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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.
In September 2019, Advertising Week held its New York conference, bringing together several thoughts leaders and practitioners from the world of advertising.
What follows is a collection of the best quotes, stats, insights, and observations shared from the event via Twitter #AWNewYork. Thanks to everyone whose tweets helped fuel this recap and for Advertising Week for putting together a great event!
In September 2019, the annual Content Marketing World conference was held by Content Marketing Institute, bringing together thought leaders and practitioners in the world of content marketing and beyond.
What follows is a collection of quotes, images, observations, and ideas shared via Twitter #CMWorld at the event. Thanks to all whose tweets helped fuel this recap and to the Content Marketing Institute for putting on another incredible event!
Ever since there have been sports, there have been sports partnerships. The admission to sporting events held at the Roman Coliseum was typically free – often sponsored by Roman politicians looking to curry favor with the public.
The forms of entertainment and things that capture public attention has multiplied exponentially since the days of Ancient Rome, as have the ways for people – or, more commonly these days, businesses and brands – to activate a partnership. Yet, sports remains at the center of sponsorship. And sports teams and leagues now operate extensive ecosystems of partners that deliver tangible and intangible value for the businesses that pay millions for the right to co-mingle with a league, its teams, and its fans.
At the recent Leaders Week conference, Rahul Kadavakolu, Executive Director of international brand and prominent sports sponsor Rakuten, beautifully articulated three key factors behind why a brand like Rakuten chooses to invest as a partner in sports, all strengthened by the unique, powerful emotional ties that bind fans (consumers) to their favorite teams and athletes, and to the brands with whom they partner.
It has been well-documented that sports remains one of the best ways to reach masses of engaged, attentive eyeballs on a consistent basis. And that’s why you see brands – big and small – investing in sports to help get their name out there. YouTube TV plastered themselves all over the World Series and now finds themselves on the jerseys of Major League Soccer club LAFC, while everyone that follows hockey now knows PPG Paints thanks to them putting their name on the Pittsburgh Penguins’s home arena. And it’s why Elk Grove Village continues to sponsor the ‘Makers Wanted’ Bowl, and even why an international powerhouse brand like Rakuten, seeking more US awareness, finds themselves on the Golden State Warriors jerseys and spending money on a clever Super Bowl ad. Impressions and eyeballs may be softer metrics, when awareness is the KPI, the scale and engagement that sports offers is a helluva value prop for partners.
In less crowded industries, the frequency of impressions and awareness detailed in the last point can drive business simply because, well, they may not know a ton of paint brands off their top of their head, but PPG Paints sticks with them. Then, in verticals where more options are more well-known, sports represents an avenue to drive consumer preference. This happens a number of ways we see every day in sports sponsorship – demonstrations, free sampling, first time trials or discounts, team-branded products, and players/teams using the product or service themselves. The emotions play a role, too, as many fans will opt for one brand over another simply because they do sponsor their favorite player or team. It’s why sponsors love NASCAR, in which 65% of fans surveyed were more likely to consider a product or service if they see it’s the “Official ‘x’ of NASCAR.” And perhaps all those fans of ‘Dub Nation’ will bookmark Rakuten on their browser or in their minds instead of opting for Amazon.
This is a quickly emerging element of sports partnerships – as sponsors of the same team or league congregate together, learn from each other with how they’re activating their partnerships, and often find and activate upon synergies or co-branded activations. It’s why you’re starting to see more teams host sponsorship summits the last few years and multi-brand promotions like a sweepstakes that involve purchasing a Coca-Cola product at a Pilot Flying J or perhaps even a company like Rakuten offering a discount on a fan’s next purchase of a Nike product on their site (both of these are hypothetical examples). Brand extension means partners can be so much more than the sum of their parts when they work together to win over the fans’ hearts, minds….and wallets. And sports offers entry into a community of sponsors unlike any other avenue.
Many of us who have worked in sports business don’t know it without sponsorship comprising a key piece of the pie. RFP’s come in, deals are renewed or reworked over decades, and certain categories continue to spend a huge portion of their marketing budgets on sports partnerships. And it was illuminating to hear from one of the world’s biggest companies on what makes sports special for them. So, why sports? I encourage you to watch the full video snippet below and you’ll understand the answer to that question.
In order to build a brand…there’s a certain emotional quotient that’s required. We believe that sports can do that better than other platforms.”
— Neil Horowitz (@njh287) May 21, 2019
Want to learn more about the Leaders group? Check out their site
The next era for sports entertainment has arrived. With sports gambling beginning to penetrate the US, as state-by-state passes legislation to permit and regulate it, a business is emerging and evolving before our eyes – everyone’s out to get piece of the pie, even as the pie is still baking.
There have been calls for so-called ‘integrity fees’ from the sanctioning bodies of the country’s biggest sports (aka the leagues), there have already been partnerships – primarily around increased data and around logo usage by casinos and sportsbooks, sponsorships – now that teams can seem to freely sign on such sponsors (With some caveats), and yet it feels like we’re barely in the first inning, the first lap, the first quarter, of this game.
Having recently traveled to Europe, it felt a little like traveling into the future – well, sorta. While I didn’t attend a live sports event, and there have been many stories written about betting windows at or near venues where games take place, my glimpse into gambling was thought-provoking now more than ever, given the new state of sports in the US.
But it felt more like the part of Back to the Future Part II where Biff was in charge and not the future with hoverboards and ’90s diners. (Look it up, Gen Z) Here is one of many gambling shops I saw, this from the streets of Rome.
There were live odds posted, about a half dozen TVs showing sports, and a dozen people around – smoking cigarettes, placing bets, and watching and hoping they’d be able to cash out some winnings by the end of the night. Was this the exciting future that the end of PASPA promised? Sure, most betting can and likely will take place via mobile, but shouldn’t a sport betting parlor feel more like a Buffalo Wild Wings than a corner liquor store?
The vision has become even clearer as sports executives in the States, most recently Los Angeles Lakers Owner and President Jeanie Buss speaking at the Sports Business Journal World Congress of Sports, echoed what others have said – that the promise of sports gambling for sports business isn’t all about getting rich off the rake, it’s about the enhancing, amplifying, and growing the engagement for fans.
For years, we’ve focused on building sports business and fostering fans in two ways – emotional investment and awesome entertainment. And now gambling will add a third investment – financial – into the mix. But the magic of sports fandom is all that investment comes together – the awe of watching incredible drama and elite athletes gives way to the emotional attachment to the team and to winning, and now having some actual skin in the game will only enhance the awe and the emotion.
There is arguably no nation better at creating an entertaining spectacle around sports than the US. Gambling is a new element to entice fans to invest – and what could start as a financial investment can beget entertainment, which can beget emotion. Meanwhile, those diehards now – if they have some dollars on the line, too, – they’ll invest even more following and engaging with every game, every player, every play.
Whether fans are going with their guts or poring over spreadsheets, the number of fans cheering or sobbing after a big play or big game and the intensity of the engagement with sports, the future of betting-infused sports experiences is bright.
A so-called black market of bookies and offshore sportsbooks may have emerged in the US over the years thanks to the illegal nature of sports gambling, but it’s a good thing it took this long for legalization. We got good at the entertainment side and the experience side – that’s what sports is for us, and sports gambling can fit right into this ecosystem. Let’s do it the way we know how – not a seedy, quiet place on the street, but an enhancement of the social, communal experience we all associate with sports now. It sounds like a safe bet to me.