It took sports shutting down to speed the sports industry into a new era.
Sure, fan engagement and monetization had digital elements before covid entered the daily zeitgeist. But the conditions for a complete paradigm shift happened as everybody was stuck at home and the sports business was left with no choice but to innovate. An industry that had for so long enjoyed enormous recurring reliable revenue had to pivot (unless you had insurance, like Wimbledon!). But for these billion-dollar businesses whose moneymaking models had largely not changed in over a quarter century, the path forward is anything but certain.
“Sports, I think in a lot of ways is one of the fastest-moving industries because it is a little bit smaller than some other big things, but it’s also a fairly slow-moving industry in a lot of other ways,” said Jacob Feldman, who covers innovation in fan engagement, among other broad topics in sports business, for the publication Sportico. “So to see those changes happen, basically overnight during the pandemic, was really fascinating. And now we’re kind of seeing a proving point of are these things worth keeping. Are they worth pushing forward on it? Should we put these ideas back on the shelf and maybe they weren’t ready yet?”
Digital engagement became paramount during the pandemic as so much of, well, life was spent on Zoom or watching streaming or engaging with online communities or games. Sports wanted to ensure they were part of that engagement diet, capturing hearts, minds, and, more broadly, attention and time spent.
But something else was bubbling up, too, during the time that digital fans and localized fans were one and the same. ‘Fans’ couldn’t go to games, they couldn’t wear their team’s t-shirt in a pickup basketball game at the gym or talk about being at the big game at the watercooler the next day. Life was being lived online more than ever — a lasting challenge and opportunity for sports business.
“You have thousands of other things to spend time on now. I think that has been the biggest driver of teams, leagues, players, media networks, all saying, okay, how do we, whether it’s looking more or working more like those new things are, or just improving our product so that it can compete with those things I think is the biggest driver (of innovation),” said Feldman, who has written extensively about NFTs, web3, fan engagement startups and more for Sportico.
“It’s competing for attention, it’s also competing for identity. Like, people who are young people in the world, young adults, maybe just out of college, trying to decide who they wanna be, what are they gonna put in their Twitter profile and their Instagram profile? Are they gonna put Warriors fan or are they gonna put Fortnite player? Once you determine who you are and what you do, everything else kind of comes from that.”
The broad scope of identity is an important inflection point for sports fandom. It was once about having a bumper sticker on your car, wearing your team’s cap, or going to a team bar to watch the game. All that can still be part of being a fan, but, as Feldman stated, digital identity can be just as important. For some, being a fan on digital platforms is the only way they can express their fandom. They evangelize the team as they engage on digital and social, and they showcase their identity in whatever way they can. And oftentimes the team has no idea who they are, let alone a way to give or get value from it. Feldman used himself as an example, at Atlanta Hawks residing in the northeast, and the opportunity to strengthen and activate his Hawks engagement.
“I’m a big Atlanta Hawks fan. The Atlanta Hawks don’t know who I am, don’t know that I’m a Hawks fan and at some point that’s frustrating, right?,” said Feldman, who grew up in Winston-Salem, NC before heading up north to attend Harvard for college. “Like, in every other way I go about life — I play Magic the Gathering sometimes when I have some free time, and Wizards of the Coast — the people who put that game out, they know who I am. They have my email, they message me, I get rewards, all these kinds of things.
“I don’t get that for spending hundreds of hours watching the Hawks, reading about the Hawks, talking about the Hawks. I’m a massive evangelist for this brand and I get nothing back from it. So I think NFTs hopefully were a wake-up call that teams need to be doing more in that world to connect with fans [like that].”
Connecting with fans, making them feel appreciated, and giving them more chances to engage with the players and teams they love are not altruistic endeavors, of course. There is money to be made. The technology that sticks around is not only what fans will adopt, but what will enable all these displaced fans, and the sports businesses…err….teams that they support to manifest that investment and engagement in tangible ways. “[Sports organizations are] recognizing how much money is being left on the table from fans who don’t live within a hundred miles of the stadium,” Feldman stated. “Whether that’s international, whether that’s just kind of national, that’s been changing a lot in terms of what teams are able to do. Obviously, technology has allowed them to reach those fans and monetize those fans.”
The sports industry has plenty of incentive and necessity to make moves and to do so quickly. Organizations in sports need to explore emerging engagement vehicles and platforms, lest they get left behind. There was a lot of experimentation in the last few years in sports, and it’s not yet clear which paradigms will prevail in the years and decades to come. But we’re watching it play out right now, and the road ahead for what it means to be a sports fan is uncertain and exciting.
Said Feldman: “I think whether sports is being dragged or sports are finally coming around to some of these innovations, it is happening now. And we can go back to the pandemic thing — I think that was a big push. It’s also just kind of where the money is, right? You know, Apple and Amazon have the money, and they’re going to be slowly gaining a bigger and bigger foothold in sports.
“[Innovation in sports business] was slow in the past. I think it is speeding up, but they still have a way to go to catch up to some of these other industries.”
LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH JACOB FELDMAN