The $3 billion global sports industry is dominated by the power leagues we all know, like the NBA, the NFL, the Premier League, etc., .but at the other end of the spectrum is a vast array of niche leagues.
Growing a niche sports property is like growing any business if you’re willing to learn the lessons a few standouts offer. One lesson is that the off-season never ends; another is that content is king; and we know those things. But what some of us don’t know is that there are niche sports that streaming services can grab on to and that can draw an audience, sponsors and big-time revenue.
In that context, here are four segments of sports/leagues that are probably under your radar but very worthy of your attention — which is not easy to do when the category of esports is all the buzz.
Four lesser-known sports segments
Summer basketball: Summer hoops has never been hotter. The recently announced 3BALLUSA events played at malls with fast-paced rules and young talent are a perfect fit for Twitch.
These events fill a calendar that includes other basketball properties like the glitzy senior BIG3, the NBA Summer League, Lavar Ball’s JBA, pro-ams like the Drew League and Miami Pro League, cash tournaments like The Basketball Tournament (and let’s not forget the WNBA).
None are huge eyeball draws for hours on end; but all have quality production, highlight worthy causes and are sized for screens large and small. I spoke with Miami Pro League Commissioner Kyle Davis on how the pro-am has been able to routinely attract NBA stars to play in their games. And he told me that the key has been to go viral. “We’ve used social media platforms along with an organic word of mouth approach to create … a buzz,” Davis said.
Recreational meets professional: Cornhole is a simple game played on college campuses and among family members around the world.
The American Cornhole League, in fact, has found a niche with sponsors like Johnsonville, and has even made its way to ESPN. It is an everyman’s sport, with just enough drama to draw in thousands of attendees, thereby making itself a staple for streaming platforms like ESPN +.
Then there is darts. Who among us doesn’t know darts and hasn’t been around a board in someone’s bar or basement sometime in our lives? The drama of the bulls-eye is a must-see, and Premier League Darts has found a streaming home in the United States, on BBC, garnering millions of views.
There is also a Las Vegas event coming up, and plans to expand, as well; darts, in fact, is a natural fit for a network that is all things U.K.. So it’s natural that the spirt is expanding into this country, especiallyl considering the rise of sports gambling.
Football: In this category, you should get to know the Spring League, the Alliance of American Football and the American Flag Football Association, to name just a few.
The AFFA, created because the NFL Network needed live content, has a mix of everyday guys and former NFL’ers competing for nice prize money. It draws modest crowds, is simple to watch, easy to understand and a solution for those jonesing for some live gridiron in July.
My own attention, however, is on Your Call Football. YCF is a football fix in the late spring that fans can turn to with a one-of-a-kind twist: Fans call the plays. YCF offers an app that provides a livestream of the game which syncs with a play-calling feature. Fans are then awarded points off their play selections and the real-time game results. I spoke with YCF President Julie Meringer about blending the businesses of football, gaming and fantasy. And, she told me, “We are not a startup football league. We are a centralized technology business that has quality football.”
Rugby Sevens: Rugby Sevens is another sport that has found its way to the club level on college campuses. That makes sense: It’s cost efficient and very fast, and can be played by men and women alike. Penn Mutual is on board for the national championships held in Philadelphia every June, and the World Cup in San Francisco did great in July. ESPN+ also has a home for it, and it fits the small screen well.
Each of the above leagues offers something new to even the smallest demographic; and in today’s marketplace, that can be enough to establish a winning business. “We live in an environment now where [being] hyper-local, and knowing how to authentically engage in an audience, is more important than spewing to the masses,” Joe Favorito told me in a phone interview. He’s a longtime sports media consultant and professor at Columbia University..
“Now, if you are the big five leagues in the U.S. and even NASCAR, do you need the massive exposure?” Favorito asked, answering his own question. “Of course.
“However, for niche platforms,” Favorito continued, “knowing your niche and servicing that niche, be it through services like Facebook Live or Bleacher Report Live or Twitch or ESPN +, is both cost efficient and often more effective storytelling.”
And, these days, there’s money in storytelling.