How Sports Business Looks in Summer 2020: Industry Insights from the Hashtag Sports Virtual Conference

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.

Athletes

  • 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.

Content production

  • 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.

Sponsorship

  • 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.

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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.

Platforms

  • 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.

Analytics

  • 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.

 

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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.

Advertising Week NYC 2019 Recap

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!

 

Content Marketing World 2019 Twitter Recap

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!

The Answer to Why Sports? for Sponsors

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.

Brand Awareness

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.

Brand Preference

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.

Brand Extension

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.

 

Want to learn more about the Leaders group? Check out their site

2019 Sloan Sports and Analytics Conference Twitter Recap for Sports Business

In March 2019, the annual Sloan Sports and Analytics Conference was held in Boston, bringing together thought leaders and practitioners throughout sports business, performance, tech, and, of course, intelligence/analytics.

This deck is a collection of the best quotes, insights, and observations (for sports business, generally) shared via Twitter at the event.

Thanks to everyone whose tweets helped fuel this recap and to Sloan for hosting and providing coverage of an incredible conference! For more on me, follow on Twitter @njh287, connect on Linkedin (Neil Horowitz), and check out more on the website while you’re here!

Major Topics and Trends in the Emerging Esports Ecosystem

To call esports another ‘sport,’ tantamount to basketball, football and baseball, is doing a disservice to sports business. It’s an entirely new category – a seemingly endless and growing collection of competitions and ‘titles’ (games) that come and go, with innumerable leagues and business models springing up under this catchall umbrella of ‘esports’ as enterprising individuals and organizations seek to capitalize on the millions of fans consuming and participating in esports.

It was in this uncertain, opportunistic time that Sports Business Journal and Lagardère Sports partnered to hold the esports Rising conference in Los Angeles, bringing together the thought leaders and the movers and shakers in the burgeoning universe of esports to discuss where things are and where they may be going.

I didn’t attend the conference myself, but I was able to glean quite a few interesting thoughts and insights through the videos SBJ posted to Twitter from the event. An overarching theme is that these industry leaders recognize the inflection point at which esports currently lies, and everybody is trying to figure out how to assure all this potential turns into long-term, sustained, and growing success.

Why many are bullish on esports

Ken Hersh is an investor in esports because he can see the writing on the walls, he can see the signs that show why esports has not only arrived, but is here to stay. Just look at the younger generations now, the digital natives now starting to raise kids and the kids being born into this ecosystem themselves.

“Today’s parent is probably not going to take their kid to a baseball game,” he said. And given what we know about the genesis of sports’ affinities – how it’s typically during those years when a kid is 6-10 years-old when they fall in love with a sport and often inherit the sports their parents love – it’s no surprise many are concluding that the relative mole hill of esports fandom now may become a mountain in the years to come.

And Hersh also studies the experience of his kids, and how and why the sense of passion and community inherent to going to an arena, a stadium or a sports bar [not that esports can’t fill arenas] is also aflame with esports. It’s the ultimate lean-in experience for a fan and the barrier to entry for fans is slim to none.

“People who are gaming are having an intensely social experience, they’re just doing it in a room by themselves,” said Hersh “…It’s not a stadium of 20,000 people, but it kind of is – digitally.”

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esports does not have a linear future

What do you think about when you think about esports? The casual observer may know Fortnite and Ninja. The next level of informed fan may also know about Overwatch League, DOTA, and PUBG. That represents a small fraction of the competitive titles and leagues out there, however. And in an industry where monetization will largely rely on the growing demand and interest of corporate partners and media distributors, a couple of the panelists noted there is risk with ‘too important to fail’ aspects of esports. Because if brands decide to invest in esports, but for them that means only Fortnite and the very few transcendent megastars like Ninja (Tyler Blevins), that’s tantamount to brands saying they only want to work with LeBron and no other aspect or player in the NBA. And that’s not a recipe for sustained success.

The word ‘ecosystem’ was used multiple times – as in an ‘ecosystem’ of esports that needed to develop – beyond a single title and beyond even the currently prevailing ‘battle royale’ format of games that seems omnipresent at the moment, but wasn’t the case just a few years ago. They encourage esports-interested leaders and brands to think ‘holistically’ when it comes to esports strategy and not to solely focus on capitalizing the flavor of the moment because there’s no guarantee Fortnite will be #1 next year, let alone next decade.

“The industry is not yet robust enough that the failure of a major esport can be survived by other esports,” said Riot Games’ Head of esports North America, Chris Hopper, who cautions about the fickle nature of individual titles and inherent change in what the influential star players and fans are focused on, particularly for games that are conducive to becoming true sports.

“I’m not 100% convinced Fortnite has the strategic depth to survive as an esport for a decades-long span…To me, there’s a difference between esport and video game competitions…If (the biggest players) stop playing…they lose a massive chunk of what made that game incredibly special.”

Monetizing esports

There are millions of fans, sure, but as most Internet entrepreneurs can tell you, all the eyeballs in the world amount to little without an effective way to monetize all those fans. Compared to the longstanding major sports, the revenue per fan is much lower in esports. But that represents an enormous opportunity for the industry, the models for monetization are just now beginning to mature. And the options are plentiful.

It seems like the last few years have seen a proliferation of subscriptions. Maybe it’s for food delivery, for Netflix, for Amazon Prime, and, oh yeah, Internet and cell service, to name just a few. Well, there is an option for the IP owners to offer an option that eschews advertisers, a white-label solution of sorts, that drives revenue directly from the consumer.

But of course there are sponsors and advertisers. And if esports distribution rights are ever to maximize revenue, it’ll likely be through successful integration of brands. However, esports fans are notoriously tough, skeptical and eager to identify and shun marketing and advertising. It’s benevolently forcing a better paradigm in the sports industry, as brands recognize they have to do it differently for this audience and this space.

“You have to do something different for this particular audience who can sniff out marketing right away,” said Shiz Suzuki, AT&T Assistant Vice President for Sponsorships and Experiental Marketing.

She thoughtfully noted that it should not and cannot be about driving fans to retail first and foremost, they, as partners, must ‘drive benefits back to fans.’ This may be through awesome content, through interactive activities at events, through freebies and prizes, and it can get more creative from there. Christian Flathman, who works in sports sponsorships for ExxonMobil, identified a unique opportunity in esports, too – value-add activation into the game itself.

Flathman noted a sweet spot is to “take our product benefits that we put on the [race] track in real life (and) actually see a product benefit in a game also.” So maybe one’s character can drink a Red Bull to get some energy back or to grow some wings, they can view the board better thanks to AT&T or ClearEyes, or any number of integrations that fans and players will welcome, because it enhances the game and actually helps them in the game – a positive interaction and a relevant activation. This will be an interesting area to watch.

The structure and consumption of esports

It’s pretty cool to see a sport, a number of leagues, and a model for distribution, live events, monetization, and, well, everything be born in front of our eyes, particularly in this digital-first world. We’re seeing now how esports consumption is different from that of ‘traditional’ sports and some of the esports habits and features are even making the day to traditional sports, and a little vice-versa.

Turner Sports’s Executive Vice President and Chief Content Officer Craig Barry hit on some thought-provoking ideas on traditional sports presentation – emphasizing that these young fans don’t necessarily want to be dependent on the produced broadcast, they want to pick their own experience, cameras, and angles. But that’s if you can even get them to tune in in the first place – Barry noted the omnipresence and ease of access for highlights. For them, watching highlights is equivalent to watching the game. Barry knows they’re living in a time of transition and change – that’s not to say the experience of watching a full game, lounging in the EZ-Boy is dead, there are just other experiences to consider, too.

“There will always be a place to lean back and watch, but the day-to-day consumption of content – that landscape is changing, and it’s highly digital and mobile,” said Barry. “And therefore the habits of the way people consume content has changed. And esports is a primary driver of that.”

Another interesting area where esports and traditional sports look to share some similarities – kinda – is the power of superstars. Except it’s to the nth degree in esports. Yes, clubs in the NBA, NFL, et al. benefit greatly from star performers that turn heads on and off the playing field, but the financial viability of an esports franchise and league can rise and fall with a star’s ability to build, engage, and activate a fan base even more so than in other sports, where winning titles remains the most valuable objective. But an esports athlete that brings along with him/her a fan base, whether they’re #1 or #10 in their sport, is worth everything. They can help attract more sponsors, more viewers, more fans just as much or more, for now, than winning the Super Bowl of one’s esports competition. It’s a unique trait if esports, but not surprising for an industry and ecosystem that was born through digital and social platforms, beginning with Twitch streamers attracting audiences of millions – for their play, but also their personality.

Finally, Brendan Donohue, Managing Director of the NBA 2k League, offered some insight into how they’re envisioning a fully formed league with teams representing cities. The likely outcome will not be traditional home and away games, with teams traveling to and from opponent cities throughout the season, but is more likely to evolve as a ‘traveling studio’ in which the league visits each of the member cities to put on the competitions; a barnstorming of sorts. It remains to be seen if this is also the long-term vision for other esports leagues, as well.

 

Major pro sports was largely an invention of the last century, but here we are in 2018, watching a new sport arise to major participation, popularity, spectatorship, growth, and monetization. There remain several questions unanswered, more developments and models to come, but it’s the 21st century now, and digital gaming is no longer a curiosity or a niche; digital is the new way of the world.

 

 

 

Realtime Summit Twitter Recap

In October 2018, the Realtime Summit was held in Chattanooga, TN, bringing together some of the leading minds and practitioners that are creating digital and social content in real time, across the sports, news, and entertainment industries.

What follows is a collection of the best quotes, images, insights, and observations shared from the event via Twitter #RealTimeSummit. Thanks to all those whose tweets helped fuel this recap, and to the organization for putting on sharing this great event!

SEAT Dallas Twitter Recap

In July 2018, the Sports and Entertainment Alliance in Technology (SEAT) held its annual conference, this year in Dallas. The events brings together thought leaders from throughout the industries to discuss the trends of the day and learn from each other.

What follows is a collection of the best quotes, insights, images, and observations shared via Twitter #SEATDallas from the event. Thanks to everyone whose tweets helped fuel this recap and to SEAT for always putting together a phenomenal event!

Hashtag Sports 2018 Twitter Recap: Day 3

In June 2018, Hashtag Sports held its fantastic annual three-day conference, featuring thought leaders and experienced pros from throughout the sports industry to sit on panels and lead provocative discussions about the trends and questions of the day.

What follows is a collection of the best quotes, stats, insights, images, and observations shared via Twitter #HS18 at day 2 of the event. Thanks to everyone whose tweets helped fuel this recap!

Thanks to the folks at Hashtag Sports for putting on such an incredible event.

BE SURE TO CHECK OUT DAY 1 AND DAY 2