The English Football Association (FA) announced today that Facebook Watch will broadcast two FA Cup fifth-round ties, the first time Facebook Watch has live streamed FA Cup games. The move represents Facebook’s biggest step into sports live streaming in the UK, as it and other global tech companies continue to invest more in the area.
Facebook holds exclusive streaming rights to two of the eight fifth-round ties, with BT and the BBC picking up the rest of the broadcast rights. Facebook says the matches will be available across all platforms where Facebook Watch is available – mobile, desktop, and OTT platforms via the Facebook Watch TV App. The social platform did not say whether it would be running ads on the live broadcasts, and terms of the deal have not been disclosed.
Facebook has streamed English football before, most notably via a £200 million deal to stream live Premier League games in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, but it has not previously aired any English games within the UK (not counting a stream run by FA Cup sponsor Budweiser back in 2011, since this was not endorsed or administered by Facebook).
And while the streams break new ground for Facebook, they also seem something of a departure from Facebook’s current conservative approach to sports broadcasting. While Facebook has picked up perhaps two of the less popular games available (of the eight fifth round matches being played, Facebook is airing two of only three which don’t involve a ‘big six’ team), the FA Cup is nonetheless capable of drawing large audiences. Last year the BBC drew an audience of 5.3 million for a third-round tie between Leicester and Newport County – and Leicester feature in one of Facebook’s two games.
Facebook has picked up notable sports packages before, streaming 20 Major League Baseball (MLB) games in 2017, and 25 games in 2018. But its interest in sports seemed to have cooled somewhat – last year it dropped to streaming just six live MLB games. And elsewhere, it has largely steered clear of mainstream sports rights, instead opting for more niche sports (like the World Surf League) or for popular sports outside their domestic markets (as with the aforementioned Premier League deal).
Peter Hutton, Facebook’s director of global sports partnerships, said at the Sportel conference in Monaco last year that he was not expecting Facebook to make “any huge investments in sports rights in the near future”.
“Facebook talks a lot about product-market fit – a lot of testing and, if we find a product-market fit, we will invest further in that idea – and I think that sums up where we are in sport,” said Hutton. He added that Facebook prefers to work with sports teams and leagues by hosting their live streams and letting them monetise those themselves, estimating that Facebook doesn’t actually pay for 95-96 percent of the live sport it streams.