While it’s fair to wonder, and it’s been wondered in this space, exactly who would want to use Facebook to watch sporting events that would otherwise be available on television or through other online services, that does not mean social media streaming is a dead end for bringing in viewers.
What it will take to make Facebook streaming viable is a combination of creativity and exclusivity, which are exactly the things WWE will be banking on for the inaugural Mixed Match Challenge, which begins Tuesday night on Facebook Watch, right after SmackDown Live signs off from the USA Network.
The event itself is set for a 12-episode run of 20 minutes a pop, with mixed-gender tag teams battling for a $100,000 prize to be donated to charity. When it was announced in December, WWE promised “elements optimized for mobile consumption, experimentation, and social interaction,” which sounds nice but cannot change the fact that watching things on mobile is generally a nightmare. Even so, it’s about the platform on the whole, not just device-specific experiences.
Obviously, WWE has an ability that major sports leagues do not in that wrestling events can just be created and put on, with whatever rules the organizers want to have – and part of the Mixed Match Challenge is allowing fan interaction to set stipulations for some matches. The NBA cannot go out and say, “Alright, this Thursday, the Knicks are going to play the Bulls on Facebook, and fans will get to vote on how long the shot clock will be and whether Chicago plays zone defense or man-to-man!” even if Sports Illustrated did postulate something similar in 1991, imagining a world in which television viewers might be able to pay for a voice in NFL play-calling decisions.
While sports that are not “sports entertainment” are limited in how much creativity they can put forth in packaging events for online audiences, exclusivity is less of an issue because they control the rights. The problem is that every league has a subscription service where people pay to be able to stream games, and to deny them games on those platforms to shunt them to Facebook is a nonstarter.
The lesson that WWE can provide for the big sports leagues here is that events can be created specifically for an online audience. Fans of a certain age, or fans of a certain lesser age who enjoyed the Classic Sports Network before it became ESPN Classic, will remember “Home Run Derby,” in which Mickey Mantle and his contemporaries squared off one-on-one, crushing dingers at an empty ballpark in California. There is no reason that MLB could not pull off something similar now on Facebook Watch, getting stars to take a few days out of the offseason for a fun event that also would be ripe for fan interaction.
Every sport has something like this that they can do, whether it’s the NFL Quarterback Challenge, NBA/WNBA 2Ball, the NHL breakaway contest, or something new that hasn’t been previously done at All-Star weekends. Not to go all Bill Simmons, but wouldn’t you watch an NBA H-O-R-S-E contest on Facebook? Of course you would.
The holy grail, though, is out there for all sports. Bring back “The Superstars.” Yes, it was just “Battle Of The Network Stars” with professional athletes, but at the same time, it was “BATTLE OF THE NETWORK STARS” WITH PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES. At the very least, this should be WWE’s follow-up to the Mixed Match Challenge. Braun Strowman on the obstacle course. Make it happen.