although, on most weekends, we're producing in three to four states. There's not a state we haven't produced content in, and even in some remote areas like Alice Springs and Darwin.
“If you look at this weekend, for example, we'll have about 28 sites on Saturday, and that’s a typical weekend. Last year was surprising, I think we tried really hard to crack 100 games on one weekend, and we just regularly blow that away now … it’s almost too much to think about really.”
With a reputation for producing high-quality content Bar TV are active in every state in Australia and have pushed through the grassroots ceiling to live-stream everything from the FFA Cup and the National Rugby Championship for Foxtel to Women’s Big Bash League games and Sheffield Shield matches for Cricket Australia.
They have covered everything from Under-20 Test Rugby to the European AFL Championships in Lisbon, and in 2017 they attracted more than 8.2 million views in total across all their content. This year’s numbers are already tracking well, with expectations their total views year-on-year will increase by between 50 and 80 per cent.
Viewer numbers vary from stream to stream and can depend on everything from the type of sport to the time it is being streamed. So far this winter their “match of the round” streams have cracked 650,000 views in total, while the biggest number of hits for a single video since they began streaming was around 900,000 for a highlight clip of a blown try in a grand final.
“The numbers are growing pretty much exponentially,” Josh said.
“So, year on year, we've virtually... if we don't double it we go very, very close and it's to do with platforms, you know? Platforms change. Facebook, for instance, viewers are a little harder to get this season than they were last year. But then we stream on Twitter a bit now, and for instance last week we did an FFA Cup qualifier in Canberra, that got 35,000 views just on Twitter. Even locally, Adamstown played Hamilton way back in round two (of the Northern NSW National Premier League), it's had 48,000 views.
“Football, round ball, soccer, whatever you want to call it is incredible. It seems to view the most. In that (Adamstown v Hamilton) game, in particular, I know that match was late in the evening, so maybe a 6pm, 7pm kick-off and as soon as we open up the possibility of overseas viewership live, it goes berserk.”
Viewers come from all over Australia as well as overseas in countries such as the UK, New Zealand and the US.
Despite this success, Josh said Bar TV had no grand illusions about stepping up and competing for top-tier sport, where the technology required and the costs jumped into a whole other stratosphere.
Instead, they’re focused on continuing to lead the way in the second tier and make the most of the almost endless opportunities it provides.
“We think we have a really good grasp on tier two and grassroots sport,” he said.
“Once we get to that sort of four/five camera mark (required for professional level sport) we have no desire (to cover it). There is a huge leap in technology and more, just the price of equipment; we're talking cameras that are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. We just don't need that, and there is a real skill set around it as well.
“So, I think we understand the viewer, and that hyper local content at volume can create just as much viewership as one big football game that costs tens of thousands to produce.
“People are passionate about grassroots sport, and I think that and a combination of just how massive social media is, drives viewership.
“Social media is about putting yourself out there. These 18-year-old kids that play sport, they're the ones promoting the fact that we filmed it and we jump off the back of that.
“They would much prefer to show the big tackle or big goal that they scored or did, to their mates on their Instagram that has 2000 followers, as opposed to watching the NRL, or the World Cup.
“I have said before you could score the greatest goal of your life for Broadmeadow Magic and within 30 minutes it's up online, and it's competing against Ronaldo's goal for social traction. And if it is amazing, there is no reason it doesn't go around the world, and everyone gets to see it. So, it's just an interesting time with that.”
An interesting by-product of their coverage has also been its ability to help amateur players looking to take the next step in their careers.
Josh said Bar TV was now helping locals put together digital resumes of their performances using their archived footage, which can then be sent on to recruiters.
“A 20-year-old person might want to go and play football in the States. But they (recruiters) want to see a tape; every manager wants to see a videotape, so now the players approach us. We've got the footage, and we just ask them to give us a little list of where they played well, what games, and we can dress it up for them,” he said.
“We’ve had players that started out with us. One of the guys in our original ad that we did four or five years' ago, plays I think in Welsh rugby, the Heineken Cup over there.
“And it's not to say it's off the back of us, but certainly when he sent (his tape in) and said, ‘Oh well, you know I played in the Newcastle comp’ it added something to it to be able to see it.
“In the past, they might have taken a risk and paid someone to come and film them for a couple of days, but you might not even play that well.
“So, it's creating this archive really, and you know we might film the next Greg Inglis or the next Tim Cahill.
“We might have already filmed it, and they're just in the early stages of their journey. So, in five years' time, we look back and say, ‘Hey, Tim Cahill, here he is as a 16-year-old guy playing for, you know, Lambton Jaffas, always looked good’.”