For Super Bowl and beyond, challenges remain for second-screen supremacy

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Not too long ago, pulling out a smartphone while you were at a sporting event or sitting around the TV with a group of friends would have been a sacrilege. Your eyes were supposed to be trained on the action, not on some phone screen. “You’re missing a great game” would have been one of the tamer taunts you’d hear.

Not anymore. Whip out your iPhone or Android device these days, whether you’re in a stadium or a rec room, and you’ll get quite the opposite reaction. If we’re not Instagramming from our seats on the 50-yard line, we’re loading Facebook to trash talk our friends after the game-winning touchdown. We’re tweeting from every conceivable event—soon enough, every Major League Baseball game will feature a string of constant Vines being sent forth by fans.

This is how we engage with sports in the mobile age. And this Sunday’s Super Bowl will be the ultimate test of that trend.

Something to tweet about

In a way, the big game between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens will present a more unique challenge than what we’ve previously seen when it comes to splitting our focus between the action on the field and what’s happening on our mobile device. Professional football is the number one sport in the country, with annual revenues steadily approaching $10 billion, but it’s a business where an overwhelming super-majority of consumers watch it solely on TV as opposed to in person. Combine that with the fact that the Super Bowl is a guaranteed destination for audiences—in the neighborhood of 110 million viewers or so will tune in.

And that represents an enormous opportunity for networks and the NFL to engage with fans in a very direct manner, to hit them up on that emerging yet still somewhat elusive “second screen”—that ubiquitous phone or tablet of choice that always seems to be close at hand. Fans are turning to these offshoots to directly engage with what’s happening during live events, but networks and leagues want that behavior to be on their terms.

If it's game time, fans are likely turning to Twitter (and other social networks) to connect with their fellow aficionados.

“The amount of engagement and activity on that additional screen is growing really rapidly,” says Stephen Master, a senior vice president at market-research firm Nielsen, whose recently published annual report on sports media shows that 60 percent of tablet users who access sports on those devices do so at least once a day. (For smartphone users, that number holds steady at 58 percent.) Socially speaking, Nielsen data shows that though sports account for less than 2 percent of all TV programming hours, 41 percent of all TV-related tweets relate to live sporting events. That means fans have shown a propensity to engage; it’s now up to content providers to harness whatever potential that holds.

Are TV networks in the game?

Yet, though CBS pays some $1 billion a year, just like two other networks, to keep its annual spot in the Super Bowl broadcast rotation, it’s betting all its chips on web extras (desktop and laptop) while largely eschewing mobile. For example, there’s been no specialized Super Bowl update pushed to its iPad app, but will showcase additional camera angles and DVR controls within its gameday livestream. (This is the second year the Super Bowl will be streamed online, following NBC’s lead in 2012.) In a statement, CBS Interactive president Jim Lanzone even specifically praised his group’s efforts to engineer “a deeply integrated second-screen environment.” The third and fourth screens—your phone and tablet—will seemingly have to wait a few more years before they’re given any attention, at least from that particular network.

CBS is streaming Super Bowl XLVII online this Sunday, but its efforts on the mobile front are minimal.

But CBS is betting that online web engagement will be enough, that the 18-to-49-year-olds across this country who watch sporting events live 99 percent of the time will have their participation measured in some truly tangible way. Advertisers who spend some $4 million a pop for a 30-second commercial on the Super Bowl telecast would sure to like to see that metric measured to its fullest. But Nielsen’s Master says that the basic constructs of social media translate to an unprecedented ability to do just that.

“It’s only 30 seconds or so to write a tweet,” Master adds. “It’s a live-chat water cooler activity. In some ways, it shows that people are more engaged than ever in the programming, because they care enough to go to their second screen and comment on it.” In other words, it’s no longer some nebulous guesswork and a next-day ratings figure.

Beyond Sunday’s game

After 47 years, the Super Bowl has definitively emerged as something more than an annual sports ritual. It’s morphed into, according to one industry expert, “the world’s premier platform for one-size-fits-all marketing messages.” And on the basis of that rep, it’s limitless as to what we may see evolve from the attention and added import bestowed upon second screens. Mobile streaming? Apps that allow fans to make in-game Vegas prop bets from their device?

Mobile apps like FanCake—in which you can compete on guessing the outcome of games as well as individual plays—are poised to take advantage of the second-screen phenomenon.

When it comes to mobile device screens becoming mainstays of sports culture, the trend clearly points to their presence becoming a necessity, not some nuisance. With TV ratings up and stadium attendance down, there has rarely been a clearer opportunity for sports leagues and the networks that broadcast them to hook in those eyeballs that are becoming more predisposed and willing to move their sights off the primary screen for whatever reason.

“We can’t predict the future, but it’s grown every year,” Master says. “We don’t know when it will flatten out, but as smartphone penetration has grown exponentially, growth in sports has certainly been the trend and all the numbers point that way.”

Master himself is loath to make predictions, but he can see a basic roadmap for where we’re headed: “At this point, the major sports leagues and networks are creating applications to make it easy for fans to track other statistics and storylines around the game while the game is being played.” Indeed, smartphone apps offering in-game stats and replays are becoming a common site at stadia around the country.

It’s that simple, but it’s not a code that any one entity has cracked as of yet. The hope is that this Super Bowl Sunday may bring us all a little bit closer to that endpoint, where all screens, be they digital or the one playing out right in front of you at the game, play in concert like any championship squad.

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