This is a guest post by Ben Gallop, BBC Sport’s Head of Digital and Radio, that shares his unique perspective on BBC’s digital approach with the Rio Olympics and the results.
We pinched ourselves, but it really did happen. There was something utterly compelling about the Team GB story at Rio 2016 and if we thought London 2012 had been special, this one was frankly astonishing. Never before had any country actually improved on its Olympic performance in the Games after it had been host nation. Medals piled on medals; sporting powerhouses were left in the wake as the Brits secured second place (surely not?) in the Rio table.
Team GB’s success may have been hard to fathom at times – but this feel-good hit of the summer certainly seemed to resonate back home, showing the importance of ensuring the biggest sporting events reach the widest possible audience.
Team GB’s success may have been hard to fathom at times – but this feel-good hit of the summer certainly seemed to resonate back home, showing the importance of ensuring the biggest sporting events reach the widest possible audience. BBC Sport had never seen such a demand for our digital service. In total 102 million browsers around the world accessed our online coverage of the Games, with 68 million of those coming from the UK alone. That’s up from 39 million for the London Olympics. I realise that 68 million is actually more than the UK population itself – but that’s no misprint, it’s because the story of Rio 2016 was all about screens. Most of us now have more than one: the screen on your desk at work, the one in your living room, the tablet you share with the kids. And above all else, the screen in your hand.
For London 2012, 42% of the digital audience followed the action on handheld devices; four years later, it was nearly 75%.We offered up to 24 HD streams, with every moment of the action covered. With all that sport to choose from, it called for some creative use of those screens. You could watch gymnastics on the BBC Sport website while keeping up with the hockey on the mobile app; or check out the golf on a connected television with Red Button+ at the same time as searching for catch-up on your tablet. Whatever your combination of choice, BBC Sport’s digital service was the go-to destination for the Olympics online.
If Rio showed us that mobile is now the primary platform for sports fans it also taught us that free-to-air sports coverage has an impressive power to inspire people. When the public get to see the exploits of Team GB and superstar Olympians like Bolt, Biles and Phelps, it can often reignite long-dormant sporting passions. At BBC Sport we embrace our public service responsibilities – our Get Inspired website aims to help spectators become players, in partnership with the sports’ governing bodies. And during Rio 2016 nearly 1 million of you visited Get Inspired and were directed to where they could take part in the sport they were watching on those screens. For the record, our three most popular activity guides reflected Team GB’s success: gymnastics, cycling and swimming. If that’s any indication of where we’re going as a nation, you can expect a similar sort of gold rush for Tokyo 2020 and beyond.
The point is that the days when ‘free to air’ sport meant just a few channels on terrestrial TV are over. In the digital age it also means extensive online coverage, delivered wherever and whenever you want it, and on the screen that works best for you. The buzzword is ‘personalisation’, but in effect it just means that we are better able to serve the version of BBC Sport that you want. Mobile allows us to alert you to the events and sports you’re interested in – nearly 3m people have now signed up for these notifications, including alerts every time Team GB won a medal. And it doesn’t come much more personal than our Which Olympian Are You? test, which was played by 3.9m people during the Games.
This is the future for sports media – at the BBC we’ll always look to deliver coverage to the widest possible audience through major linear TV channels like BBC One; but in a competitive sports rights market we also recognise we can reach even more people through our digital service. This Olympic Games has proved that we are the number one destination for sport online in the UK; with our fans at all times, bringing them the latest action in a way that is most convenient.
And it’s not just the Olympics – we’re doing it across a range of sports and events. Take cricket, where fans have been following England’s summer tussles with Pakistan not only through our iconic Test Match Special radio commentary, but also with video clips of the action on the ever-popular live page on our website.
What else did we learn from Rio? That major sporting events are the perfect opportunity to innovate with technology. So whereas in the past the BBC used the Olympics to experiment with new techniques like colour TV or high definition, this time we offered ‘BBC Sport 360’ – an experimental service, which provided live and on-demand content in 360-degree video and drew more than 1m views across all platforms. It’s given us some invaluable feedback, which we can now analyse to understand how best to use this technology moving forward.
Furthermore, the Olympics is a great way to connect with younger people – especially through social media, where we not only engaged an audience of more than 30 million fans across the major social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, but also targeted a particularly young audience through a partnership with Snapchat. The aim was simple: showcase some of the best of the Olympics on social media but bring those audiences back to BBC Sport for the full Rio 2016 experience.
Oh, and we learned that Usain Bolt is pretty quick. But you probably knew that already.