#Hashtag Sports 2017: Sports Industry Remains Leader in All Things Digital
Two weeks ago I attended the #Hashtag Sports conference in New York. The conference is all about “The Connected Fan” and although it’s a relatively new event, I was impressed with the content, the fan engagement track, and the incredible line-up of speakers.
#Hashtag Sports was another confirmation that the Sports Industry is a clear leader in the digital age. The many leagues, teams, governing bodies, broadcasters, technology providers, journalists, fans, and most importantly, the athletes themselves, work across a deep and wide digital spectrum to innovate and push the world forward.
“Sports always lead the way. We are not in a bubble. We are entering a serious growth phase.” – David Stern, Commissioner Emeritus, NBA.
“Digital is a great equalizer. Mass media created the major leagues. UFC was built in 10 years on the back of digital. Our goal at MLL is to unlock our sport’s experience through digital.” – Nick Sakiewicz, Commissioner, National Lacrosse League.
Today more than ever it is increasingly important for brands to have a digital strategy. Below you’ll find my takeaways from the event with a call out to the league, sport, or team who shared them.
- NBA (Virtual Reality) – The NBA partnered with NextVR to broadcast 30 select live games in virtual reality (VR) last season for NBA LEAGUE PASS subscribers. Initially, the thought was that the best experience would come from the best courtside seat. As it turns out, the best VR experience comes from right underneath each basket. Over the course of the season, the NBA made weekly adjustments to improve the fan experience such as moved VR cameras closer to the action, increased the number of cameras at games, and added dedicated announcers for the VR broadcast. The tweaks resulted in staggering improvements in game viewing. Average minutes viewed per game increased from 7 minutes per game at the beginning of the season to 45 minutes per game at the end of the season. Jeff Marsilio (VP Global Media, NBA); Brad Allen (Executive Chairman NextVR); Daniel Sillman (Director of Business Development, RSE Ventures).
- U.S. SOCCER (Digital) – The strategic approach to fan engagement by MLS and CONCACAF (The Confederation of North, Central America, and Caribbean Association Football) across the digital spectrum is a great case study in fan engagement and growing awareness. MLS is strategically focused on two fan segments: soccer enthusiasts (soccer is their primary sport of interest) and sport fans (those who enjoy sporting events, but soccer is not the primary interest). By tailoring digital content for fan segments, MLS reported 700% growth on social by being authentic, knowing what each social network is best for, and by providing players with tools. MLS’s mobile app experience, which is available for Android and iOS devices plus Apple Watch, also provides fans with access to scores, highlights, news, and live video with Chromecast support (developed by POSSIBLE Mobile). CONCACAF’s digital platform created their most value. Fan votes for annual awards (player of the year, goalkeeper of the year, etc.) were collected digitally and engagement increased from 70,000 to 1.2 million votes year-over-year. Chris Schlosser (SVP Digital MLS), Jean Jimenez (Director Digital Products CONCACAF), and Quinn Kilbury (Sr. Brand Director, Heineken).
- Indoor Lacrosse (Digital) – The National Lacrosse League (NLL) is pursuing an “all in” digital strategy to unlock the excitement and experience of their unique sport beyond arenas. NLL’s first Twitter streamed game received 383,000 viewers and after launching NLL TV, NLL experienced a 5x to 10x increase in viewership. Everyone should keep an eye on professional lacrosse in the next decade; it’s one of the fastest-growing sports at the youth levels and at least one league is going all in with digital to grow their sport. Nick Sakiewicz (Commissioner, National Lacrosse League), and Brian Bedol (Founder & CEO, Sports Rocket).
- Arena Football (Fan-Run Team) – The most creative and innovative story from any professional sport is the Salt Lake Screaming Eagles of the Indoor Football League, the first fan-run professional sports team and enabled by a mobile app, Play IFL. Fans vote on just about everything including team logos and colors, uniforms, player evaluations and selections, and playbooks. Fans even call real plays during games. The more a fan participates and demonstrates football knowledge, the higher his or her Fan IQ becomes and the louder their voice is in running the Screaming Eagles. The future vision of this concept is to create a Madden like, real-life football league: real players, real teams, real football field with fans (or gamers) calling plays against one another using a mobile app. The combination of real-life players with an integrated digital control might be as close as possible to blending the physical and virtual world of sports. Sohrob Farundi (co-founder & CEO, Salt Lake Screaming Eagles), Patty Hirsch (GM, Time), Tobias Sherman (Global Head of esports, WME/IMG).
- Madden, FIFA, and NBA 2K – With all the energy, hype, and talk surrounding esports, specifically fighting, first-person shooter, and real-time strategy games, sports-oriented games like FIFA, Madden, and NBA 2K are often overlooked. These esports athletes often know the strengths and weaknesses of the real-life athletes better than anyone else. Another remarkable evolution is how children discover new athletes and teams through these games and evolve into true fans over time. ChuBoi (FIFA esports creator), Deirdre Lester (Global Head of Brand Partnerships, Whistle Sports).
- MLB (Ballpark App) – Even with one of the most recognizable and successful mobile apps on the app stores, At Bat, MLB continues to invest in new technology in stadiums and launched a second mobile app, Ballpark. Ballpark is used to better engage fans who are attending games, enhance ballpark experience using push notifications, and improve customer relationship management (CRM). Teams communicate with fans directly with push notifications including ballpark promotions. Noah Garden (EVP, Business MLB).
- ESPN (Internal Mobile App/Social Network) – ESPN uses a proprietary internal mobile app (think social network for ESPN employees) to capture short-form stories while covering sporting events. The app allows ESPN’s talent to capture, share, and report on news no one else is near. “Our internal app allows us to capture nuggets of gold.” Chad Millman (VP of Domestic Digital Content, ESPN).
- NHL (Live video beyond the live game streams) – NHL’s broadcast partners provide a large source of their revenue, so the NHL is now pursuing live video content before and after games to engage fans and promote players off the ice. “I spent my entire career trying to get fans to the game, into an arena, or to a broadcast. Now I’m focused on expanding live video beyond the games.” Heidi Browning (CMO, NHL).
- BIG3 (New Pro Basketball League) – I was extremely impressed with the level of strategic thinking and business planning for the launch of the BIG3. The league consists of 40 players (8 teams of 5), all 8 teams travel together from one city to another, and fans get to see 4 games each weekend (all teams play). Many former NBA players and Hall of Famers are involved. There will be an old school feeling to this league – not only because of older players but because the players voted for rules to allow for more physical contact. Watch the BIG3 on Fox Sports FS1 on Monday nights at 8 pm ET. Roger Mason Jr. (President, BIG3).
- ESPN (30 for 30 Podcast) – Podcasts have been around for several years, but recently momentum is building for this digital medium and ESPN launched its 30 for 30 Podcast. ESPN hired a cast of podcast experts to tell the best stories possible in this format. It was refreshing to hear a panel of leaders at ESPN share how they collaborate, work together, and approach storytelling across all of ESPN’s digital media properties. Libby Geist (VP & Executive Producer ESPN Films); Alison Overholt (Editor in Chief, ESPN); and Chad Millman (VP of Domestic Digital Content, ESPN).
- Winter Olympics (SnapChat) – The olympics is a massive event and Team USA’s success is tied to the success of NBC, which is aimed towards hitting a new and larger audience by partnering with Buzzfeed for SnapChat. Buzzfeed’s experience on SnapChat (i.e. vertical frame shots & different social sharing paradigms) was critical to reaching more than 35 million viewers during the Rio Olympics of 2016. Buzzfeed is sending an even bigger team to PyeongChang in January to create more stories for the upcoming winter olympics. Brent Bennett (Video Producer, BuzzFeed), Troy Ewanchyna (VP, Digital NBC Sports), Brian Gordon (Sr. VP, USOC), and Lyndsay Signor (Sr. Director, NBC Sports).
- U.S. Women’s Ice Hockey (Social) – Women’s hockey has made tremendous progress the past few years in large part through social networks. Hilary Knight, U.S. Women’s Ice Hockey legend, spoke to the inspiring change her and her teammates created by utilizing social media to win the battle for equal pay and resources. Hilary said she puts considerable thought, planning, and strategy into social on a daily basis and it’s a full time job. Her favorite platform is Instagram and she plans to go live often leading up to the Winter Olympics. Hilary Knight (U.S.A. Women’s Hockey Team).
#Hashtag Sports was a great event. It brought together many influential sports leaders to discuss fan engagement and digital transformation within the industry. If you are interested in learning more about how your company can stay ahead of the game with digital technologies, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About POSSIBLE: POSSIBLE is a creative agency that cares about results. Our full-service digital marketing capabilities include creative campaigns, web, mobile, social, content, ecommerce, and CRM.
About POSSIBLE Mobile: Comprised of true mobile craftspeople, POSSIBLE Mobile marries strategy, design, and software development to build high-quality apps for top-tier brands. POSSIBLE Mobile has worked with many leaders in sports including Turner Sports, PGA TOUR, U.S. Figure Skating, Major League Soccer, and Pac-12 networks.