Sparx is helping more networks interactive games and features to get viewers more engaged with sportscasts.
The technology company — previously operating under the iPowow name — s working with ESPN on its pre-game College Football GameDay, Turner Sports and Bleacher Report on NBA and NHL events and NESN on Boston Red Sox and Bruins games.
The company had previously been working mainly with teams to create interaction with fans.
Sparx is also creating watch parties for Barrett-Jackson Auto Auctions on A&E, doing live picks and polls for Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty and Overwatch eSports tournaments, games on Disney Watch & Play and integrations for intermissions and game breaks for the Orlando Magic.
Amid cord-cutting networks that pay big bucks for sports rights are finding themselves squeezed as ratings drop, especially among younger viewers. Demand will only pick up a more states adopt legalized sports betting.
For now, Sparx helps create a range of prediction games (and prizes) as well as polls and other features designed to generate bigger audiences and keep fans tuned in. Those features can also be sponsored, generating revenue for the programmer.
“The issue was summarized perfectly by one of the producers of ESPN College GameDay,” said Sparx head of global sales Kevin Annison.
GameDay is already a big deal, but the producer said “if you can help me add one more minute of viewing time to my broadcast, that’s a big number,” Annison said.
Sparx helps GameDay, the biggest college football pre-show on Saturdays, with quizzes that include questions about everything from which teams the show’s hosts will pick to the color of their ties.
“Sparx and College GameDay have a great relationship,” said Jim Gaiero, the producer of GameDay.
“Each week, our announcers select the winner for 10-12 games that are revealed at the end of the show. We also present our fans with the same ability to pick games by showing a QR code on the screen during a game/show. Fans can log on and vote on the same games the announcers are selecting,” he said. “Finally, at the end of the show, the first revealed winner is America’s vote, which utilizes the Sparx technology.
Gaiero said College GameDay also uses Sparx to produce its Aflac trivia question each week.
He said the show is “exploring opportunities to do more given the current success.” In addition to technology, Sparx provides guidance on how to integrate the games into a network’s production, both on screen and behind the scenes.
“There are a lot of really good tech companies out there and you can’t work with everyone,” said Howard Zalkowitz, executive producer at NESN. “What Sparx provided us with is a kind of blueprint. They gave us great advice on how to run the game from a digital standpoint and how to extend it into the television side.”
Using Sparx’s back end, NESN had “Predict the Game” every Thursday during hockey season in Bruins games and every Friday night during Red Sox games. It will be doing Predict the Game again this hockey season, Zalkowitz said.
Zalkowitz said NESN decided to run the game during its main telecast, rather than setting up a secondary statcast with interactive and extra graphics. It asks viewers to answer some questions about how the game will go before the game and during the game on the broadcast. Additional questions appear online. A leaderboard appear on screen showing the top players and each week a winner gets a prize.
One key to making Predict the Game work was support from network staffers in production and promotion. Another was buy in from the teams. The Bruins supplied prizes, such as jerseys signed by players Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. “That was a great incentive for fans,” Zalkowitz said.
The Red Sox also contributed prizes, like a baseball signed by Rafael Devers. Red Sox players Xander Bogaerts and Jaime Martinez also appeared in promos for Predict the Game.
The final key was having producers and announcers in the studio who championed the game. During Bruins games, Jack Edwards and Andy Brickley would talk about Predict a Game. And if there was a question about how many strikeouts Nate Iovaldi would have for the Red Sox, Dave O’Brien and Dennis Eckersley would discuss it. “It became organic to the telecast,” Zalkowitz said.
Zalkowitz said measuring an increase in audience engagement is difficult. “I think you have to try different things. You have to be agile, you have to be willing to innovate and say ‘How do we change the paradigm?’” he said. “This is part of an overall strategy to increase engagement.”
Beyond TV, Sparx is creating interactivity on other platforms, whether it's in video games like Call of Duty or online with Disney.
“We are looking to reimagine the viewing experience with anyone, anywhere on any platform,” Annison said.
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