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Facebook sports exec: Social network helps leagues with audience development

Facebook Inc.'s global sports head said the company's social platform is attracting interest from a variety of leagues and franchises looking to connect with the next generation of fans.

Speaking at a sports conference Dec. 17, Peter Hutton, the company's director of global sports partnerships, said Facebook users who view sports video content on the platform represent attractive targets for teams looking to sell tickets or merchandise or companies looking for new subscribers to direct-to-consumer services like those offered by DAZN, ESPN Inc. and World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. Facebook's sports video portfolio includes a mix of live rights and highlights, with new deal pursuits and renewals driven by information collected by trials and data.

Hutton joined Facebook in 2018 after a run as CEO of Discovery Inc.'s Eurosport that included oversight of the programmer's inaugural Olympics coverage that year.

Live sports provide a natural opportunity for people to gather and chat, making it a good fit for Facebook's platform as a place to build community, Hutton said. He pointed to the NFL's creation of a group where fans in the U.K. can discuss the gridiron action as one example, noting that British fans may be more comfortable engaging with each other than the NFL's American viewers. Facebook offers the football league's highlights around the world.

Facebook holds a variety of rights for other leagues around the world. It is about halfway through a three-year deal for Spain's top soccer circuit, allowing the social media platform to offer all 10 La Liga weekly matches in India. Hutton said the property is popular among those younger than 35 on mobile devices in a nation where pay TV has not really taken root, helping La Liga to buttress its position in the nation.

He also noted that Facebook bet big on cricket in India — the most popular sport in the world's second-most-populous nation — when it made a deal with the International Cricket Council covering a host of events from 2020-23.

In Latin America, Facebook holds rights to air matches from Copa Libertadores, South America's top club soccer tournament, in nine nations through the 2022 competition. The company is airing live NBA games in the Philippines, where residents are embracing the sport, Hutton said.

Facebook is also looking to fill a niche for properties that are not conducive to network airings, like IronMan, where competitions can run for eight to nine hours, Hutton said. Given the nature of the events and the number of competitors, IronMan provides plenty of time for commentary and engagement among Facebook followers.

As to Facebook's relationship with Major League Baseball, Hutton declined to talk about whether it would look to air full games in 2020 after presenting six last season. He did note that league highlights have been popular and Facebook provided an opportunity for monetization.