The sports and greater sports business world keeps getting more complex.
It’s normal for industries to evolve day after day and year after year, but it sure does feel like the sports world gets involved in every new trend capturing people’s attention. It’s the blessing and the challenge of being part of an industry that’s driven by passion, unconditional fandom, and an endless supply of stories, characters, and live events.
But that’s kinda the point of it all.
Sports evolves with the mediums because it intertwines with the means to the important ends of connecting with others and feeling part of a community. Sports serves as the keystone upon which conversations, stories, and relationships are built.
As the universe gives way to the metaverse and gaming (or, at least, interacting in video game environments all day), the sports world already looks to be part of it. Gamers have been buying up ‘skins’ for their avatars to wear for a while now, sports teams have their own esports teams across a number of game titles, and organizations are imagining complex venues inside games, complete with sponsor signage and all. But look closer and those key underlying principles come to light — playing games is a pastime to do while you’re spending time with friends. You wear the skin featuring your favorite team partly because it’s a signal to other gamers to engage if they also like that team, an invitation to connect and interact.
The gaming ecosystem has also helped to usher in connection through related communities, backed by an array of diverse Discord servers and through other live audio rooms (like video games without the games) such as Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces. If sports are among the original points of community and social connection, they can now give life to smaller, but highly engaged micro-communities. Just as gamers in Fortnite can come together because of their mutual love for the team, how can sports teams serve a similar platform?
If fans playing games can come together because of mutual interest in a given team, could sports teams do the vice-versa — help fans of the team connect with each other around additional interests? Fans of the team that play the same video game, or that have young kids, or perhaps those that are also CrossFit adherents, etc. etc.?
We’re used to chasing big numbers in sports, but big communities don’t feel quite as special as they once did. And the world of non-fungible tokens — better known by the ubiquitous acronym NFTs — is serving to build these more exclusive, connective communities. In sports, they may become the new loyalty program — tracking/rewarding how fans engage, introducing those with similar passions and avidity levels an opportunity to connect.
Yes, there is the fiscal side to NFTs, with the community conversation often superseded by aspirations of making big bucks; creating financial assets more than communities. It’s not unlike the promise of gambling’s arrival to US sports. In the short-term it means big-money deals with sponsorships AND, the hope is, more engagement from bettors seeking to get an edge and to watch their wagers play out in real time. The long-term hope is that gambling can be an entry point for fans, as those buoyed by winning bets develop a genuine passion for the players and the team that helped win them money. And, vice-versa perhaps for teams, that existing fans become even more engaged as they learn to gamble.
Many fans are learning about money lines and parlays through their favorite teams and team/league partner activations. Fans will likely soon learn about blockchain technology through sports, too, as ticketing evolves in that direction. Other fans are also learning about NFTs, DAOs, OTT, AR, and other new technology (even non-acronyms!) Sports will continue to be a key platform through which consumers try out new technology and learn new ideas that they’ll take with them to other parts of their life.
Sports have been aspiring to transcend into lifestyle brands for years now. Look at the sports fan experience today — many will arrive at a game in the Uber or Lyft lot, they can order food [or even merch] to their seats often through a partner like Postmates or Doordash or even GoPuff. They’ll check the weather, make betting-like predictions, and (I’ve even seen) purchase and manage insurance plans all in the team app. For years, many in the west have expected Facebook or Instagram to become more like the super apps of the east such as WeChat and Alipay. Could sports apps start to head in that direction, too, with more of fans’ lives orbiting around their favorite sports? (You can read a good article about ‘super apps’ here if you’re interested)
The pinnacle is when one’s team becomes part of their identity, such that they wear the brand (in the physical and/or digital worlds) and feel a part of a community. This same feeling is starting to prevail in communities that form and germinate from fans of influencers, be they musicians, YouTubers, TikTokers, etc. In the influencer world, fans show they’re part of the club through buying subscriptions, emoting digital gifts, and, yes, purchasing NFTs. Many NFTs are now laden with experiential benefits, too, such as attending a Gary Vaynerchuk event, getting face time with their favorite influencer, access to exclusive events or merchandise, and more. Which influencer’s NFT will come with tickets to a game or series of games, or access to exclusive team swag and experiences? Influencers could be a viable entry point for fans to further connect and engage with the teams they love or could grow to love, too.
Athletes were among the ‘original’ influencers. And they are starting to seize the opportunities presented to them in the increasingly influencer-focused economy. Leagues and college programs are facilitating athlete success on social more than ever now. They want to turn their athletes into influencers with the hopes they’ll reach and cultivate more fans. Many leagues and teams already work with the traditional influencers, but they’re starting to realize there are powerful social and digital influencers who are already on their payroll.
The past year has ushered in rapid evolution of new ideas and technologies in sports and beyond. The majority are still wrapping their head around the opportunities that lie with blockchain, NFTs, influencers, web3, metaverse, and super apps and super brands, and the accessory mediums that pop up within and around these areas.
But, as becomes more clear every year — as things keep changing, the foundations that make the sports business great only get stronger. There’s passion, connection, community, and identity. I don’t know what 2022 will bring for sports, but I have little doubt we’ll all find a way to cheer and take it all in together.