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In cord-cutting era, what’s the future of Facebook and live sports programming?

TAMPA — One of the biggest, most interesting questions about the future of sports is this: How will we watch games in five or 10 years?

Through traditional platforms like CBS or ESPN? Through tech giants like Amazon or Facebook? Through subscriptions from the leagues themselves? Through something that hasn't even been invented yet?

"I don't think anyone knows, including myself," said Dan Reed, Facebook's head of global sports partnerships.

But Reed gave some ideas on where things might be headed during a lecture Wednesday evening with Warriors president/COO Rick Welts and former WNBA COO Jay Parry at the Yuengling Center.

The future of sports programming has enormous implications across the entire industry. In the 2016-17 fiscal year, for example, the SEC brought in more than $400 million from its TV/radio deals. In January, the NFL and Fox agreed to a five-year deal for Thursday night games with a reported $3 billion price tag.

"This sort of pay TV bundle model, at some point, things are going to change," Reed said. "And it's literally changing right now."

That's showing up through the growing number of cord cutters, which are hurting cable networks like ESPN and others that are paying conferences and leagues millions of dollars to broadcast their games.

That, maybe, is where a Facebook or Twitter might come in.

Reed said Facebook is testing many different programming options. The company has some streaming rights for sports in Latin America. It is working with some over-the-top (OTT) companies to distribute games on Facebook. It has a partnership with Stadium to show seven Mountain West Conference football games.

For 10 Cubs games last season, Facebook offered a simulcast. Reed said that TV ratings remained solid, despite the Facebook option, and the Cubs were able to get a sponsor for the Facebook audience and target those viewers for ticket sales.

"I think it can go a lot of different ways," Reed said. "We're simultaneously testing all of them. And in true Silicon Valley fashion, we're going to look over the data and double down on things that work and stop doing things that don't work."

Reed pointed to niche and growing sports as an intriguing avenue, because it's easier than ever for those teams to distribute their own content. Ironman recently got 20 million views of its competition on Facebook thanks to the community it has developed.

But Parry, the former WNBA executive, said there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to programming. While devoted WNBA fans might be fine with paying for a subscription, the league needs to grow itself through increased exposure — which is where a Facebook or Twitter might come in.

"We're all going to try a bunch of stuff and figure out what sticks," Parry said. "Ultimately it's going to be millennial-driven. It's going to be consumer-driven."

Their lecture was through USF's Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program.

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