Authenticity and Crafting Narratives Can Carry Sports Content

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The volume of stories and the ways with which to tell them is only increasing. For many in sports, this is an opportunity. While some may avoid the always-on, highly scrutinized, no holds-barred nature of new media, the savvy embrace it, and run with it. This theme peppered the chatter at the 2017 Sports PR Summit, held at the Players Tribune in May. A few key topics that arose included the ability for athletes to create and tell their own stories, the NBA treating social media like a grown-up, and ESPN’s venerable Tom Rinaldi dropped some memorable quips on storytelling.

Athletes can be and want to be more than just their sport

When scores, highlights, and the usual quotes are easy to come by, it’s the stuff that shows fans a little about players off the field that can win and differentiate. There is increasing demand for fans for such content and teams and media are answering it.

“People want to know athletes are real people and they can relate to them,” aid Mary Byrne, Senior Deputy Editor/Daily Coverage for ESPN.com.

Social media has given fans a window into the lives and personalities of their favorite athletes. And the media isn’t blind to the fervor with which fans treat an Instagram post or Tweet from an athlete showing a bit of their life off the field or their personal thoughts, in general. For Brian Cohen, Talent Producer for Good Morning Football on NFL Network, social media feeds are a producer’s dream – offering not just clues,but clear signs of an athlete’s interests and of which athletes are vocal and, well, out there.

“We dig deep into the feeds of athletes to find who they truly are…their interests, community involvement,” said Cohen. “The more open they are, the more likely we are to invite them to the show to share their story.”

A panel of athletes confirmed these sentiments later on; more and more recognize and appreciate that the paradigm has shifted. That they no longer need the media to get a thought or a story out there. Former NBA player Etan Thomas said as much, noting that social media outlets allowed athletes like him to go past the writers and media and to tell their own stories to fans.

An interesting insight that was shared via one of the athletes, NFL star DeMarcus Ware, was the need for trust. Ware, who said he picked up upon the importance of trust, from the lessons at the NFL’s broadcast boot camp. When athletes trust the media or the team or the reporter to be genuine, to be true to the story – that’s the way it should e.

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Why the NBA has thrived with new media

Many sports have done well to embrace social and digital media, but the NBA is typically the one held up as firing on all cylinders. It’s not by accident. It is largely thanks to the leadership of Commissioner Adam Silver, who, well, ‘gets it.’ The league appreciates that social media is something to be embraced, not shunned or feared. It is an opportunity the NBA seizes to be their own media, to speak with an increasingly discerning fan base.

“You can no longer rely just on the traditional media outlets to get your story told,” said Silver in an excellent interview. In telling their story, Silver knows the NBA can’t use smoke and mirrors, but must be genuine. “Fans have pretty good BS detectors” he said. “So you have to be authentic.”

Silver went on to note that the league staffs social media 24/7, to engage fan all around the world at all hours. In keeping with the theme of being proactive, and not reactive or fearful, Silver has led the NBA to not just turn a blind eye to fans using game highlights, but to even encourage it (and the NBA has certainly facilitated so).

The NBA permits ‘liberal’ use of highlights and puts their protective efforts into their live game feeds. It’s not that the league has given up on protecting highlights. Qutie the contrary, they don’t see a need to ‘protect’ highlights – they are helping to promote the league and facilitating fan-generated content that markets their sport and their league.

Said Silver – “Our view on highlights – it’s in our interest to get them out there.”

Sports media is everywhere. The league is a form of media, the reporters and newspapers and TV partners are media, and, yes, the fans themselves are media. Silver is savvy enough to realize that the enormous proliferation if NBA media is nothing but a good thing.

“It’s important to us and our leagues that the sports media thrives,” said Silver. The more bloggers, the more reporters, the more sick edits there are, the more interest and content that is out there that is promoting the NBA. Want to know why the NBA has thrived on social media? Look no further than Silver and his mature look at the landscape, understanding it’s something to be fostered, not feared.

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The best stories create an emotional ride

You’ve likely seen a Tom Rinaldi feature story on ESPN. And, if so, you’ve likely smiled, cried, and felt a surge of inspiration of joy. It all probably happened during the same story. Rinaldi seemed to blow the conference as he talked about the science of story. The ESPN legend invoked the undulation of a wave to hammer home what draws one into a story, and takes them through the emotional swings of the his well-crafted tale.

“The key to stories is waves, not lines,” said Rinaldi. “Highs and lows vs. just a box score.”

Rinaldi enumerated his keys to a story. First, one must build a sense of expectation and anticipation – there has to be that waiting for the payoff. A good story also reveals a new understanding. The surface-level box score gives way to a greater understanding of the subject matter as the story ensues. Finally, Rinaldi said a good story reveals a ‘transcendent’ fact. That’s the wow moment. The finale of a Rinaldi roller coaster and the keystone for a strong story.

Sports drives more compelling stories than the pen of even the most gifted authors because it has all the elements – exciting action, peaks and valleys, and real humans who just happen to be able to do superhuman things in their sport. Take a cue from the lessons learned at this past year’s Sports PR Summit. Do what’s right. Be on the right side of history. Build trust, be authentic, don’t be the bad guy or the untrustworthy guy, and invite and tell stories that make fans feel.

PR used to be a bit too much about smoke and mirrors. But today it is so much more. There are fans sharing stories, players telling theirs, and leagues who no longer stand in the way, but can be on the same team. It’s a game everybody can win.

[See a Sports PR Summit Recap here]

Sports Media Adapting to the Modern Fan

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Sports media outlets used to be just about content. The games on the channels were more important than the networks broadcasting them. It’s not like consumers had a plethora of choices from which to get their sports content in the past.

But that has all changed. It’s no longer just ESPN and the local paper. Or even a half dozen sports content websites. It’s thousands upon thousands. So how do the big guys maintain their place at the top of the mountain, particularly in the free-for-all world of digital and social?

They build brand.

Cultivating a brand, and having an active brand presence on every platform on which fans are consuming is an increasingly important concern for players in the social media game. These notions were recently elucidated at the annual Sports Business Journal World Congress of Sports, held April 20-21, 2017 in Dana Point, CA. (Check out a recap)

“SportsCenter is not a show, it’s a brand,” said ESPN Executive Vice President of Programming and Scheduling Burke Magnus. “It lives online, social, mobile, our OTT [over-the-top] apps.”

ESPN has long been more than just a set of TV channels, and nowadays they recognize the need to be that omni-channel brand that fans know and trust. As the cable paradigm continues to diminish, too, sports media brands like ESPN know it may be a direct-to-consumer play, not protected by the bundle.

President of Turner David Levy emphasized the need to ‘control platforms’ and not to dice up the distribution, especially in sports. Appreciating the shift in the ways fans are consuming content was a central motif of the conference’s opening panel. Michael Neuman, Executive Vice President, Managing Partner, Scout Sports and Entertainment – ‎Horizon Media, noted in a tweet: “[The] Biggest theme of opening panel is “decentralization” of media consumption and inability of youth to embrace current delivery.”

So how are sports media businesses seeking to combat this conundrum? Build a unique brand, of course.

For Turner and Levy, it means serving a cross-section of the interests of their fans, earning more of their attention every day. “The definition of a network is changing,” stated Levy, specifically speaking about Turner’s brand now including Bleacher Report. “The future of B/R is a cross between sports and culture (music, fashion) and maybe live games.”

Perhaps the best manifestation of finding success with a unique brand in sports media is Barstool Sports. Their irreverent, authentic, informed, unfiltered take on sports stories and content has found some startup success in an increasingly crowded sports marketplace. They’ve done it by letting the punch line that are Internet takes and memes drive much of their hyperbolic content.

“We are SNL [Saturday Night Live] if it were born out of the Internet,” said Erika Nardini, CEO Barstool of Sports: “We have the fan base and loyalty…

“Brand has to be part of the conversation.”

The lesson lies in the fact that fans are no longer coming straight to you in droves. Consumer have so many choices for content and their attention must be earned; you’ve got to make yourself easy to reach and then you’ve got to them want to come to you.

Why Sports are Still Growing and Glowing Beacons: Leaders Insights

Big picture thinking. Thinking about not just what’s next, but why it’s next. Taking the time to think beyond going through the motions and transactions.

At the annual Leaders Sport Summit, these were among the themes and traits, backed up by insights, by stats, by where their own leagues, sports, and teams and organizations are going. Below are some of the themes that stood out at the event where leaders from sports leagues, teams, and related businesses spoke; along with facts, quotes, and stats shared at the event via #Leaders17. This is Part 1 of 2. [See Part 2]

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(Also see the Leaders Day 1 and Day 2 recaps)

How Sports are Upholding Models, while the Models are Changing

One of the panels opened with the notion that the reason sports is thriving across media platforms is because it is content that is made for multi-platform consumption – the best available screen. As is often stated, too, it among the last bastions of content that must be consumed live, another factor behind multi-platform engagement. All this results in making necessary unique partnerships, such as Turner and CBS teaming up to maximize revenue from rights to NCAA March Madness games, selling ads across platforms and cross-promoting each other. The multi-device platforms also enhances sponsor activations.

However, as it was stated, all the ways content and media can be shared and consumed means, as it was stated, contracts have gone from 14-16 pages to 250+ pages. Yeah, the media landscape is a bit more complex now.

The metrics can’t keep up, either. Nielsen is trying, but it was lamented that their cross-platform measurement isn’t there yet.

Turner is excited about early eLeague results

Executives from Turner were there, talking about the auspicious results of their eLeague, an eSports league they’ve invested in and gotten fully behind for linear and digital programming. With 50 million esports players in the US, which was a stat dropped, Turner had high hopes and they have been exceeded. Ratings, they said, are matching those of regular season games in the NHL, MLB, and MLS. Turner sees it as a way to reach younger, more digitally savvy audience. In fact, 90% of eLeague consumption is happening via digital, with just 10% on TV. Live events are growing quickly in esports, as well as other leagues. Turner will have even more company in the space soon.

On Sponsorship

There were a couple speakers from Dow Chemical and AT&T, two bug business that are very active in sports sponsorship. They offered some excellent high-level insights, offering a better understanding of the keys to successful partnerships. Joe Harlan of Dow Chemical put it succinctly: “You need partnerships, not transactions. That means you’re in it for reach other.”

Harlan continued on how teams can approach their partners; it’s about finding the mutual benefit point, the intersection of interests. “Focus on what you do and what you deliver. Then the conversation is about relevance, not price.” For example, they worked with PGA Tour to reach business execs, who are among the golf demo, and also had great success leveraging opportunities to test technologies as a NASCAR partner.

Along with recognizing the value of the brand – fit and what it adds to the other brand — the point was made to USE the access partners are granted within sports, as sponsors. This simple, but succinct point is oft-overlooked.

Why and What with Sports?

There was additional insight shared on sponsorship and how and why to activate it. Citi’s Tina Davis noted the importance of sports providing a ‘live audience at scale,’ while AT&T’s Ryan Luckey pointed how sports partnerships rally the organization itself. The way these sponsorships are being put into practice have undergone immense change.

AT&T, Luckey said, doesn’t think of themselves as a phone company, as in decades past. They are a video/content company, with Luckey noting that 60% of AT&T’s traffic is video. Further, as it pertains to sports sponsorships, Luckey emphasized the now seemingly obvious point that, with only 5% of fans actually attending games, on-site activation is not nearly sufficient.

Twitter’s big bet on sports

Twitter COO Anthony Noto gave an enlightening look into Twitter’s past, present, and future with sports. The NFL content seemed to be a perfect fit when they noticed the huge spikes in Twitter activity, affected by NFL games and topics. Marrying conversations seemed logical. The results were promising, with Noto making note of deeper data, like the fact that 30% of the Thursday Night Football audience was from outside the US and exhibited higher female viewership than traditional TV.

But Twitter has ambitions to make hay with “under-served fans,” citing investments in sports like darts and lacrosse. (200,000 fans followed/viewed Darts competitions apparently). Unlike linear TV, Twitter has “unlimited shelf space,” they boasted. Twitter is also looking to their international audience, specifically noting sports fans in the UK and Japan, as places of interest at the moment.

In Q4 2016 alone, Twitter had over 600 hours of live content, and 55% of it was sports. Twitter is not out to challenge linear TV when it comes to mainstream sports streams, like TNF, either. “We are very happy with bringing an incremental audience,” said Noto. “There is a younger audience that doesn’t want to pay for TV. We can serve that audience.”

How will Twitter monetize all this content? Noto said they’re considering all economic models, including charging for live content. But there was no clear indication of any immediate plans.

Planning and Purpose in Social Media and Sports

We’re all still trying to figure out social and digital media. The daily question of ROI, of how to best keep up with the platforms and the kids and the fans, and how to do it all while maintaining some sense of purpose and brand. There was a lot of fantastic insight shared on these subjects and more at day 3 of the Hashtag Sports Conference. See the full recap here and read on below for 19 quick-hitting insights/takeaways/quotes/stats:

  1. Fantastic, easily digestible thoughts on each of the big four social media network, presented by Jessica Smith, Senior Director of Digital and Social Strategy for the New York Yankees (and, yes, THE @WarJessEagle). She gets it. See below.

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To sum it up again, in text:

Instagram = Best visual expression of your brand; strong creative

Facebook -> Massive reach, videos and live content content are king; paid works

Twitter -> Pulse and place for real-time, 1:1 engagement, developing voice/personality

Snapchat -> Real and raw access; people and hosts are key; likens to reality TV

2) Smith is sharp and articulate. A great takeaway line from her:

“Think like a brand, execute like a human.”

3) Social Media Manager for the Arizona Coyotes also dropped some serious social media savvy and wisdom. I’m a sucker for pros that can articulate the what and why of each social platform and O’Connor nailed it with the visual below.

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Again, summarized in short text:

Twitter -> Constant attention, create conversation, timely content, develop voice

Facebook -> Content w/ longer life/relevance, video is king, connect with the community

Instagram -> Strong images + short copy, capitalize on high emotion moments/wins

Snapchat -> Raw, fun, behind the scenes, showcase team personalities

 

4) A nice line from the fan engagement panels, on three key questions to ask of your social media content: Why is it important, does the fan care, would they share

5) More keys from Jess Smith on social media: Know the why, diversify, test emerging formats, listen and learn

 

6) The Coyotes have struggle in the standings the last several seasons, but O’Connor has still had the team thriving on social media. Here recommendations included: Focus on sharing stories, be the [social media] account fans want to be friends with, leverage off-ice lifestyle content

 

7) She continued, with an insightful list of key guiding the Coyotes’s social media:

Have a strategy – priorities

Mobile-first mindset with content

Be there for customer service

Start a conversation

Cross-promote channels

Use contests, discounts, and giveaways to engage and grow audience

 

8) Fascinating insight from the team helping the Las Vegas Raiders with fan development. They break down fans groups seeking to understand what/who moves and influences them.

 

9) Scott Kegley is one of the best in the biz and currently is with the Minnesota Vikings as Executive Director, Digital Media and Innovation. His presentation on the Vikings’ social and digital media strategy included the commandments to: Create unique content, constantly reinvent, take timely + calculated risks

 

10) Kegley also noted the potential great synergy between players and the team. The powerful idea is to encourage and empower players on social; let them leverage the in-house creative and social team to really drive some big results.

 

11) Another day, another panel spent discussing the monetization of esports. A key insight: Brands can’t treat esports like another sport — it is digital-only and therefore commands a different business model.

 

12) On the subject of fan data capture, the main takeaway is that it has to be give/take. Don’t ask for data without there being a value exchange. Think add value, always, for fans.

13) On a related note, the best chance to collect data is during the exciting, high-emotion moments. So be ready to capitalize.

 

14) Talk about an area ripe for growth – Branded content was just .5% of US *live* social media posts in 2016.

15) Another eye-popping stat: 82% of branded content on social media comes from pro sports teams (both stats via Shareablee)

 

16) More interesting numbers, looking at categories of Facebook Live content and the average duration :

17 minutes sports, 26 minutes Lifestyle, 21 minutes TV networks, 53 minutes News

 

17) Interesting insight from Bruin Sports Capital’s Jeffrey Roth: Focus on the diehard fans [and building diehard fans] at live games, and reach casual fans on digital and social channels

 

18) While there is a lot of love for podcasts as a growth area now, it was noted that lack of data [user and impressions] is hindering podcasts’ ability to grow and monetize.

 

19) There was panel of active athletes talking about their work in the investment space. A big takeaway – they increasingly want a seat at the table, an investment in which they can have and want interest [and input and ownership].

 

See part 1 and part 2 of this post!

The Increasing Channels and Platforms for Fan Engagement and Content

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The art of reaching and engaging fans is always evolving, even as some core principles still remain. There is more fan input and involvement than ever, and it makes or stimulating conversation every time professionals in the space get together to talk about it. That happened at the recent Hashtag Sports Conference, where a collection of thought leaders offered insight. Following from afar, here are 25 insights that came from the conference (part 1 of 3). See the Day 1 recap.

  1. There was a discussion of how the NBA has become so prolific with their social media following, and it centered around Adam Silver’s forward thinking with content. Adapting to new platforms, and inviting fans to consume more and more of the NBA product, making them more engaged fans overall.
  2. On the subject of platforms and highlights, former NBA Commissioner made a telling statement. Following his praise of the omnipresence of NBA content, he also lamented, saying “We’re enabling fans to watch us less. You can slice the salami so much and then it’s indelible.”
  3. The NBA players have also embraced social media. Of course, individual player stars have been a staple of the NBA for decades. Said former NBA player, NBPA rep, and current Big3 Commissioner Roger Mason – “Personalities drive culture & change in sports, and you’ve seen that prominently in the NBA.”
  4. A notable statement from UnInterrupted’s Head of Athlete Content Jimmy Spencer: “Uninterrupted is entertainment, not journalism. If our athletes want to break news, they will.” All news is content, but not all content is news.
  5. The NFL seeks to reach the widest audience, prioritizing new fans, more fans, more distribution channels. This plays out in their embrace of new channels and fan development efforts across continents and cultures.
  6. Audio is having a moment or rebirth, or so it would seem. The NBA made clear the power of audio, for them, to reach so many of their international fans.
  7. This stat from Nielsen stood out: 50 million people listen to podcasts on a weekly basis. Speaking of audio…
  8. Twitter noticed the amount of engagement around esports is strong. And boy did the stats bear that out for the Halo Championships – watched by over 10 million fans on Twitter.
  9. Part of Twitter Sports’s strategy is to reach niche, under-served audiences in sports. The NLL [National Lacrosse League] there was a particular example of a successful partnership, among others.
  10. Insightful and true quote from Players Tribune Head of Partnerships Raphael Poplock – “Advertisers want to be closer and closer to the content.”
  11. Along with the realization that partner-integrated content is at a premium and in demand, the theme prevailed that branded content is NOT just content with a logo on it. It’s better than that.
  12. I love Bleacher Report and I thought this line from was great that B/R “curates the Internet and thinks about how they can enhance it through their content.” Adding to the conversation…with content. [Lots of good stuff on Bleacher Report to follow…]
  13. B/R’s Senior VP of Content Joe Yanarella reinforced that point, saying: “How do we stat a conversation a opposed to how do we cover sports?”
  14. And Bleacher Report backs it up, coming prepared. They have a 40 person staff that create visual content. Wow.
  15. While B/R produces a ton of content, it all has to be quality and they’d prefer quality over quantity.
  16. A fascinating evolution plays out, as the chicken and egg argument for brand starts with distribution. That then evolves into a battle for continued attention, which is where brand comes in.
  17. There is an emphasis in producing real-time content in sports that revolves around preparation for outcomes. It’s often pretty binary (win or lose!), and one can be polished and prepared for both outcome.
  18. B/R takes a specific, thoughtful approach to eacho social platform, treating each like a magazine and haing staff specialize. That’s how you dominate and understand a platform. Of course, not so many have such resources.
  19. Everyone has their philosophies on the social platforms, and this was a decent way for a publisher like B/R to differentiate the platforms – Snapchat is for short form content; Instagram for true moments
  20. How does Bleacher Report’s brand transcend and connect? They celebrate the fan and the athlete more so than the actual game.
  21. There is necessarily a high bar for branded content, and Will McDonough, a VP with Copa90, put it succinctly and accurately, saying “Kids can smell the bullshit.” –
  22. At a premium for sports publishers is to create more partnerships with players and capturing more consistent, constant attention throughout the day, with live streaming content.
  23. Amidst talk about live video on digital and social, the point hammered home the most about the added value of those eyeballs – it comes with the power of data for ad targeting, along with instantly actionable CTA’s.
  24. A good point made about how fan loyalty is formed nowadays. In the past, it was all about parents and location to define loyalties; now social and digital media, along with fantasy, make for so many more elements to influence which teams fans choose to support.
  25. The National Lacrosse League had a compelling story to tell, dropping some attendance numbers (10,000+ per game) and Twitter viewing audience (380,000 average). The Twitter audience, incidentally and notably vastly outrated that on NLL.TV, of 25,000 viewers.
  26. With the NLL’s content being digital first, it has influenced the way they produce broadcasts. It’s not a linear broadcast distributed via another channel, but a broadcast produced for the digital viewer. The NLL also looks to innovate, and did so this season with a player POV camera in a live game, post-produced right after.
  27. There was an intriguing discussion with ESPN there. When it comes to their story telling, there is a lot of thought put into deciding how [and when] each department at ESPN is the best way to tell the story.
  28. That said, ESPN embraces all of the platforms on which fans consume content and spend time, operating with each platform supporting one another, finding synergy with a story.
  29. On the challenge and opportunity of cross platform distribution, ESPN VP Chad Millman notably said he spends more time thinking about who should be on an than what is in the email.
  30. How the NHL uses live video; three key ways: Drive tune-in, expand audience, elevate players with fans
  31. With their streaming and social content, the NHL focuses on additive live content, they’re seeking unique digital content, not to take away from the linear broadcast.
  32. The NHL streamed 12 games on Twitter this year, and while they didn’t share exact stats, they did say they got ‘Several hundreds of thousands of viewers’ for each game on Twitter last season.
  33. The World Surfing League has seen big growth thanks to distributing its competition content and more via Facebook Live. Their video strategy has been to build an audience, and then figure out how to monetize. WSL video strategy is to build audience; FB Live, and then figure out how to monetize
  34. Like the NLL, the WSL is also creating broadcasts built for digital. They’re also diving into their live broadcast analytics, learning how fans watch and want to watch their content, constantly improving their product, even in real time.
  35. A key takeaway from the success of many when it comes to digital and social sports content is, well, creating content for digital and social. It mean unique content, content clearly optimized and made for that platform. It sounds so simple (and it is, granted time and resources are always a factor) and can make a world of difference.

See Part 2 and 3, too.