12 Thought-Provoking Sports Biz Insights from the Hashtag Sports Conference

2020 has been a heck of a year for the sports industry (and, yes, pretty much everything else). It has been transformative not because something incredibly new or novel emerged, but because trends that had been gradually growing, accelerated to open eyes and lead to what looks to be lasting changes moving forward for the industry.

This was apparent listening and learning from some of the leading minds and practitioners that gathered (virtually) at the 2020 Hashtag Sports Conference, the annual event that attracts top people from the sports business industry, held this year October 20-22. New revenue sources, different ways to engage, time to take a long look at esports, scrutinizing and improving sponsored social — these were among the highlights (and more) from the conference.

The inclination for Gen Z to not remain bound by the longstanding status quo is permeating to all ends of society in 2020. Sports is no exception. The industry cannot afford to err on the side of cautious innovation, the urgency is only increasing.

With that as the setup, here are 12 sports business insights that stood out to me from the Hashtag Sports Conference:

  1. In-game betting is going to be huge over the next several years. It’s been oft-stated that much of the wagering in more mature markets overseas takes place during games and stats shared from Simplebet CEO Chris Bevilacqua underscored the crazy-high engagement levels of in-game bettors. Bevilacqua said, looking at trends from NFL games in which fans using the Simplebet platform wager tokens, sessions on the platform averaged 27 minutes and users placed an average of 25-35 bets during the game. (Wow!) The only limiting factor is the latency of stats and video, so bets can be placed and processed in the seconds between plays or drives. Another point brought up during one of the Hashtag Sports gambling-focused sessions noted how traditional US sports, such as American football and baseball, are amenable to in-game wagering with more discreet plays and longer pauses between plays (as opposed to soccer, for example).


  2. One more assertion that was mentioned in a quick comment, but stood out as significant was longtime sports exec David Levy talking up the auspicious future of peer-to-peer betting. Most discussion of sports gambling has the model of betting against the house and the odds they set or being part of a pool (a la daily fantasy models) of other players, some better equipped with data, research, and expertise than others. But as platforms mature and more states legalize (and normalize) sports gambling, more options and models will continue to proliferate. Including the chance to turn that barstool or group chat debate with a buddy into a small but secure and official bet, with odds baked in and no ‘We didn’t shake on it’ alibis possible. Not only does sports betting promise to make casual fans more deeply engaged with sports, it could also lead to fans being more engaged with their friends through sports, adding a competitive element to social co-viewing beyond season-long fantasy leagues.


  3. The way activations and events are built, digital and experiential elements are too often still planned in separate silos and resource allocations. But that’s changing now more than ever. “It’s no longer just about being an event on the ground, it’s much more holistic in terms of touchpoints…” said Alex Beer, Vice President – Client Services at GMR Marketing. Every touchpoint with a fan feed into and inform the others. It’s not a linear chain, but a full circle; experiential activations are not a single-touch experience with fans and shouldn’t be treated as such.


  4. Even before the pandemic, and certainly during the pause of most sports is caused, esports was on the mind of many in sports business. Monumental Sports and Entertainment has been investing in the space for years and MSE’s Vice President of Strategic Initiatives laid out why they’re bullish on investing in the space. He noted fans of esports are a digital-first audience, they are just as passionate as traditional sports fans, and MSE actively wants to be ahead of the curve with what’s next in sports and entertainment. But the most powerful statement Leonsis made alluded to how gaming is a prism through which a generation connects with each other. Esports is the social fabric of a generation. WNBA player Aerial Powers, who has nearly 5,000 subscribers to her Twitch channel, reinforced this point, saying her postgame routine (after getting home) often consists of jumping on Twitch, gaming, and catching up with her fans and friends. An interactive Twitch stream sounds like a pretty cool alternative for many fans to a postgame press conference.


  5. Outspoken MLB starting pitcher Trevor Bauer talked (in the clip below) about some of the fan engagement ideas he’s seen overseas. His observations underscore that if sports want dramatically change the direction they’re going with the next generation of fans, they have to be willing to experiment in big ways. The adherence to tradition and gradual changes may feel necessary to some, but it’s foolhardy if it’s done at the expense of losing a generation of fans. Having a player, e.g. one not remotely expected to play, in the dugout live-tweeting or even streaming a bit seems sacrilegious to even consider, but that’s the kind of challenge the old ways thinking that may be needed to save traditional sports. Nothing is stopping such experimentation from moving forward besides obstinate resistance in the name of competition. A lot of fan engagement tactics involving teams and players won’t help win games, but they can help win fans. And at some point, the latter has to outweigh the former more often than not.

6. For years, live sport has been becoming just as much a TV product as it is a live event product. That only accelerated this year with fans restricted from attending live games. “We [reimagined] the game without fans…We called these ‘studio games,’” said Manchester City FC CEO Ferran Soriano. “We transformed a problem…into an opportunity.” We often think of the pinnacle of televised live sports as making fans feel like they’re at the game. But what can a game look like if the entire presentation and field setup is built to be a TV product? Optimized for the fans at home, first and foremost, with fans in attendance more like a glorified studio audience (that may be a bit of an exaggeration, at least today). It’s thought-provoking to consider because, as has been oft-cited, the vast majority of fans will never attend a live game of their favorite team.

7. The best brand-celebrity partnerships start organically and are a true partnership. Bleacher Report’s CMO Ed Romaine talked about how the powerhouse publisher’s partnerships with celebrities and athletes often start with organic engagement. The celebs and athletes are already engaging with B/R/s content. The relationship then is not an endorsement or sponsorship, but a co-creative partnership. They collaborate on creative oversight and create produce something both sides can be proud to activate and promote. Properties don’t have to steal the attention that influencers, celebrities, and athletes garner and have earned, they can act more like an agency, giving these influential individuals the resources, platform, and creative assist to produce something extraordinary for fans, together.

8. Logo slaps are outdated, said Bleacher Report CMO Ed Romaine. Brands want to be more organically embedded in content and the story, getting that ‘halo benefit,’ he explained (and I paraphrase here). It has taken some time for the industry to catch up, the easier route with social and digital media was to put it alongside the print ads and ballpark billboards that prevailed on rate cards for decades in sports business and sports media. But the most valuable sponsorships are not built by eyeballs being borrowed away from the live or digital content they actually came for. When brands aren’t stealing away attention, but instead embedded ‘organically’ within good content, that’s a winning formula for all sides.

9. Many have recognized the opportunity to monetize the thousands and, for many teams, millions of fans that will never buy a ticket to a game. The reality imposed by the pandemic, when digital touchpoints are the only fan touchpoints made teams think about what it means to prioritize the at-home fans. Los Angeles Dodgers VP of Digital Caroline Morgan spoke about helping fans feel connected as they would at Dodger Stadium at a game, but also spent more time than ever thinking about how and why it’s valuable and lucrative to cultivate a global fanbase. A diehard Dodgers fan living across the country may never be a season ticket member, but is there another form of membership or path of sustained monetization (beyond sponsored social media) that should be more strategically approached and activated? There are a lot more social and digital-only fans than there are fans who attend live games, and the next big revenue opportunities will come from figuring out more ways to serve and monetize this enormous pool of fans.

10. There is a growing number of fans that are fans of players more than teams. There is a growing proportion of players that have more followers — and a higher number & proportion of engaged followers — than their teams on do. Those two telling trends are among the reasons why Opendorse’s co-founder and CEO Blake Lawrence says athletes should be out front – for recruits [in college] and for fans. It’s the athlete-driven and athlete empowerment era, he said. Leagues, schools, and teams that have realized that are looking internally and allocating resources and investment into equipping athletes with the resources to rock social media. Because engaged fans of a team’s players helps the team and the league. It starts with funneling game content like photos and highlights, but the next level is acting like something of an agency (ideally scalable) to co-create content with players that is as thumb-stopping as anything the team spends time on for their own feeds.

11. With more purchases of all products taking place online, there are more opportunities for brands to have direct relationships with consumers. And for brands to be more than just providers of products. Red Bull has earned praise for years for being a content brand that happened to sell energy drinks. Nicole Portwood, who is the Vice President of Marketing for Mountain Dew, discussed the increased movement to DTC (direct-to-consumer) for brands like Mountain Dew meant they could be more than just a beverage product that runs ads about said beverage product. Brands can deliver more and pull customers to them through content. The best content and distribution can win and there’s nothing stopping brands, like Mountain Dew, from attracting individuals to them through content in the level playing field of digital and social media. There is no competition for shelf space in digital, it’s a different kind of competition.

12. 2020 was the year that the comfort level of players posting video to social media went way up. Vice President of Marketing for the National Lacrosse League Katie Lavin noted that players started to that understand raw, unpolished video was okay and it “took away the fear” that content wasn’t good enough for their channels. Players who were once uneasy about posting anything that didn’t look produced or professional, let alone portray them as anything besides an elite, competitive athlete realized that it wasn’t just okay to use their iPhone to post a video to social, but that fans loved it when they did. And their social media engagement reflected it. There’s no turning back now, the willingness and eagerness for players to not be bashful about posting their own social media content, no matter how raw and amateur, will only increase. (And many will discover apps or in-app editing tools as they gain more fluency, too). Pro athletes were already influential on social media, but now many more are on the path to be influencers and creators.

None of this sports business matters without the fans. Everything should be framed around what is good for them, what helps them to connect to the team, the partners, and each other in authentic ways, and what makes them feel alive by being a fan of their team. Make this the year longstanding practices and status quos are challenged, imagining a better way. Innovate with the best of intentions. And remember why we do this.

Thanks again to Hashtag Sports for an excellent event!

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