We’re in the remix era of social media. Trends, memes, duets, reactions — a powerful seed of content begets a tree, which can turn into a forest. Content snowballs, with creators from across the world, in different communities, and from various subcultures, with original POVs, adding their unique take. No snowflake is alike, to complete the analogy, and AI-infused feeds seek to deliver the precise snowflake that’s perfect for you, the content that seems targeted to an audience of one — you.
So what’s a media behemoth, a decades-old brand like ESPN to do in this space, where they’re one of many voices on social, working with the same sports content and stories everybody else is? There’s no easy answer, but in many ways ESPN is spreading and discovering seeds, helping plant the trees across an array of diverse sports fan communities. I loved the way ESPN’s Senior Vice President, Original Content & ESPN Films Brian Lockhart put it on a panel at the ESPN Edge Conference [click to watch] in October 2022.
“How do we open source [a] story,?” he said. “Maybe deliver this to a different partner that has an authentic voice on a different platform. “That same piece of IP can have new life breathed into it and hit different for different audiences.”
For much of social media, user-generated content provides a lot of seeds. Whether it’s home videos, serendipitous discoveries of content, memes, and everything in between — fans are planting seeds all over. ESPN Vice President of Social Media Kaitee Daley applied a perspective related to Lockhart’s ‘open source’ idea in describing how they activate user-generated content and inviting diverse voices to put their spin on it.
“Nearly half of all media consumed is user-generated media,” Daley said. “This notion of someone down the street from me went and filmed their kid doing something incredible in the backyard and that’s going to perform as well on our channels as a really well-done highlight. When you think about how we approach that, sometimes I think people go ’Well that’s not innovative at all because anyone can do it.
“But what we’ve started to do on TikTok in particular is bring voices like Omar Raja to those moments. So we’re storytelling user-generated content in a different way and it’s made for that audience. They consume and they think ‘this is for me’ And that speaks to that inclusivity as well.”
So, yes, create your content and serve your fans. But also invite others to build off the content you produce or curate. When platforms like TikTok strive to deliver the exact right content to the tiny, exact cohort of users for which that video is a perfect match — trying to be everything to everyone is a losing battle by design. There are too many segments and sub-segments, communities, and sub-cultures — the forest is appreciated for its trees.
That’s one of my own key takeaways from hearing the insightful conversation on the ESPN Edge Conference panel.
TikTok has disrupted social media strategy for everybody.
Because anybody can go viral, every account is on a treadmill chasing that next big hit. The next video that’ll rack up hundreds of thousands or millions of views and engagements and capture the attention of lots of…people. It may not be entirely clear what it means when a post goes viral on TikTok, but the most strategically savvy brands, teams, and organizations have a strategic foundation for all their content — ensuring that virality has value.
The millions of fans that discover The Savannah Bananas on TikTok may not have a favorite MLB team, let alone know much about baseball at all. But with over 3.5 million followers on the platform, the Bananas know that every encounter is a chance to execute against their core mission to proselytize the sport; in brief, to spread the joy and the game of baseball.
“We have the sole goal to make baseball fun,” said Savanah Alaniz, Marketing Coordinator for The Savannah Bananas. “So anything that we do or post, we think how is this going to show making baseball fun?
“When I post something on TikTok, I hope that whenever anyone sees it that they think it’s so intriguing that they have to do exactly what I did the first time I saw the Bananas — they have to go to the account and see more and all the other things they see make them laugh and then make them wanna show their roommate or their sister or brother, dad — like, ‘Oh my gosh, look what this baseball team did.’…
“My hope is that we post something that just pulls you in, even if it’s not all the way, but pulls you in just enough to where you have to [wonder] what the heck is this?”
TikTok may be that first touchpoint for many fans. That first engagement or encounter may not lead to a purchase, let alone a lifetime of fandom — that shouldn’t be the goal, really. As Alaniz noted, it’s to pique that curiosity, get them to want to see and learn more. And the more they see, the closer the Bananas get to accomplishing their goals of propagating the joy of baseball and positioning the Bananas as the beacon for that message.
Social media was never about driving a sale. A ‘conversion’ on social media can mean a lot of things. And as exciting as it can be for Instagram Stories to add swipe-up links or for TikTok to try and sell tickets, we know better. Rather than chase the fraction of a percent that may click through, let alone complete a purchase, focus on the most powerful part of social media — giving friends or a community something to talk about. When content cuts through, the fans become the marketers, and the invaluable pathways of dark social take over — and the brand comes along for the ride as the purveyor of that social capital. In the global ecosystem of social media and digital-first (or even digital-only) fandom, being a ‘fan’ can mean a lot of things. It becomes even more clear to hear Alaniz tell it.
“We want the Bananas to be global,” she said. “We want every single person to know the brand. So whenever you’re walking on the street and you see an LA Dodgers cap, like you’re gonna recognize the logo immediately. [We want the Bananas] to be like that…just to be super popular. [Fans] may not be able to attend the game, yes, but they can share the video online with their TikTok or online with their friend. Then maybe that person is in a city that we’re touring to and then they can go attend a game where they like the team, they can buy merchandise…”
What’s the ROI of a smile? It’s difficult to say, of course, but we know a smile is a win on social. Smiles add up and smiles can help form a positive relationship with a brand or a sport or a person. The Bananas know that every smile conjured by baseball gets those viewers closer to recognizing the joy that baseball brings. So, in many ways, the Bananas are building fans and celebrating metrics, sure, but they’re also just chasing smiles.
“How can we reach a new audience of not only ticket buyers, but just people in general, baseball fans and non-baseball fans to be like, ‘Hey, baseball is cool, baseball is fun’,” said Alaniz, who has been with the Bananas since 2020. “We love the sport, we want it to keep growing, and bringing joy to people and reaching people that baseball wasn’t able to reach before.
“So I think that’s the big goal is to continue making baseball fun and then obviously we want everybody to know about the Bananas. They should. It brings a smile to your face.”
Just watch any Savannah Bananas video or even the ESPN+ series ‘Welcome to Bananaland’ and you’ll see the fun and novelty of the team. But TikTok is a heck of a beast to tame and once you think you understand it, something unexpected takes off while the thing you expected to perform well falls flat instead. Video trends or trending sounds can feel like the way to go, oftentimes, but it’s what you do with the trends that determines whether it leaves a lasting impact on the viewer. Something resonates beyond just another iteration of the trend they’ve seen throughout the scroll. I love the way Alaniz put it when describing how the Bananas approach TikTok trends, inventing the word ‘Bananafy.’
“We have a meeting every single day at 4:00 where we talk about what are two trends that we saw last night while we were scrolling TikTok in bed and how can we ‘Bananafy’ those trends?…”I think if you scroll our content, you’ll find a way that, yes, we completely gave in to a TikTok trend and we did it on the mound or something. Like, we just did the trend because we knew it needed to be done; the people wanted it so we gave it to them…”
But Alaniz continued, talking about what it means for the Bananas to ‘create’ a trend. The success of said trend is not necessarily going viral on TikTok with hundreds or thousands of imitators. Sometimes the best sign of success is videos of Little League parents showing off their kids having fun on the baseball field recreating something they saw the Bananas do.
“[We try] these weird things that have never been seen before in a baseball field [and] Little Leaguers are trying to do it. I think that’s pretty cool,” said Alaniz, who is still a kid herself, almost, having just graduated from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in 2022. “Will we ever start a super crazy viral trend like Charli D’ Amelio and Addison Rae? Probably not. But the Little Leaguers see it and that’s pretty cool.
“I think that’s more important than the masses.”
The Bananas are reaching generations of fans that didn’t know you could have so much fun by breaking the rules. Or creating new rules. If spreading the joy of baseball is the Bananas’ core belief, a key tenet of the doctrine is to err on the side of trying something new. Call it defiant innovation, naive exuberance, and not so much a rejection of the status quo but the absence of unconditional reverence for it — that is what has helped guide the Bananas to such massive success on the field, in business, and on social media. Alaniz feels that encouragement to take swings (to borrow baseball parlance) and it comes directly from the top in Bananas owner Jesse Cole.
“Typically you don’t have owners of teams telling you ‘Hey, break the rules, do this crazy thing. You see the line, now go a mile past it,’” she said. “You don’t have team owners selling you that. But Jesse gives you the confidence that you can do that, and it’s okay to fail at the Bananas because if you don’t fail a couple of times how are you gonna know what works and what doesn’t?”
It’s time to redefine what success means in social media strategy. To chase goals bigger than virality. To reframe failure as a pit stop and not a dead end. And to focus on the feelings and storytelling we want to inspire more than the metric. Because if you’re having fun along the way and leaving every fan with a smile, nobody will even care to remember the score anyway.
Bonus: Because Savanah and the Bananas have crushed it so much on TikTok, I wanted to include her going into detail about their TikTok and social media ideation and execution strategy:
“[It’s] definitely a lot of scrolling. I call that my research. I do spend a certain amount, anywhere from like 15 to 20 minutes [or more] depending on what I have for the day. Just minutes of my day scrolling, seeing what people are saying on Twitter about certain things, or TikTok — what are the sounds that people are using? Or Facebook even, like, what are the PTA moms up to these days?
“So then I kind of figure out, alright, this is what the people are talking about. So I have a long-running list; I have a note in my phone and then I also have an Excel sheet, and then also I bookmark a lot of tweets. I bookmark a lot of TikToks to go back to, but I typically add links in my notes, and then I’ll add like a little note under there of just what I’m thinking of. Normally when I see a trend, I think in that moment, like, ‘Oh, this is what I wanna do.’ So like I said earlier, Caitlin and I have this 4:00 meeting every single day where we talk about what are two trends that we saw yesterday. That way we constantly know that we’re growing and learning new things. And half of these, more than half of these — 75% of them will never see the light of day. It’s just we wanna keep that creative muscle in our brains working and thinking of ways to Banana-fy trends or think of new trends.
“There have been times where I’ve just like sat and stared at the wall and kind of hoped that an idea would come to me and, like, it doesn’t really work. I would rather scroll. But yeah, there have been a couple times where I’ve just had to like sit and look at the sky and kind of wait for something to come to me. We also have ideas sessions. So that is where our team gets together, we’re told topics beforehand and we think in these buckets and these categories of trying to think of, like, hitter walkups that are unique or run celebrations, for example.
“So we’re constantly around here thinking of new ideas and working that idea muscle.”
“I’d say 2020 is the year everybody got religion.”
So I plucked this out of a more extended response from Aileen McManamon, discussing sports organizations and their role, activities, and opportunities in driving progress worldwide. Be it sustainability, diversity, social justice — the power and, in many ways, the responsibility of brands in sports and beyond came to the forefront in the last few years.
McManamon is a Cleveland native (and big fan of Cleveland sports) and therefore has witnessed the fracturing of the Cleveland Browns fan base when they brought in the embattled quarterback Deshaun Watson. That’s just one of many examples in which the most loyal, unconditional customers of all — sports fans — have had a reason to question their fidelity to their favorite teams and athletes. That represents a wider trend throughout society of employees and consumers of companies not turning a blind eye, no matter how passionate their fandom and support.
“It’s not a blind loyalty…We’re becoming more critical,” said McManamon who founded 5T Sports Group, which helps sports properties, partners, and event sites drive impact. “And now it’s evolved even more forward because we know this particular generation of fans has a greater affinity to the athlete than they do to the team…You make space for even athletes that you’re not particularly a fan of, you might have never seen them play, but you just love what they stand for.
“So this is an interesting evolution of that is that what we find is the more that someone stands for, the more drawn people are to that.”
Something else happened the last few years, too, as organizations witnessed and participated in the broad reckoning of a multitude of issues in the country and the world — many brands tried to cover all of it. To make statements, promise results, and declare their stance on just about everything that the populace seemed to have an opinion about.
But statements catch up, so while it’s easy enough to put out said statements, consumers and fans today are skeptical of just statements. Statements without action are meaningless and oftentimes can even be detrimental. So how does an organization know where to allocate its scarce resources, attention, and genuine efforts?
“If you’re in conversations with your fans on social and if you have a good presence on social and you’re following that conversation, you’ll know what they care about more, and what they care about less,” said McManamon discussing the importance of listening to and knowing your fan base. “And when something happens in your community, you better be there on it, right?”
Sports teams and athletes really do have an outsized role in their community and the world. While the companies and athletes themselves have a modest bottom line, relatively speaking, their influence and the passion they inspire are unmatched. And the good news for the power players in sports is that doing good for the world is also good for business, now more than ever. But the incentive goes beyond driving customer or fan loyalty and beyond some sense of self-righteousness or even genuine altruism — it’s a matter of survival, in many ways. McManamon talked about how sports ecosystems — the teams, the locales, the venues, the economies — are microcosms of society, and therefore they have the ability to be a testing ground, proving ground, and force for progress.
“The sports industry is a component of everything going on. It’s still relatively small; as large as the sports industry is it’s still a small component of the overall economy,” she explained. “But the platform that they have is quite substantial. Where they should approach [sustainability goals] from is by saying, ‘We’re not doing this because, ‘It’s a nice thing to do, or it’s the right thing to do.’ You’re doing it at this point to preserve your business on the environmental side.”
Sports also have an outsized influence because there exists within sports an incredible capacity to unite. The prince and the pauper can still talk about that great game last night, and fans can agree that the rival team in the state sucks, regardless of those fans’ political leanings. That power goes beyond a broadcast platform, McManamon explained, making a salient point. And when you can harness that fandom fire and activate it in a directed manner, you can achieve an outsized result.
McManamon said it well: “Sports are not just kind of a stage broadcast platform, but also a unifying platform. When we go to see sports, that’s where you’re gonna see a professor and a plumber sitting next to each other, or a Republican and a Democrat…people are sitting side by side that are coming from very different backgrounds, but in that moment they’re united in that passion for the [team], everybody’s pulling on that same rope. So this is really the lever that our sports teams can use, the broadcast and the medium.”
McManamon continued: “We’re united in our dislike for the other team…So imagine things like getting your fans all rolling on a food bank challenge…this is where some of these things fall flat; they’re like, ‘Oh, bring a can [of food] to the game’…How about, ‘Hey, let’s beat the other guys. We’re gonna do better than them [on donating food]. Our team might lose today, but this is in our control as fans.’
“So you can really rally people around taking actions collectively. And even when it has a little bit of animosity to it, that’s okay because you have to press the emotional buttons that people respond to.”
Sports fandom engenders a particular sort of patriotism, but modern fans want their teams and players to live up to such passionate pride. Fans want to know that their favorite team is worthy of such affection. When forces for good intersect with the communal, competitive nature of sports, the world is better for it.
Social media and sports roles didn’t exist when most of us were born. We couldn’t list Social Media Manager for a sports team as a dream job for the fifth-grade yearbook. So the pathways, the lifestyle, the strategies — everybody is still trying to figure it all out as we build it.
So it’s instructive to hear from those continuing to pave the way, leaving legacies in their path. Amie Kiehn has been one of those trailblazers. She didn’t start in the smsports stone age (that would be me), but what she accomplished in her 5+ years with the Carolina Panthers and what continues to do now as the Head of Community at Gondola has touched the industry in meaningful ways. I recently spoke with Kiehn on the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast and came away enlightened and inspired.
Here are six big lessons for social media and sports (and beyond) from the thoughtful, reflective Kiehn:
Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there
Kiehn talked about making her own breaks — sending countless cold emails to pros in the sports space, getting replies back from only a few. Years later, she runs into many of those people as peers, many of whom were too busy to get back to ambitious Amie back then. Reaching out is free, and doing so instantly separates you from 90% of aspiring students and young professionals that don’t.
“It took a lot of [bravery] to just reach out to people and be like, it’s okay if they don’t reply,” Kiehn told me. “So that’s what I would tell a lot of young people — if they’re willing to put themselves out there, the universe will reward them with hopefully good things.”
Learn to lead in different ways for different people
The best social media staffs in sports have a lot going for them — creative talent, resourcefulness, buy-in, and strategy — but leadership and strong, cohesive teams are underappreciated and integral. Great social media squads also require a diverse set of players, all working together in harmony to manage the output, the brand, and the short-term and long-term strategy. Before beginning her sports and social media career, Kiehn spent years teaching through the Teach For America program. She talked about the important lessons she learned from her time in the classroom, where not every student learned the same way and could be instructed the same way. She took that to heart with the panthers
“So once I realized that, and where I felt like I was hitting my stride, was when I was leading where not everyone got the same Amie,” she said. “Some people just wanted to be like, ‘Hey, I’m good. Approve my budget. Let me go.’ And other people needed some nurturing, which was fine because that’s the type of leader I am…I’m an empath, I really care about people deeply. So that was an easy thing to click once I got it…That’s how I felt like I was being my full self, when I was leading and helping others.”
Don’t take this all too seriously
When every tweet, Story, and TikTok will reach tens or hundreds of thousands or millions, it may be natural to feel a little intimidation. You’re part of a team that works hard and plays a game among fierce competitors where winning is everything. You’re part of a multi-million or billion-dollar business with big budgets and impressive production teams. But you can’t get bogged down in all that, can’t be afraid of failure and taking healthy risks. Sports are supposed to be fun, social media is supposed to be relatable. Kiehn and her team embraced a spirit of innovation and a dedication to, well, fun.
“I think sometimes we can take things too seriously in the content space and that’s okay,” Kiehn explained. “At the Panthers, I always felt like our voice was something that you could kind of poke fun at yourself a little bit. So we often would make content that maybe wasn’t super-polished and didn’t always have the most pristine look, like it was a meme that we saw…We really tried to have fun with it.
“I think that was how we had so many (social media) home runs… is because we tried to have fun ourselves and make our team laugh; then we had set the precedent that like, okay, we’re going to try it. The Panthers team always would hear me say this: ‘Okay. Let’s try it. And let’s watch the comments like hawks’ We would post stuff…[being] like, let’s [just] post it. But let’s immediately get feedback from people. And if it’s not a hit, let’s just take it off. But if it is a hit, let’s find out what we did there that we can try to capitalize again on.”
Sometimes you need to reset and that’s okay
It’s very easy to get addicted to the routine. You kind of have to, at times, in the social media and sports world just to keep up and keep your sanity. But that doesn’t mean teams should eschew a consistent pursuit of progress and keep everything the same even if it feels stale, stilted, or no longer suitable. This was key insight Kiehn picked up in her time as a teacher, where classrooms could get chaotic at times and everybody just needed a reset.
Said Kiehn: “If I felt like things were not grooving in the right way, I’d be like ‘Alright, let’s all get together, let’s talk about it. Is there something that I’m doing? Is there a process that needs to be rehashed out? [Does] someone just kind of need a break? Let’s talk this out so we can fix it and it’s not that big of a deal. So I started trying to make those conversations happen more often.
“So that’s a big thing of [being a leader] for me was [to be] someone willing to call out [when] it seems like either morale-wise, content-wise, just the process of how we’re managing projects — do we need to reevaluate something? So I always was fine with re-evaluating something, even if it was a process that I loved and [others feel] this isn’t working.”
What comes first — the buy-in or the measured success?
Okay, it’s kind of a trick question. Because each begets more of the other. In learning from Kiehn and what drove such a great reputation and results with the Carolina Panthers social media, she attributed a lot to the trust and buy-in. That included her immediate supervisors all the way up to team owners David and Nicole Tepper. And that trust gave them the agency to continue to take chances, have fun, and continue to build the social media brand of the team to the point that fans came to anticipate each post and poke.
“Our team really felt pretty empowered that — if the ownership group is being like, yes, you guys are kind of funny, keep it up — then it really enticed us to keep momentum,” Kiehn reflected. “When you’re organically making fun content and you’re hopping on trends that make sense for the brand, it shows up in the numbers.
“And we had [created] such an established voice on social that people were like, oh, I want to see what the Panthers do…We were getting great numbers because we were doing something that was fun and different, and people really liked that.”
Work-life balance is possible in sports, it’s just defined differently
The last couple of years has seen the sports industry face a reckoning amidst the broader ‘great resignation’ happening in the US. Kiehn herself is among them, becoming the Head of Community at Gondola, where she can continue to support creatives and pros in social media, and at a job that also affords her more time at home and with her family. Most everybody accepts that sports business happens during business hours AND during non-business hours; sports are weekdays and weekends, sports happens on holidays, and there will be early mornings and late nights. But sustainability is more possible when the working hours are more a series of peaks and valleys, and not excessive with no end. Kiehn gave a thoughtful perspective on the challenge of work-life balance in the sports industry, who says the working hours in sports are ‘like a pendulum.’
“I honestly don’t believe there can be work-life balance in how people imagine it, [as in] I do work 50% and I live my life [50%]; I don’t think that works,” she said. “I think people in this time right now are craving flexibility. So I hope that in this new workforce we could have something where you both work and life can be flexible and that you can finally hopefully maybe have more of an equilibrium.
“I always try to remind people that…it’s like a pendulum a little bit; some days with more heavy work, some days heavier at home…I think all people should have…as much of an equilibrium that works for you as possible.”
Thanks so much to Amie for lending her thoughtful, articulate insight and expertise! We will continue to learn from her and leaders like her for years to come…
The worst parts of the pandemic appear to be over and sports are gradually returning to normalcy. Games are being played in front of packed venues and there is more than enough live sports programming to satisfy any fan’s appetite. But there have been and will be lasting effects of 2020 for the sports industry — new platforms, new fan behaviors, new opportunities and necessities. These themes permeated much of the conversation at the 2021 Hashtag Sports Virtual Conference this past June, one of many great industry events that Hashtag Sports holds.
I recommend you check out all the panels (they’re available on demand). You’ll digest some thought-provoking ideas and key learnings from the panels — here I present some of mine in the following 20 nuggets:
Don’t chase numbers, accomplish goals. In a conversation between STN Digital’s David Brickley and Shareablee’s Tania Yuki, a key point was to establish objectives and KPIs for social media strategy and campaigns and focus on those metrics as measures of success. Depending on the goals, there are successful scenarios in which the vanity metrics do not go up.
“Too much time is spent on finding the wins.” This quote came from Yuki, who noted there is a ton of insight to come from looking at the ‘losers’ among social media posts as there are the winners; perhaps even more.
On one of the panels, the moderator asked each speaker to name their favorite social media platform and why. For Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Gallup, notably, it was Facebook. Why? It’s because it’s THE place for him and his partner brands to reach families. “Grandparents, aunts & uncles, (family) – you got everybody on there…” said Gallup.
We see influencers partner and collaborate on platforms like TikTok and teammates often pairing up for podcasts for videos. But Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekelter talked about his initiatives uniting athletes across sports for causes, collaborations, organizations, and events like Twitch streams and tournaments. If athletes across sports start working together more, the possibilities are endless…
In discussing the last year and recent priorities, both Jared Harding (Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche) and Nick Monroe (Milwaukee Bucks) named YouTube as an area of focus. They touted YouTube as a good way to reach new and broader audiences, so they’re programming for YouTube strategically.
Greg Mize, Senior Marketing & Innovation Director with the Atlanta Braves, discussed the three criteria he and his team use when evaluating new digital/social platforms. There is the business case (how can this benefit the business?), the audience there (who can we reach?), and the resources required for success on the platform.
In articulating his thoughts about TikTok, Mize characterized the content there with a thoughtful quote: “It’s the micro-highlight…It’s the highlight within the highlight.” A sharp summation about content like the bat flip and high-five resonating more than the actual home run (my line, not his).
Portland Trail Blazers Director of Content Aaron Grossman talked about gleaning insights early on new platforms by getting feedback from the audience. “They say don’t read the comments, but with a new channel it’s important to [do so], to learn (what the audience likes).” The audience will often point to where you’re going right and where you’re going wrong.
Grossman also cited the growth rate of the brand/account’s audience on a new platform as a key KPI to know if the team’s content is resonating and to evaluate the viability of the platform for the team overall.
In discussing how teams can look at the ROI of social media, the Braves’s Mize talked about the long tail of fandom. “We believe firmly that creating engagement on social media will eventually have a long-tail impact on monetization…(We need to) build fandom through engagement.”
Joe Carr, the CEO of Thrill One Sports and Entertainment (Nitro Circus, among other brands) talked about the company’s success with UGC, particularly during the pandemic. But Carr cautioned that it’s important to not saturate the brand’s feed with UGC and to be mindful of the type of UGC they’re sharing. Thrill One is cognizant to maintain brand integrity amidst the UGC strategy, he said.
The Sacramento Kings have had a tough time on the court, but they operate at an all-pro level on social media. A key for them, according to Kings Social Media Manager Sydney Zuelke is to have fun on social media. That’s why the team has embraced a light, playful tone that is mimicked in their engaging content. If you have fun then fans will, too — win or lose.
How pervasive is gaming (not to be confused, necessarily, with esports) among Gen Z? According to Hollister Director of Brand Marketing Jacee Scoular, 90% of their Gen Z consumers consider themselves a gamer (!). A stat that explains why the brand has entered the gaming space for various campaigns.
Twitch Regional Vice President Nathan Lindberg was on a panel alongside Scoular and made an interesting comparison that esports fans are a bit like NASCAR fans. By that he means they genuinely appreciate the partners supporting their favorite drivers (or gamers) and sport — and therefore are undyingly loyal to those sponsor brands.
Speaking of appreciating sponsors and being loyal (even evangelical) to those partners, Scotiabank’s Lisa Ferkul said this level of proselytizing fidelity has been very much the effect her brand has seen from their sponsorship of women’s sport. To underscore the opportunity (and dearth) for sponsorship of women’s sports, Ferkul cited an eye-popping stat — just 0.4% of sports sponsorship revenue. It’s just about all with men’s sports. Wow.
Instagram’s Head of Sports Dev Sethi is always thoughtful on these conference panels and here he spoke about Instagram’s objective (for sports organizations to heed) of helping fans express themselves [and driving/helping them to do so by posting content to IG]. “How do you encourage fans to express themselves?” Sethi succinctly stated.
Sethi also recommended organizations think ‘holistically’ about their Instagram strategy. To utilize all of the platform’s offerings in a cohesive manner — Feed, Stories, Reels, Shopping, IGTV, and Live.
Kaitee Daley runs social media for ESPN, so she knows all too well the frequent ideas and opinions expressed by everyday social media users (including coworkers) that aren’t social media professionals. It’s an experience to which many can relate, but Daley encouraged social pros to not let ‘backseat social media drivers’ get them down. Said Daley: “Driving your car every day doesn’t make you an expert in cars just like using social media every day doesn’t make you an expert in social. So trust your experts…”
Jack Settleman, the brains behind leading Snapchat [and general social media] sports media brand Snapback Sports gave a thoughtful panel and talked about how he actually planned to go viral (and did) at the Super Bowl. How? He knew every year there’s a big hullabaloo about the color of Gatorade that would be dumped on the winning coach (also always a popular sports betting prop). So he made sure he had a good shot of the moment and got the video out there while the main broadcast wasn’t as focused on the Gatorade pouring moment. You can’t manufacture virality, but you sure can anticipate opportunities that present viral moments.
Settleman also confirmed what many had suspected — hot takes and polarizing stances drive engagement with sports fans. There’s a reason the Skip Baylesses of the world drive engagement and reaction with their polarizing takes on TV and social media. Settleman said taking such stances and then letting the fans argue away has been a key ingredient in their engagement strategy.
There are far more nuggets of insight from the Hashtag Sports Virtual Conference that I could not get close to covering in the short list above. I recommend you check out the on-demand videos for further enlightenment.
If there’s one thing sports business professionals can count on, it’s that the engagement and activation strategies that prevail today won’t be the same next year, perhaps even next week. While we must follow the money and the metrics oftentimes, it’s important to never stop asking questions. To tackle challenges, to question the meaningfulness of the best and the worst ‘results’, to never get complacent, and to follow our instinct as fans at heart.
The coolest part of the so-called reputation of Gen Z is that they don’t simply subscribe to the way things have always been. That it’s good to question ideas and strategies that many proclaimed as just the way things are done or as best practices. Don’t just think outside the box, build a new box. Heck, build a whole set of new boxes.
With that inspiration in mind, I want to enter 2021 questioning every status quo. If something has been deemed the best way to do something for going on decades, make it live up to that billing today. Because fans look different, technology changes, culture evolves, and traditions and best practices are replaced by new ones. That doesn’t happen without challenging the way things are, first, and then testing new hypotheses in search of the next paradigm-shifting idea.
Here are five areas in the sports and social media ecosystem that could be ripe for disruption. Not just evolution but revolution. These are my ideas and what immediately crossed my mind, what are yours?
Sports Broadcasts Haven’t Changed Much in Decades. Why?
Ever since our parents or even our grandparents first began watching live sports, the broadcast paradigm has not evolved all that much. Broadcasts started off with an announcer providing play-by-play. Then a color commentator was added to complement the play-by-play with color and analysis. Monday Night Football added a third in its early days, boldly trying to make their broadcast more entertaining to a wider national audience over the years. The camera views and sound have improved greatly, sideline reporters provide eyes and access behind-the-scenes. But as we enter 2021, outside of cooler cameras and clearer views, broadcasts are not all that different from 20, 30, or 40 years ago.
Megacasts have provided an interesting experiment here and there, and Amazon Prime Video’s alternate audio for NFL games is a peripheral trial with good intentions. But a couple of Snoop Dogg appearances started opening the eyes to more. His commentary of a NHL game last year went viral and in late 2020, his stint calling a couple boxing matches for Triller were the talk of the town.
There is a marriage to tradition because so much of the country rejects any aberration from what they’ve always known. But what could it mean to blow up this paradigm? To make a broadcast weigh more on the side of entertaining than informative? There are plenty of contractual and technological barriers that perhaps stand in the way of such innovation, but time is running out. Younger generations of sports fans eschew watching live sports in favor of highlights and other entertainment. This is not because of attention span deficits — many watch their favorite Twitch streamer for hours. There is no single right answer and I’m not here to provide my own. Just to make us think ‘what if?’ What if broadcasters are not talking at fans but with them, not diving into the details of a specific play call but more on jokes or storytelling, not cutting to a sideline reporter sidling near coaches but cutting to a reporter watching alongside a crazed and costumed fan? The paradigm can’t change until somebody changes it.
Sports Teams are So Much More Than Sports Teams
One of the neat initiatives from teams across sports during the COVID-caused pause was the production of fun and even educational activities for kids. Some teams also had their strength coaches lead workout and yoga sessions. Other had team dietitians and chefs talk about healthy eating and perform cooking demos. Even mascots found creative ways to entertain fans of all ages.
Sports organizations are good at a lot of things. Building and managing a team of elite athletes, sure, but also event management, video production, graphic design, preparing food, physical training and recovery, mental performance, and so much more. Without games to cover, live in-person events to produce and manage, and tickets to sell, organizations had all this capability and talent at disposal.
What can teams do with this expertise and ability, many of which more closely resemble agencies than sports teams? Could teams produce scripted content, extensive educational programs for kids, educational programs for adults (who want to learn Photoshop, After Effects, Premier, Social Media Strategy, marketing strategy, data analysis, and more), fitness classes, a cooking show rivaling anything seen on Food Network, etc. etc.? Some teams have even built their own branded gyms, could hotels and restaurants be next? There are many boxes to think outside of, more opportunities yet to be explored.
The Bachelorette as Competition for Sports
It doesn’t matter how exciting the game or collection of games are that are playing at any given time. If The Bachelor or The Bachelorette is on, it will find its way toward or at the top of the Twitter trends. Perhaps only the Super Bowl could make fans turn away or post about something else. Maybe. With live viewership and share of heart and mind more competitive than ever, what is there for sports to learn?
I do not watch either of the aforementioned matchmaking shows, but it’s impossible to escape between Twitter, fantasy leagues, and active online communities everywhere. There is more storytelling in sports than ever, but is it mostly the kind focused more on turning casual fans into avid fans? Nowadays, there is more data for the growing gambling fans (many hope!), more sources of deep insight into the strategy and analytics, and great info on the athleticism and real-time decision making. But what disruptive thinking can get fans emotionally invested into every player, each game feeling like a drama unfolding? What can attract not just casual fans, but people who aren’t fans at all (yet)?
Showcasing the drama of sports is not a new idea, NFL Films pioneered that long ago. But how can that elevation be brought into the everyday, and into the real-time experience? There are steps getting us there with each game, each season. Is there a revolution to come out of the evolution? I can’t dream it up today, but perhaps somebody will, if there is such an avant-garde movement to come.
What Happens When Highlights are a Dime a Dozen?
Back in my day…well, my day wasn’t all THAT long ago, the omnipresence of video on the Internet and on social media wasn’t a thing. Such proliferation hasn’t even been around ten years. It’s easy to take for granted that missing a big play in a game, or just about any play in a game, doesn’t matter these days because the video will be on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, or elsewhere within minutes, if not seconds. But the more readily accessible all this video — and the more one’s timeline is everybody sharing the same clips — the more the currency of highlights gets diluted.
As the value of highlights diminishes by their widespread availability, what’s a team or account to do to add value? What does it look to like to upset the status quo of game highlights? There has been some evolution in the space, with some leagues dispatching correspondents into places bigger broadcast cameras can’t go, grabbing unique angles and access for fans on social. More advanced cameras, too, can give fans 360-degree looks at a play. There is room for even more innovation for the real-time phenomenon of highlights as it enters its second decade.
If the focus is less on providing a volume of highlights (or changing how that volume is shared), there exists more leeway and time to produce something different, something original that turns a highlight into something more. It could be adding in data about the action in the play (which some have done), enhancing the video with special effects, production elements, and music, making them interactive (whatever that may mean), providing them to creators or fans and letting them produce something cool in the moment, or any number of other ideas one can cook up. When scarcity starts to dry up as a value proposition, that’s the sign of an opportunity to innovate and to try to pivot to what’s next.
The Power of Player-Led Content
One of my favorite things to take off in recent years, and 2020 especially, is the passive camera opportunity for players, particularly in the NFL. You’ve no doubt seen the ‘Showtime Cam’ from games where players celebrate in front of the video screens in the end zone after touchdowns or turnovers, watching themselves ham it up for a national audience. A handful of NFL teams similarly set up cameras at training camps inviting players to participate with a prompt or just giving them the lens to do whatever they wanted. Athletes are more comfortable creating content and filming themselves than ever before (thanks in part to the prolonged sports pause and period of sheltering). And they appreciate the value of that content more than ever, too.
Something’s just different when players can perform and seek out attention on their terms. To make it onto the team’s or league’s platforms, when they don’t have to be reliant upon to a reporter or team associate coming up to them or get requested by a media member. Or have to awkwardly interact with and perform for the person behind the camera. The results have been content gold with more unfettered player personality and endearing fun. Players have their own accounts and their own autonomy to tell their story, sure, but they’re also gaining more agency over the content going on team and league platforms, too.
The best content teams can produce comes from the players themselves. The old paradigm of players as subjects only has been disrupted and will continue to evolve. They’re co-producers and directors now. They’re more authentic and more fun when they’re not performing for somebody but instead embracing ‘just do you’ (and maybe here’s an idea if you need one). I look forward to how this trend comes together, with players able to figuratively raise their hand more to be part of content and teams partnering with players on content instead of feeling like it’s a give and take relationship. The status quo with player relations has always been more rigid, but 2020 helped all sides realize that at the end of the day we’re all playing for the same team. We’re all coworkers looking out for the short-term and the long-term success of the organization. This box is bursting and it’s been a long time coming.
Ask Why and What If More Often
Not many will call 2020 a great year, but it sure was an important one. The status quo was questioned, demanded to pass muster or be struck down. Younger generations are leading a new awakening, just over 50 years after the late ’60s saw a similar movement. A difference now is that it’s not just about a young generation with new ideas, it’s the first that has grown up and come of age in a time when transformative change (led and accelerated by technology) seems to happen every year.
Give yourself permission to question longstanding practices. The status quo may pass snuff, that’s fine. But there will also emerge opportunities to create a whole new world.
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:
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 providersof 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.
The sports and social media world is not afraid of change. The social platforms and the sports industry as a whole are constantly evolving, but it’s been a few years since something really transformational has happened in the biz.
After hearing several industry leaders discuss their strategies, insights, and observations about the current state of the sports business, social media, sponsorship, and fan engagement at the recent Hashtag Sports conference, it seems there could be paradigm changes coming out of the stay-at-home period from the pandemic.
Many athletes have seen the light of social media, corporate partnerships have been reimagined in a world without games, everybody has taken a closer look at esports, the social platforms themselves were utilized in different ways, and all the digital and social engagement has only reinforced the pathways of data collection to personalization.
When the games stopped, fans’ desire to see and engage with athletes certainly did not. Yahoo Sports’s Sarah Crennan said she would’ve liked to have had more working relationships with athletes with whom to co-create content. Meanwhile, NBC Sports’s Lyndsay Signor noted that the move to mobile productions and all remote appearances meant working on content with athletes was less challenging than it had been pre-pandemic. What could this mean moving forward? Will sports media businesses make it a point to establish relationships with athletes, even after the stay-at-home orders are lifted and sports return in some form? And will media companies be more comfortable connecting with an athlete via his/her phone even if it’s not as polished as their more produced content?
Many athletes during the pandemic posted first-person content on social media for the first time, or participated in live or mobile interviews. Coming out of this quarantine, many more athletes will be comfortable creating their own content, according to Bleacher Report’s Beckley Mason. Adding to that insight, Colleen Garrity of Excel Management pointed out that a lot of athletes tried and learned new things during this period, whether that was jumping on IG Live for the first time or streaming on Twitch. They’ll now have those abilities in their back pocket. When athletes are serving as their own directors and producers, it won’t be perfect, but that’s okay, and fans, publishers, and partners will learn to value it, said B/R’s Mason. It’s more authentic that way, anyway.
Sponsors may have been skeptical at first of seeing their dollars and branding go into content that looked less-than-polished. But numbers and performance don’t lie and as more results come in, less-produced content can prove its value. And it has and will continue to, suggested Bleacher Report’s Beckley Mason. The new normal that has prevailed for the past several months, when more amateur-looking content was not just tolerated but welcomed, means brands can be more nimble and more open to experimentation, according to Octagon’s Meredith Kinsman. When they’re not spending a ton on an on-location shoot with a full crew, there’s less risk involved and more creative trialing possible.
Social media managers working for teams or leagues have recognized the value of raw content captured on mobile devices for years. But even while COVID forced a lot more original content to be less-produced, especially involving coaches and athletes, there remains a place for both produced content and raw content. This point was reinforced by Oregon State’s Kylie Murphy, who noted there’s time and place for both, and it can depend on context, listening to the data, considering the platform, and learning by trial and error.
It’s an understatement to say the last few months have been the golden era of archived content on social media. Twenty years ago, even ten years ago, a lot of archived content may have been stuck on VHS tapes and DVD’s. But digitization has made it easier to access, produce from, and use to engage fans across platforms. There has proven to be a lot of potential, and maybe more to come, with historical content, said Octagon’s Kinsman, and this sports hiatus has only reinforced that value proposition.
Meanwhile, a company like Overtime has been able to double-down on its original content efforts in the absence of live sports. The mobile-first sports media company has seen more and more content consumption happening for longer average sessions. They’ve also seen a lot of YouTube viewing happening on smart TV’s and larger screens, not confined to merely mobile devices. Fans are willing to binge sports content, just like they are a series on Netflix or Hulu, and there’s an opportunity for sports to earn more and more of that screen time outside of live games.
The coronavirus pandemic along with the period of social unrest catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd has obligated every brand to prove themselves worthy of consumers, to show they are adding value to society at such a challenging time. This applies to sports-related sponsorships, too, where partnerships are being scrutinized to ensure authenticity more than ever. Rakuten’s Kristen Gambetta talked about wanting to make sure players with whom they partner are aligned with their values, while Dairy Management International’s Darcy Nichols, who oversees the company’s NFL sponsorship, said they look at players’s social media posts to make sure they represent a brand with whom they want to partner. Nichols also noted she wants players who aren’t just going through the motions, but those who actively believe in the message and brand they’re endorsing, and want to be there.
Dairy Management International’s Nichols also reiterated a prevailing point in sponsorship — that the operative term is ‘partnership;’ it shouldn’t be a transactional relationship between brand and league/team/athlete. Wasserman’s Anup Daji made a similar point stating that the best partnerships include those in which both parties accomplish objectives. Rakuten’s Gambetta gave a good example of this in action, describing the e-commerce brand’s activation with the Golden State Warriors. Rakuten and the Warriors offered fans cash back when they purchased merchandise at games, in partnership with Rakuten, who promotes their own cash back system for purchases made on their online shopping platform.
With no live events with which to activate, any and all sponsorships in sports became digital and social-focused. This only increases the value for a publisher like Bleacher Report, suggested Mason, as they can help a brand activate around a major sports event with a social-first campaign. And they can do it even if neither is participating as an official rights holder or partner.
Social media is less a throw-in these days compared to years past and partners now expect a campaign to be activated across channels. The New York Giants’ Katie Carew described this framework, offering the team’s activation with Stop and Shop as an example. It included physical and digital elements and resulted in content coming out of the campaign to allow for an effective social extension. AT&T’s Shiz Suzuki described her company’s viral ‘Pose with the Pros’ augmented reality onsite activation with the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium, which provided not just a demonstration of their 5G technology, but also produced socially share-able content.
Esports and gambling
2020 was supposed to be the year that sports gambling saw massive growth in the US. It still can be, but it perhaps won’t reach the peaks once projected. As sports brands look to capitalize on gambling, they’re increasingly cognizant of the best way to ease fans into becoming bettors. Prop betting seems to be an answer, with Bleacher Report’s Stefanie Rapp identifying prop betting as an entry point for sports betting. B/R has seen huge growth the last several months in its betting content, too, with its betting stream content in the B/R app growing 300% faster than any of their other streams. Fans that engage in this content and sports betting, in general, have stronger retention metrics, too.
While many continue to eye gaming as an opportunity, the pandemic led to more interest than ever in esports, which were only mildly affected by the public health crisis. Turner/ELEAGUE’S Seth Ladetsky recognized the opportunity for esports, especially when their competitions get airtime on linear TV. An important consideration, he said, as esports looks to capitalize on these opportunities is to recognize the audience and the platform, and produce a presentation that is optimized for each. Because an avid esports audience is different from the casual and curious community checking it out.
More sponsors started to gravitate to esports, too, seeing an opportunity to reach and engage fans viewing live events. ESL’s Paul Brewer said the most common way brands are measuring their esports sponsorships now are brand sentiment and share of voice. Brands are still learning the space and AT&T’s Suzuki noted how important it is to do the research of the fan base first and to always be thinking of how a sponsorship can produce additive value for esports fans. Brewer also pointed out how esports is starting to also look for ways it can mimic the traditional sports sponsorship activations menu to which brands are accustomed, such as corporate hospitality and experiential opportunities.
It’s no secret that TikTok has enjoyed explosive growth across the board during this stay-at-home period, including sports, athletes, and sports fans gravitating more and more to the social network. TikTok’s Harish Sharma presented the platform’s POV when it comes to sports, suggesting that TikTok is a place for teams and athletes to share about themselves away from the field. Sharma also recommended activating around ‘exclusive moments’ and ‘seminal moments.’
Facebook facilitated and even unveiled a lot of new features or behaviors and opportunities on its platforms during this period. They’ve long been focused on developing Groups and this feature remains a strong and growing part of the platform. Facebook Sports’ Nick Marquez talked about the engagement and data collection potential with Groups. He also lent a little inspiration calling Group members potential ‘ambassadors’ for the brand.
Facebook (as well as Instagram) saw a lot of creative usage of its Live capability, including archived content and virtual watch parties, during the sports shutdown. Digital-first content overall picked up by necessity, with no live games and accompanying highlights, and in their place Marquez pointed out how sports teams have been able to build up digital content franchises that then become valuable sponsorship assets and entitlement opportunities. Sports teams and leagues are digital publishers, Marquez said, that happen to play sports. He also enumerated four buckets of content where sports found a lot of success during the shutdown, including archive (as noted above), fitness, cooking, and gaming. One last feature to keep an eye on are Facebook Messenger Rooms, a product many saw as an answer to the usage of Zoom during the pandemic for social interacting.
Instagram has also been an essential part of sports organizations’ fan engagement strategies for the last few game-less months. Usage of IG Live has grown a lot — in case you somehow haven’t noticed — and Instagram has been working with sports organizations on monetizing the platform. Instagram Sports’s Will Yoder identified three ways sports biz has been monetizing IG: Branded content (which is treated the same as organic content in their feed algorithm, Yoder noted), shoppable posts, and Instagram ads, including direct response ads.
The NBA’s Jorge Urrutia del Pozo talked about their efforts to build a ‘golden record’ for each fan, by collecting data strategically. The key concerns for them are a) utilizing data to deepen fan engagement and b) determine the next best action or step for each fan to take to drive optimized lifetime value.
Both the NBA’s Urrutia del Pozo and the NHL’s Heidi Browning noted that collecting fan data has to deliver value back for the fan. The NBA collects information from fans progressively, delivering something back to fans at each step; this so-called ‘zero party data’ is valuable for the league in its efforts to personalize and enhance fan experiences. The NHL’s Browning called out the league’s ‘learning campaigns,’ which similarly asked fans for information while delivering tangible value back to the fan at each step. That exchange of value is vital.
The past few months have felt like a year passing and the sports industry has evolved at a similar rate. Thanks to Hashtag Sports for putting on a great event! Subscribe to their newsletter, follow them on social media, and attend their future events.
It’s a scary time in sports. Heck, it’s a scary time in the whole world, as mankind takes on the threat of the coronavirus.
And while we all remain optimistic, because it’s all we can do, leaders in the sports space are growing increasingly wary of how the sports business will look on the other side. This is especially dire in college athletics where the notion of the college football season getting canceled threatens the livelihood of countless programs throughout college sports, which rely on the revenues generated by football to keep them afloat. Athletic Directors, according to polls, are more worried than ever about losing out on ticket sales and donations, still, even if there remains hope college football in some form can end up on TV (i.e. with empty stadiums), keeping media revenue on the table.
For years now, many college athletics programs have seemed to the outside world like major corporations, with charter flights, company cars, and more accoutrements on campus than Club Med. College football ain’t going away, but the other sports its revenue supports are at risk and it means college athletics programs must get more creative and pointed than ever to make it mean something for donors to support their school and its programs.
Coaches Glad-Handing All Year
Throughout the season, coaches are head-down all about the football — preparing for practice, meetings, watching film, meeting recruits, talking to media, and doing their weekly call-in shows. In the offseason, they’re doing talks at booster events and quarterback clubs, meeting corporate big-wigs, and, yes, still spending a lot of time on recruiting and football.
But with revenue shortfalls from an absence of ticket sales and considerable expected decreases in donations, how can external relations become an integral part of their role, while not diminishing their ability to coach and recruit? It’s time now to consider that question and to brainstorm.
How can coaches make the days of more donors, and reinforce those donor activities and feelings? This goes beyond football coaches, to every coach in the programs that may literally be saved through the generosity of donors and partners that are able. Could coaches spend 15 minutes a day recording personalized thank you’s to a few donors? Could they write or sign a few handwritten thank you notes in the middle of each day? Could they recreate a campus visit tour for donors, the same way they delight recruits and donors that visit on campus in more normal times?
Without the payoff of games and in-person events, these little things can matter a lot and can scale.
But where do the student athletes, whose experiences and ability to play the sport they love in college, fit into the equation?
Put a Face to the Funding: Activating Student Athletes
Sure, some big donors will see their name on a building or a coaching position endowment for perpetuity. But with athletes in sports like wrestling, field hockey, track and field, and more at risk of losing their ability to compete for their school and have the experience they imagined all their lives, it’s more of a human game than ever before.
No, most of these kids are not in dire straits of not having food to eat, healthcare, and a bed to sleep in at night [though some are]. But they will suffer in the months and years to come, as schools can no longer afford to pay for them to play their sport, and perhaps their scholarship to attend the school, in general. But what if donating to a school was more personal, and benefactors could see, could form a relationship with, and could connect with someone living out their dreams thanks to a donation? It’s more like an adoption than simply handing over a check to help fill the coffers of the college.
It reminds me of a customer at Greenfly (where I work), a non-profit organization that uses funds to help pay for the education of kids who have lost a parent in the line of military duty. The organization’s cause is laudable, to be sure, but it means even more when donors get personalized thank you messages from the individual kids whose life they’re improving. It’s a back and forth for life, and it makes the donation that much more meaningful.
Could college athletics, by necessity, become more personal for the fans and donors that support it, and help programs and student athlete experiences that would otherwise be lost amidst this pandemic? The transactional nature of it all must evolve, but — especially if live events are fan-less or limited in scope and people — the nature of the value exchange for paying fans and donors must evolve, as well.
Giving Value Back to Fans and Donors in Creative and Original Ways
Think about the experiences fans and donors and partners receive in exchange for their dollars. They get the live games and the atmosphere, and many enjoy VIP experiences like watching warm-ups from the sideline. Some may have their kids on the field to high-five players as they run in, hang out with prominent alums in the premium club, and get to shake hands (or maybe ‘dap’ nowadays) with the coaches and Athletic Director.
But if fans aren’t allowed to come to games or the paradigm of experiences either doesn’t work now or needs to evolve, how can there still be value given back to these valuable individuals who help fund all the sports programs, football and well beyond?
Could college athletics do its own take on the ‘Cameo’ app and record special messages on request for donors, like a coach wishing a Happy Birthday to a major donor’s husband or a broadcaster recording someone’s voicemail? Heck, with the imminent arrival of new NIL policies for student athletes, could colleges facilitate similar opportunities for student athletes, with a portion going in their pocket and the rest funding athletics? Or maybe a prominent alumnus can drop into a board meeting on Zoom for an impromptu virtual meet and greet. The creativity is boundless and perhaps as needed as ever as programs rethink how they can make donors feel valued, and give value back in new ways. Because the old ways may either be more limited or not even possible.
In many ways, such evolution is a natural progression already gradually taking place in sports, as season ticket holders all become ‘members’ for the program, and receive value well beyond the face value of their ticket for admission to games.
What Membership Could Mean Going Forward
The concept of being a ‘member’ is more prominent in European and Australian sports, but the nomenclature, at least, has been making its way to the US in the last decade. College athletics by and large typically has a more emotional tie than pro sports to begin with and having an affiliation with the school is something that goes beyond a guaranteed seat and tailgating spot. If fans aren’t able to go to games, how can they still see value from being a ‘member?’ And, heck, even when stadiums do open back up, how can fans that live thousands of miles away still feel it’s worthwhile for them to be a paying ‘member’ (or booster or supporter) of a school and its program?
We can look to those European clubs for inspiration, many of whom have multiple tiers of memberships, and have been monetizing hordes of fans for years that may never attend a game in their lifetime. Members can receive special merchandise and tchotchkes, and many get access to premium digital content. During this COVID-19 pandemic we’re seeing teams all over the world get creative with value they can offer to fans — workouts, nutrition advice, access to Zoom calls with media and IG Lives with players and coaches, a firehose of classic content, and random (but requested) “pop-ins” from mascots to a Zoom call. There are so many ways teams and programs can provide unique value, and it’s time to exhaustively consider all those options, determine what’s feasible, and make sure fans can get value even while they may not be able to go to games or feel they can afford to write a check just because they love their school. That emotional tie can stay strong, even as donations dwindle, and one more tactic to consider is to embrace the idea of mini contributions, when fans, students, alumni, and donors can only give a little at a time.
For some time now, micro-payments have been a part of the gaming world, whether gamers are paying for extra lives or for a cool ‘skin’ for their avatar. Clemson University has also enjoyed success for a while with their ‘IPTAY’ program (I pay ten a year) in which alumni, among others, vow to pay $10 a year. Micro-donations can be a way to support the program and the school, just like gamers support their favorite video games without breaking the bank. And, over thousands of transactions, it can add up to significant revenue.
In the aftermath of this pandemic (let alone during it), when it’s not realistic for many to part with hundreds of dollars, let alone thousands, how can schools get more creative in offering micro methods of donation? Could they pay a few bucks for a custom avatar or graphic to be produced? Or sign up to give a dollar for every touchdown the team scores? Or pay a dollar to access a mobile video game the team produces? These are very off-the-cuff ideas, but the point is that micropayments are already growing and micro-donations could, and maybe should, be the wave of the future for colleges, college athletics, and beyond.
It’s a time of great uncertainty and apprehension for college athletics leaders, coaches, staff, and student athletes. Unless things change, the anticipated budget that helps fuel so many sports programs that operate in the red simply may not be there when all is said and done. Desperate times call for creativity and creating value wherever possible. It may not be a revolution, but an evolution certainly must come. The experiences of thousands of student athletes and collegiate sports depend on it.