20 Quick Sports Business and Social Media Nuggets, Insights, and Takeaways from the 2021 Hashtag Sports Conference

The worst parts of the pandemic appear to be over and sports are gradually returning to normalcy. Games are being played in front of packed venues and there is more than enough live sports programming to satisfy any fan’s appetite. But there have been and will be lasting effects of 2020 for the sports industry — new platforms, new fan behaviors, new opportunities and necessities. These themes permeated much of the conversation at the 2021 Hashtag Sports Virtual Conference this past June, one of many great industry events that Hashtag Sports holds.

I recommend you check out all the panels (they’re available on demand). You’ll digest some thought-provoking ideas and key learnings from the panels — here I present some of mine in the following 20 nuggets: 

  1. Don’t chase numbers, accomplish goals. In a conversation between STN Digital’s David Brickley and Shareablee’s Tania Yuki, a key point was to establish objectives and KPIs for social media strategy and campaigns and focus on those metrics as measures of success. Depending on the goals, there are successful scenarios in which the vanity metrics do not go up.  
  1. “Too much time is spent on finding the wins.” This quote came from Yuki, who noted there is a ton of insight to come from looking at the ‘losers’ among social media posts as there are the winners; perhaps even more. 
  1. On one of the panels, the moderator asked each speaker to name their favorite social media platform and why. For Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Gallup, notably, it was Facebook. Why? It’s because it’s THE place for him and his partner brands to reach families. “Grandparents, aunts & uncles, (family) – you got everybody on there…” said Gallup.
  2. We see influencers partner and collaborate on platforms like TikTok and teammates often pairing up for podcasts for videos. But Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekelter talked about his initiatives uniting athletes across sports for causes, collaborations, organizations, and events like Twitch streams and tournaments. If athletes across sports start working together more, the possibilities are endless…
  1. In discussing the last year and recent priorities, both Jared Harding (Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche) and Nick Monroe (Milwaukee Bucks) named YouTube as an area of focus. They touted YouTube as a good way to reach new and broader audiences, so they’re programming for YouTube strategically.
  2. Greg Mize, Senior Marketing & Innovation Director with the Atlanta Braves, discussed the three criteria he and his team use when evaluating new digital/social platforms. There is the business case (how can this benefit the business?), the audience there (who can we reach?), and the resources required for success on the platform.
  1. In articulating his thoughts about TikTok, Mize characterized the content there with a thoughtful quote: “It’s the micro-highlight…It’s the highlight within the highlight.” A sharp summation about content like the bat flip and high-five resonating more than the actual home run (my line, not his).
  1. Portland Trail Blazers Director of Content Aaron Grossman talked about gleaning insights early on new platforms by getting feedback from the audience. “They say don’t read the comments, but with a new channel it’s important to [do so], to learn (what the audience likes).” The audience will often point to where you’re going right and where you’re going wrong.
  2. Grossman also cited the growth rate of the brand/account’s audience on a new platform as a key KPI to know if the team’s content is resonating and to evaluate the viability of the platform for the team overall.
  3. In discussing how teams can look at the ROI of social media, the Braves’s Mize talked about the long tail of fandom. “We believe firmly that creating engagement on social media will eventually have a long-tail impact on monetization…(We need to) build fandom through engagement.”
  4. Joe Carr, the CEO of Thrill One Sports and Entertainment (Nitro Circus, among other brands) talked about the company’s success with UGC, particularly during the pandemic. But Carr cautioned that it’s important to not saturate the brand’s feed with UGC and to be mindful of the type of UGC they’re sharing. Thrill One is cognizant to maintain brand integrity amidst the UGC strategy, he said.
  1. The Sacramento Kings have had a tough time on the court, but they operate at an all-pro level on social media. A key for them, according to Kings Social Media Manager Sydney Zuelke is to have fun on social media. That’s why the team has embraced a light, playful tone that is mimicked in their engaging content. If you have fun then fans will, too — win or lose.
  1. How pervasive is gaming (not to be confused, necessarily, with esports) among Gen Z? According to Hollister Director of Brand Marketing Jacee Scoular, 90% of their Gen Z consumers consider themselves a gamer (!). A stat that explains why the brand has entered the gaming space for various campaigns.
  1. Twitch Regional Vice President Nathan Lindberg was on a panel alongside Scoular and made an interesting comparison that esports fans are a bit like NASCAR fans. By that he means they genuinely appreciate the partners supporting their favorite drivers (or gamers) and sport — and therefore are undyingly loyal to those sponsor brands.
  1. Speaking of appreciating sponsors and being loyal (even evangelical) to those partners, Scotiabank’s Lisa Ferkul said this level of proselytizing fidelity has been very much the effect her brand has seen from their sponsorship of women’s sport. To underscore the opportunity (and dearth) for sponsorship of women’s sports, Ferkul cited an eye-popping stat — just 0.4% of sports sponsorship revenue. It’s just about all with men’s sports. Wow.
  1. Instagram’s Head of Sports Dev Sethi is always thoughtful on these conference panels and here he spoke about Instagram’s objective (for sports organizations to heed) of helping fans express themselves [and driving/helping them to do so by posting content to IG]. “How do you encourage fans to express themselves?” Sethi succinctly stated.
  1. Sethi also recommended organizations think ‘holistically’ about their Instagram strategy. To utilize all of the platform’s offerings in a cohesive manner — Feed, Stories, Reels, Shopping, IGTV, and Live. 
  1. Kaitee Daley runs social media for ESPN, so she knows all too well the frequent ideas and opinions expressed by everyday social media users (including coworkers) that aren’t social media professionals. It’s an experience to which many can relate, but Daley encouraged social pros to not let ‘backseat social media drivers’ get them down. Said Daley: “Driving your car every day doesn’t make you an expert in cars just like using social media every day doesn’t make you an expert in social. So trust your experts…”
  1. Jack Settleman, the brains behind leading Snapchat [and general social media] sports media brand Snapback Sports gave a thoughtful panel and talked about how he actually planned to go viral (and did) at the Super Bowl. How? He knew every year there’s a big hullabaloo about the color of Gatorade that would be dumped on the winning coach (also always a popular sports betting prop). So he made sure he had a good shot of the moment and got the video out there while the main broadcast wasn’t as focused on the Gatorade pouring moment. You can’t manufacture virality, but you sure can anticipate opportunities that present viral moments.
  1. Settleman also confirmed what many had suspected — hot takes and polarizing stances drive engagement with sports fans. There’s a reason the Skip Baylesses of the world drive engagement and reaction with their polarizing takes on TV and social media. Settleman said taking such stances and then letting the fans argue away has been a key ingredient in their engagement strategy.

There are far more nuggets of insight from the Hashtag Sports Virtual Conference that I could not get close to covering in the short list above. I recommend you check out the on-demand videos for further enlightenment.

If there’s one thing sports business professionals can count on, it’s that the engagement and activation strategies that prevail today won’t be the same next year, perhaps even next week. While we must follow the money and the metrics oftentimes, it’s important to never stop asking questions. To tackle challenges, to question the meaningfulness of the best and the worst ‘results’, to never get complacent, and to follow our instinct as fans at heart.  

Know Your Goals: What it Means to have a Craft and Execute Effective Social Media Strategy

Social media is easy, right? It’s the vocation of iNtErNs, after all. Everybody knows how to post content on social media, almost everybody has posted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. etc.

But don’t let the accessibility and ‘fun’ nature of social media obscure the fact that it can and should be an integral part of business strategy. A thoughtful, effective social media strategy can create and build brands, can cultivate and activate audiences, and can make or break the short-term and long-term success for an organization, campaign, and balance sheet.

The key to understanding social media strategy — the key to understanding just about anything — is asking ‘why?’. Why should a business or brand post on social media? Sure, more followers, more engagement, and more attention is usually not a bad thing; the whole ‘all publicity is good publicity’ epigram at play. But it’s at the next level where professionals reside. Where there’s a method to the madness. David Brickley, founder and CEO of STN Digital, a ‘social-first’ marketing agency talked about the importance of understanding the why of it all.

Brickley explained: “That’s the big thing that we help do is [define] ‘What’s our core purpose?” What’s our mission? What’s our North Star? What are our brand pillars? What audience are we trying to attract? Where do they live?’ 

“All those things I think sometimes get left behind and people just start posting content or ‘let’s grow to a million followers;’ [it’s] like, ‘Wait a second. Do you want a million followers that are more the Gen Z demographic? Do you want a million followers that are more 35 to 54 [age range]?’ That’s an important distinction to make before you just start creating content because you want to attract the right viewers that ultimately, from an ROI perspective, can purchase your product or tune into your television network or what have you…

“[Otherwise] how do you know if you’re successful or not?”

It can be challenging, however, to work toward strategic objectives when the giant scoreboard often equates performance with the vanity metrics. Social media goals can’t be defined by some vanity metric without context and forethought. This is what separates the ‘anybody can do social’ strategy from the pros. Brickley walked me through a scenario in which the vanity metrics scoreboard didn’t necessarily tell the whole story.

“We have some clients that really want to increase their Gen Z demographic (or) they really want to increase Latinx or their Black audience,” said Brickley, who has overseen STN Digital working with some of the biggest names in sports and entertainment. “So those are the things that we’re looking at — is our Gen Z audience that’s only 17% this month, can we get it up to 18% next month? So we may lose [net] followers, but if we lost, no offense, the 54 to 65 year old demo, and we gained a bunch of 18 and 22 year olds [then] that’s actually a win, even though the net score looks like we lost followers this month.

“So we work with a lot of brands that are trying to re-identify themselves, or they have a new initiative from the top down saying we need to get younger or we need to get more diverse audiences and consumers. And those are the things that we look at rather than maybe your traditional vanity metric, which is followers.”

Sometime in the early days of digital advertising, marketers began tracking return on investment (ROI). After years of billboards, TV commercials, and radio ads that largely lacked direct ROI measures, digital offered more insight than ever. And then social media arrived on the heels of digital and those direct ROI measures were expected, too. But just because new mediums arose, the marketing funnel itself didn’t disappear. Customers are rarely created with a single ‘impression.’ And expecting every social media post to have a directly attributable ROI is missing the forest for the trees. Brickley broke down the framework with which to look at social media (and, really, to look at for any form of marketing).

“I think [what] frustrates some marketers is they can’t attribute ROI immediately,” Brickley explained. “But there’s such a thing as upper funnel and lower funnel marketing. And a lot of what social is is upper funnel and awareness. And then you can kind of drill that consumer down to take action in the lower funnel.

“But we have clients that say this all the time — they want to go straight to lower funnel. But if you haven’t built education, if you haven’t built rapport, if you haven’t built brand loyalty or brand trust with something, it’s gonna be very difficult to have (somebody) buy a car if you’ve never heard of that car before.”

Customer acquisition, even with the help of social media, is nonlinear. The most valuable ‘engagement’ happens off-platform and the most valuable part of the social media marketing funnel often can’t be found in the metrics. The highest demonstration of success isn’t direct attribution of a social media post to a sale or conversion — it’s inspiring a current customer (or follower) to evangelize and convert their friends and family. To turn one follower into fifty and truly activate the network effect of social networking. The focus can’t always be on finding the next customer or follower when the surest path to doing so is augmenting the avidity of the existing ones [and to ensure they don’t unfollow, because all it takes is a quick click].

 “I think your goal as a brand is to continually engage [and] evoke emotion from your current audience, but also attract a new audience,’ said Brickley. “How do you attract a new audience? Well, you gotta have your current followers reshare your content. Maybe they DM their friends this content. I’ve been a big golfer here for the last year or so because of COVID and my friends are constantly sending me fun golf memes…And all of a sudden, I start following those accounts because I enjoy the content they’re putting out. So that’s one way to acquire a new fan.

“But absolutely once you get those hundred thousand followers, it’s your job to keep those followers. I was talking to Lyndsay Signor over at NBC Sports — I think she said this on my podcast: ‘You know, they don’t have to follow you, right? At any time someone can unfollow you.’…”

So, putting it all together, social media strategy targets specific goals while staying true to brand purpose while attracting new followers and fostering current ones while keeping up with the ever-changing nature of platforms, user behaviors, and online culture in which they operate.

Okay, on second thought, maybe it’s not so easy, after all.

LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH DAVID BRICKLEY

Episode 189 Snippets: How Storytelling Sits at the Center of Clemson Athletics’s Social Media Success

On episode 189 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Tyson Hutchins, Senior Director – Creative Solutions for Clemson Athletics.

What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.

How the Arizona Coyotes Connect Social Media Strategy to Business Objectives

Social media has to wear a lot of hats. For a sports team, they have to learn a lot of positions, if you will. Social media is marketing and fan development. It’s communications, community, customer service, entertainment, partnership marketing, and it’s the most visible and powerful manifestation of the brand.

Many may sum up social media with metrics like engagements, views, reach, taps, clicks, and swipe-ups. But while those numbers can signal the success of tactics, strategic objectives sound more like those important to the business — customer development and acquisition (attracting fans, growing the database), customer retention and user experience, brand awareness and sentiment, and, ultimately, making money.

“I think the most successful social media teams are thinking about revenue every single day,” said Marissa Mast, Vice President of Social Media and Brand Strategy for the Arizona Coyotes NHL club. “I came in with a journalism background, storytelling was my passion. Over the years I’ve spent a lot more time learning about how do we bring in revenue on social media? How can we continue to grow there? And think about different ways to really meet the team goals.”

The pathways to reach those goals can be complex, but goals themselves can be clear. They want to create more fans from all walks of life, drive attendance, enhance love for the brand, and produce value for sponsors. With this (admittedly oversimplified) list of objectives in mind, it was enlightening to hear from Mast, now in her sixth season with the hockey team, walk through many of the ways her team attacks their goals. Mast told me about the team’s recent investment in influencer marketing, which includes working with local and national celebrities or influencers and typically having them attend a game. The goal of the influencer marketing tactic is not tied to those social media metrics like double-taps and video views; it’s about activating fandom. About showing different audiences what it’s like to be a Coyotes hockey fan.

“A big push for us in recent years has been influencer marketing. And having people showcase what it is like at a Coyotes game because we all know hockey on TV and hockey live are just two very different experiences,” said Mast, who worked for E! Online and NBC’s Olympics coverage before coming to the Coyotes. “So for us it’s all about if somebody is not physically in our arena, how do we bring them? 

“I think a big part of our strategy has been more the micro-influencer, who lives in Arizona, talks to people who live in the Phoenix area all day long. And having them showcase what a game day is like and why people should want to come to a game or should want to buy the cute beanie — all those elements that can go into it. Not just showcasing the game, but we love when they show the food options, the drink options, what they did before the game, what they decided to wear.”

There are thousands of different experiences and perspectives at every pro sports game. When teams can showcase and amplify those diverse points of view, the different people and ways to relate to the excitement and value of going to a game — that’s inviting, reaching, and bringing in new fans.

Fan development and growth. Marketing the game experience. Check and check. Mast and the Coyotes know they’re more than a hockey team and more than an entertainment option. The team can bring together Arizona like no other businesses can. So it’s vital for Mast and her team to appreciate that they’re stewards for a brand that can and does mean a lot to a lot of people. The Coyotes need to be a brand people can be proud of, want to support, and one to which they feel a familial connection. That’s a heck of a responsibility and an essential objective.

“We really want to be a brand with a purpose,” said Mast. “We want to showcase how much we are giving back to the community and really how important sports are to the fabric of the community. (It’s) so much more than just ticket sales and a game day. It really is, I think, a huge part of the culture of a city.”

In order to achieve all of these goals and help fans fall in love with the club, the players, and the brand, teams have to earn attention. Because of this mandate, social media staff for sports organizations often have to think like companies that make their living off earning attention. It’s why the kind of content sports teams produce often bears resemblance to Netflix, Hollywood, and TV networks. Stories are currency and are inherent to the unpredictable nature of the season. But when teams have programming and content that fans will want to consume regardless of the team’s record, the success of their strategy is not as contingent on the elements ‘wingagement’ (credit to Mast for that term!). And, just like media companies, there arises opportunities to monetize quality content. Entertain fans, help fans fall in love with the players and team, and drive revenue through partnerships. That’s a tic-tac-toe beauty of a goal right there.

“We’ve always taken the approach that we don’t need to rely on wins to have ‘good’ social media. I think at the end of the day that we’ve had that (mindset) for so many years,” says Mast. “(Because) we’ve been able to think creatively and think like a media company or an entertainment company, we’ve been able to do things like ‘The Bachelor Report’ or ‘Home Trippin’…That’s allowed us to entertain fans and…give people a reason to follow us besides just in-game action.

“From there, we were then able to pitch it to White Claw and White Claw loved that it skewed female. It was this perfect success story of creating great content and then bringing in a sponsor and then bringing in revenue.”

It’s true that social media was once left to entry-level employees or interns (I was one of them way back when). But those days are long gone. Social media is the most powerful lever brands, sports or otherwise, have their disposal. Hearts and minds are captured on social media, brands are manifested and felt, and the ingredients of business strategy come together on social media. Social media has grown into an adult, and the organizations that fully embrace and activate its capabilities will come out on top.

LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH MARISSA MAST

Social Media Changes but Humans Mostly Don’t: A List of Needs to Heed for Sustained Success

As a new year begins, there will be no shortage of prognostications, trends, and visions in the social media world. Some (though increasingly fewer) industries take years to evolve, but in social media, seismic change can happen overnight. While the social networks evolve, the packaging looks different, and the surface-level behaviors may alter, they are all tied to principles of intrinsic human nature that pale any platforms.

So, before you jump on the next emerging social media trend or network, consider what behavior, what natural human want or need is being activated or exploited. Here are 7 ideas that form the roots of so much of what we have seen, continue to see, and will see in what takes off in social media.

1. People want to be seen and heard

Look at the trends emerging in platforms today. Twitch has made streaming more interactive than ever, and users are even paying for premium emotes to ensure their favorite streamers notice them. Meanwhile, the greatest thrill continues to be appearing on the video board at an arena or stadium. The only thing that can come close to equaling the hormone hit for a fan is getting a reply, retweet, or DM from their favorite team or athlete. The individual that has their question responded to in an Instagram Q&A, or whose comment leads to the team posting a specific photo from the pregame warmup, or whose video gets reposted by the team — all help fulfill that fan desire to be seen and be heard.

At a deeper level, people want to know they’re seen and heard in bigger decisions. It may be polling fans on the littlest of decisions or taking into account their collective thoughts on a highly visible or significant decision. Even the appearance of fans being seen and heard can yield considerable cachet. If more fans are feeling seen and heard, you’re doing something right. Embrace this idea going forward and always think about elements of engagement that make fans feel like someone’s paying attention to them out there.


2. People want to feel connected to others

Several months without large gatherings only reinforced this human need. But it goes beyond simply being around other people. It’s about shared experience, yes, but also shared emotion and shared interests. And, to conjure back the previous point, to know somebody else out there sees or hears them. How else could so many of us (myself included) have survived 2020 without painful feelings of loneliness? Social media lends that feeling, however real or artificial it may be, of connection. It’s why it’s difficult to enjoy a sporting event, a piece of social media content, or any moment at all unless there is someone to share it with.

A lot of times in social media, especially in sports, the primary source of content and attention is front and center. And while it’s fun to watch the Verzuz showdowns, for example, it’s even more fun to feel connected to so many others that experienced it or are watching it alongside you live (digitally). How can we continue to uncover new ways to drive human connections in 2021 and the years to come? As social platforms keep evolving, keep in mind this why and less about the shiny new toys and the ‘what.’


3. They like to feel anticipation and reward

As social networks, most notably TikTok, prioritized video completions to help inform their ‘For You’ algorithm, many creators realized they could leverage our human enjoyment of surprise. The chemical and hormone-induced excitement of uncertainty, suspense, and anticipating a denouement is enthralling. It’s one of the many reasons we love sports and the unpredictable, tension-laden action. It’s why, for years, movies and TV shows have made us wonder what’s around the corner. And it’s reinforced by comedians working their way up to a punch line as the audience holds their breathe for that payoff. Heck, it’s even part of some of our favorite music, which often builds to an awesome riff.

This buildup of suspense is becoming more intentional as the social platforms place greater importance on users spending the time to get to that payoff. And publishers on social media strive to play off that formula of creating anticipation (sometimes even explicitly with notes telling us to ‘Wait for it’ or ‘Watch til the end’). Strive to creatively come up with ways to build those feelings of what’s coming and what’s gonna happen, and give them a payoff feeling complete. And maybe even anticipating the next journey you’ll take them on.

4. We want to feel feelings (the emotional roller coaster)

Whether it’s in social media content, entertainment programming, marketing, or storytelling — the best stuff makes us feel something. Awe, joy, delight, anger, fear, sadness, inspiration. We feel alive when we feel. When sports came back following the pandemic-induced pause, whether our teams were winning or losing, something just felt invigorating about feeling feelings again, getting back on the emotional roller coaster.

We think and talk all the time about goals and metrics and executing (or gamifying) our way to those goals and metrics. But it can help to start with the feeling. What feeling do you want to induce and how successful is your content in creating that feeling? And then work from that point. Because if the consumer isn’t going to end up feeling something — anything — it’s not going to break through.

5. They want to socialize and need a reason to do so

The group chats, the social feeds, even the phone calls all light up when something wild happens in sports or significant news drops. Groups (in normal times) gather together at a buddy’s place or a bar to watch the game together or head out to the arena for a night out. And when sports went away, so did a source of connection and of socializing with friends and family.

How can we help foment friendships, start conversations, and give more and more reasons for others to socialize, converse, or message with each other? The best part of experiencing the excitement of a Woj bomb, a buzzer beater, or watching a hilarious or awesome video isn’t in the moment itself. It’s that it is an invitation to talk about it, share it, or experience it with others. To restart that previously dormant group text, or to slide into someone’s DMs. Keep this in mind moving forward. Entertainment and information is great, but as a source of kindling for friendship and socializing, it’s even more powerful.

6. People want things to talk about

I won’t wax poetic on this one quite as much, because it very much relates to the previous point in #5. We all want something to break the silence, something to bring up besides the weather. Among the most important, valuable things sports provide is something to talk about. There has been a renewed effort throughout 2020 to embrace this need, because there were no games or transactions to fill the void. And we could only talk so much about ‘these unprecedented times.’

All of a sudden the constant trend was teams and brands asking questions [or its relative, ‘pick/choose one from the choices presented’. Looking for users to flood the replies and comments. And while this kept engagement up during a time when nothing much was happening to talk about, think and go further moving forward. There is just as much value in the conversations being created (and the fodder being served up help start them) that happen outside the comments. The interest and enthusiasm won’t ever wane in the team or sport if it’s providing a bountiful font of conversation topics. We all want something to talk about.

7. We want to remember and recall personal memories

Nostalgia ain’t new. For years and generations we’ve realized the power of nostalgia. South Park satirized the proliferation of nostalgia with their ”Member Berries’ storyline. But something else is happening now, too, making nostalgia more personalized. Because just about everyone loves nostalgia, but we’re not all nostalgic for the same things. Social media isn’t segmented by generation, but when it’s more personal, it’s easier to activate. Not everybody recalls watching that game or playing with that toy, but everybody CAN recall (or look up) who their favorite player was at 10 years old or the first concert they ever attended.

How can we create opportunities for people to reminisce, to delve into their own personal vaults and pull out a memory? Every chance to revisit those times pours a little gas on the internal flames to keep them blazing. It could be from the earliest childhood memories to even where we were when something significant happened with the team or sport at any time in our lives. When the strength of the feeling and experience is conjured back up, we can all feel it. Nostalgia and memory will continue to play a key role and there will be more creativity and activity to evolve it in the years to come.

It can be easy to get caught up the trends and the trending tactics. To adapt or imitate, to ride the wave of proven concepts. But step back and ponder why something is successful and what base-level human traits and wants are being fulfilled. That’s what can help drive new ideas and original executions. And that’s what will keep you ahead of the curve, always. Because the platforms may change overnight, but human needs have been around, largely unchanged, for millennia.

Discovering What’s Next in Sports and Social Media

The coolest part of the so-called reputation of Gen Z is that they don’t simply subscribe to the way things have always been. That it’s good to question ideas and strategies that many proclaimed as just the way things are done or as best practices. Don’t just think outside the box, build a new box. Heck, build a whole set of new boxes.

With that inspiration in mind, I want to enter 2021 questioning every status quo. If something has been deemed the best way to do something for going on decades, make it live up to that billing today. Because fans look different, technology changes, culture evolves, and traditions and best practices are replaced by new ones. That doesn’t happen without challenging the way things are, first, and then testing new hypotheses in search of the next paradigm-shifting idea.

Here are five areas in the sports and social media ecosystem that could be ripe for disruption. Not just evolution but revolution. These are my ideas and what immediately crossed my mind, what are yours?

Sports Broadcasts Haven’t Changed Much in Decades. Why?

Ever since our parents or even our grandparents first began watching live sports, the broadcast paradigm has not evolved all that much. Broadcasts started off with an announcer providing play-by-play. Then a color commentator was added to complement the play-by-play with color and analysis. Monday Night Football added a third in its early days, boldly trying to make their broadcast more entertaining to a wider national audience over the years. The camera views and sound have improved greatly, sideline reporters provide eyes and access behind-the-scenes. But as we enter 2021, outside of cooler cameras and clearer views, broadcasts are not all that different from 20, 30, or 40 years ago.

Megacasts have provided an interesting experiment here and there, and Amazon Prime Video’s alternate audio for NFL games is a peripheral trial with good intentions. But a couple of Snoop Dogg appearances started opening the eyes to more. His commentary of a NHL game last year went viral and in late 2020, his stint calling a couple boxing matches for Triller were the talk of the town.

There is a marriage to tradition because so much of the country rejects any aberration from what they’ve always known. But what could it mean to blow up this paradigm? To make a broadcast weigh more on the side of entertaining than informative? There are plenty of contractual and technological barriers that perhaps stand in the way of such innovation, but time is running out. Younger generations of sports fans eschew watching live sports in favor of highlights and other entertainment. This is not because of attention span deficits — many watch their favorite Twitch streamer for hours. There is no single right answer and I’m not here to provide my own. Just to make us think ‘what if?’ What if broadcasters are not talking at fans but with them, not diving into the details of a specific play call but more on jokes or storytelling, not cutting to a sideline reporter sidling near coaches but cutting to a reporter watching alongside a crazed and costumed fan? The paradigm can’t change until somebody changes it.

Sports Teams are So Much More Than Sports Teams

One of the neat initiatives from teams across sports during the COVID-caused pause was the production of fun and even educational activities for kids. Some teams also had their strength coaches lead workout and yoga sessions. Other had team dietitians and chefs talk about healthy eating and perform cooking demos. Even mascots found creative ways to entertain fans of all ages.

Sports organizations are good at a lot of things. Building and managing a team of elite athletes, sure, but also event management, video production, graphic design, preparing food, physical training and recovery, mental performance, and so much more. Without games to cover, live in-person events to produce and manage, and tickets to sell, organizations had all this capability and talent at disposal.

What can teams do with this expertise and ability, many of which more closely resemble agencies than sports teams? Could teams produce scripted content, extensive educational programs for kids, educational programs for adults (who want to learn Photoshop, After Effects, Premier, Social Media Strategy, marketing strategy, data analysis, and more), fitness classes, a cooking show rivaling anything seen on Food Network, etc. etc.? Some teams have even built their own branded gyms, could hotels and restaurants be next? There are many boxes to think outside of, more opportunities yet to be explored.

The Bachelorette as Competition for Sports

It doesn’t matter how exciting the game or collection of games are that are playing at any given time. If The Bachelor or The Bachelorette is on, it will find its way toward or at the top of the Twitter trends. Perhaps only the Super Bowl could make fans turn away or post about something else. Maybe. With live viewership and share of heart and mind more competitive than ever, what is there for sports to learn?

I do not watch either of the aforementioned matchmaking shows, but it’s impossible to escape between Twitter, fantasy leagues, and active online communities everywhere. There is more storytelling in sports than ever, but is it mostly the kind focused more on turning casual fans into avid fans? Nowadays, there is more data for the growing gambling fans (many hope!), more sources of deep insight into the strategy and analytics, and great info on the athleticism and real-time decision making. But what disruptive thinking can get fans emotionally invested into every player, each game feeling like a drama unfolding? What can attract not just casual fans, but people who aren’t fans at all (yet)?

Showcasing the drama of sports is not a new idea, NFL Films pioneered that long ago. But how can that elevation be brought into the everyday, and into the real-time experience? There are steps getting us there with each game, each season. Is there a revolution to come out of the evolution? I can’t dream it up today, but perhaps somebody will, if there is such an avant-garde movement to come.

What Happens When Highlights are a Dime a Dozen?

Back in my day…well, my day wasn’t all THAT long ago, the omnipresence of video on the Internet and on social media wasn’t a thing. Such proliferation hasn’t even been around ten years. It’s easy to take for granted that missing a big play in a game, or just about any play in a game, doesn’t matter these days because the video will be on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, or elsewhere within minutes, if not seconds. But the more readily accessible all this video — and the more one’s timeline is everybody sharing the same clips — the more the currency of highlights gets diluted.

As the value of highlights diminishes by their widespread availability, what’s a team or account to do to add value? What does it look to like to upset the status quo of game highlights? There has been some evolution in the space, with some leagues dispatching correspondents into places bigger broadcast cameras can’t go, grabbing unique angles and access for fans on social. More advanced cameras, too, can give fans 360-degree looks at a play. There is room for even more innovation for the real-time phenomenon of highlights as it enters its second decade.

If the focus is less on providing a volume of highlights (or changing how that volume is shared), there exists more leeway and time to produce something different, something original that turns a highlight into something more. It could be adding in data about the action in the play (which some have done), enhancing the video with special effects, production elements, and music, making them interactive (whatever that may mean), providing them to creators or fans and letting them produce something cool in the moment, or any number of other ideas one can cook up. When scarcity starts to dry up as a value proposition, that’s the sign of an opportunity to innovate and to try to pivot to what’s next.

The Power of Player-Led Content

One of my favorite things to take off in recent years, and 2020 especially, is the passive camera opportunity for players, particularly in the NFL. You’ve no doubt seen the ‘Showtime Cam’ from games where players celebrate in front of the video screens in the end zone after touchdowns or turnovers, watching themselves ham it up for a national audience. A handful of NFL teams similarly set up cameras at training camps inviting players to participate with a prompt or just giving them the lens to do whatever they wanted. Athletes are more comfortable creating content and filming themselves than ever before (thanks in part to the prolonged sports pause and period of sheltering). And they appreciate the value of that content more than ever, too.

Something’s just different when players can perform and seek out attention on their terms. To make it onto the team’s or league’s platforms, when they don’t have to be reliant upon to a reporter or team associate coming up to them or get requested by a media member. Or have to awkwardly interact with and perform for the person behind the camera. The results have been content gold with more unfettered player personality and endearing fun. Players have their own accounts and their own autonomy to tell their story, sure, but they’re also gaining more agency over the content going on team and league platforms, too.

The best content teams can produce comes from the players themselves. The old paradigm of players as subjects only has been disrupted and will continue to evolve. They’re co-producers and directors now. They’re more authentic and more fun when they’re not performing for somebody but instead embracing ‘just do you’ (and maybe here’s an idea if you need one). I look forward to how this trend comes together, with players able to figuratively raise their hand more to be part of content and teams partnering with players on content instead of feeling like it’s a give and take relationship. The status quo with player relations has always been more rigid, but 2020 helped all sides realize that at the end of the day we’re all playing for the same team. We’re all coworkers looking out for the short-term and the long-term success of the organization. This box is bursting and it’s been a long time coming.

Ask Why and What If More Often

Not many will call 2020 a great year, but it sure was an important one. The status quo was questioned, demanded to pass muster or be struck down. Younger generations are leading a new awakening, just over 50 years after the late ’60s saw a similar movement. A difference now is that it’s not just about a young generation with new ideas, it’s the first that has grown up and come of age in a time when transformative change (led and accelerated by technology) seems to happen every year.

Give yourself permission to question longstanding practices. The status quo may pass snuff, that’s fine. But there will also emerge opportunities to create a whole new world.

The Mocking Generation: A Conversation about ‘Savage’ Social Media and its Implications

The team finishes off a big win. Or they dominate a rivalry game. Or it could be an underdog that shocks the world. Then it comes…
The SAVAGE social media post.

Some are spur of the moment, while others show impressive planning and creative production. Some will have a bit of pop culture sprinkled in. And almost without exception, the posts will belittle their opponent, letting their victorious fans bask in the loser’s misery.

And it’s hard to shake the thought that something just doesn’t feel right.

Sometime in the last few years, snark gave way to savage, and an arms race began to see who could most creatively stomp on the grave of their fallen foe.

These posts go viral. By just about any measure, they’re objectively successful. The savage posts give fans something to rally around, instill pride, and make the brand of their team feel cool.

But have we become desensitized to it all? Is the obsession of savagery raising a generation of Nelson Muntz’s? (the Simpsons character known for pointing at anyone’s misfortune and exclaiming “Ha-Ha!”)

This could be completely off-base (call me a snowflake). It’s hard to argue when the most successful posts are often the most ruthlessly savage ones after a win. They help reach more fans and potential fans, racking up engagement and impressions. But it also paints the brand as the bully in the schoolyard, more excited about the opponent’s loss than their own win.

Taken to the extreme, imagine Little Leaguers pointing and laughing at the losing team instead of high-fiving their own teammates after a win. It may seem like a stretch, but if the standard practice to celebrate a victory becomes finding a way to savagely poke fun at the loser, such behavior just seems, well, normalized.

It’s not so easy to reverse the trend. Not when social media teams are evaluated on engagement numbers. And not when they all know what the Internet wants and will eat up. There are a lot more examples of savage tweets going viral than ones in which the winning team celebrates their team and with their fans. It doesn’t have to be that way. 

The examples below demonstrate that it’s possible to be respectful and to still give fans a reason to rally. A reason to feel like they’re supporting a fun brand and team.

Social media creates culture, magnifies it, and is also a reflection of where it may be headed. At the end of the day, it’s instructive to consider the goals for a team on social. Several have been discussed in this blog. There is the objective to drive numbers, to rank among the leaders in the league for engagement and to show one’s bosses that the team’s social is kicking ass. But there’s a heck of a lot more. There is the goal to drive more awareness and affinity for the team, among both existing and potential fans. The goal to enhance the brand, making the brand of the team one worth supporting and investing in (and sponsoring). And somewhere down way down the line (perhaps too far) is hopefully the goal to use the platform and influence thousands or millions of people to be good, respectful. To develop a brand worthy of one’s affection and emulation.

Some will say social media snark in sports started with this tweet from the LA Kings in the spring of 2012. Then NBA Twitter and many players themselves (not to mention media) saw the immediate benefit of taking snark to the next level — unleashing savage. Playful stoking of the flame lit up social media and continues to today.

I’m willing to concede this all may be way off-base. But as a generation of social media natives comes of age amid a system of savagery, I think this a conversation worth having before it’s too late.

12 Thought-Provoking Sports Biz Insights from the Hashtag Sports Conference

2020 has been a heck of a year for the sports industry (and, yes, pretty much everything else). It has been transformative not because something incredibly new or novel emerged, but because trends that had been gradually growing, accelerated to open eyes and lead to what looks to be lasting changes moving forward for the industry.

This was apparent listening and learning from some of the leading minds and practitioners that gathered (virtually) at the 2020 Hashtag Sports Conference, the annual event that attracts top people from the sports business industry, held this year October 20-22. New revenue sources, different ways to engage, time to take a long look at esports, scrutinizing and improving sponsored social — these were among the highlights (and more) from the conference.

The inclination for Gen Z to not remain bound by the longstanding status quo is permeating to all ends of society in 2020. Sports is no exception. The industry cannot afford to err on the side of cautious innovation, the urgency is only increasing.

With that as the setup, here are 12 sports business insights that stood out to me from the Hashtag Sports Conference:

  1. In-game betting is going to be huge over the next several years. It’s been oft-stated that much of the wagering in more mature markets overseas takes place during games and stats shared from Simplebet CEO Chris Bevilacqua underscored the crazy-high engagement levels of in-game bettors. Bevilacqua said, looking at trends from NFL games in which fans using the Simplebet platform wager tokens, sessions on the platform averaged 27 minutes and users placed an average of 25-35 bets during the game. (Wow!) The only limiting factor is the latency of stats and video, so bets can be placed and processed in the seconds between plays or drives. Another point brought up during one of the Hashtag Sports gambling-focused sessions noted how traditional US sports, such as American football and baseball, are amenable to in-game wagering with more discreet plays and longer pauses between plays (as opposed to soccer, for example).


  2. One more assertion that was mentioned in a quick comment, but stood out as significant was longtime sports exec David Levy talking up the auspicious future of peer-to-peer betting. Most discussion of sports gambling has the model of betting against the house and the odds they set or being part of a pool (a la daily fantasy models) of other players, some better equipped with data, research, and expertise than others. But as platforms mature and more states legalize (and normalize) sports gambling, more options and models will continue to proliferate. Including the chance to turn that barstool or group chat debate with a buddy into a small but secure and official bet, with odds baked in and no ‘We didn’t shake on it’ alibis possible. Not only does sports betting promise to make casual fans more deeply engaged with sports, it could also lead to fans being more engaged with their friends through sports, adding a competitive element to social co-viewing beyond season-long fantasy leagues.


  3. The way activations and events are built, digital and experiential elements are too often still planned in separate silos and resource allocations. But that’s changing now more than ever. “It’s no longer just about being an event on the ground, it’s much more holistic in terms of touchpoints…” said Alex Beer, Vice President – Client Services at GMR Marketing. Every touchpoint with a fan feed into and inform the others. It’s not a linear chain, but a full circle; experiential activations are not a single-touch experience with fans and shouldn’t be treated as such.


  4. Even before the pandemic, and certainly during the pause of most sports is caused, esports was on the mind of many in sports business. Monumental Sports and Entertainment has been investing in the space for years and MSE’s Vice President of Strategic Initiatives laid out why they’re bullish on investing in the space. He noted fans of esports are a digital-first audience, they are just as passionate as traditional sports fans, and MSE actively wants to be ahead of the curve with what’s next in sports and entertainment. But the most powerful statement Leonsis made alluded to how gaming is a prism through which a generation connects with each other. Esports is the social fabric of a generation. WNBA player Aerial Powers, who has nearly 5,000 subscribers to her Twitch channel, reinforced this point, saying her postgame routine (after getting home) often consists of jumping on Twitch, gaming, and catching up with her fans and friends. An interactive Twitch stream sounds like a pretty cool alternative for many fans to a postgame press conference.


  5. Outspoken MLB starting pitcher Trevor Bauer talked (in the clip below) about some of the fan engagement ideas he’s seen overseas. His observations underscore that if sports want dramatically change the direction they’re going with the next generation of fans, they have to be willing to experiment in big ways. The adherence to tradition and gradual changes may feel necessary to some, but it’s foolhardy if it’s done at the expense of losing a generation of fans. Having a player, e.g. one not remotely expected to play, in the dugout live-tweeting or even streaming a bit seems sacrilegious to even consider, but that’s the kind of challenge the old ways thinking that may be needed to save traditional sports. Nothing is stopping such experimentation from moving forward besides obstinate resistance in the name of competition. A lot of fan engagement tactics involving teams and players won’t help win games, but they can help win fans. And at some point, the latter has to outweigh the former more often than not.

6. For years, live sport has been becoming just as much a TV product as it is a live event product. That only accelerated this year with fans restricted from attending live games. “We [reimagined] the game without fans…We called these ‘studio games,’” said Manchester City FC CEO Ferran Soriano. “We transformed a problem…into an opportunity.” We often think of the pinnacle of televised live sports as making fans feel like they’re at the game. But what can a game look like if the entire presentation and field setup is built to be a TV product? Optimized for the fans at home, first and foremost, with fans in attendance more like a glorified studio audience (that may be a bit of an exaggeration, at least today). It’s thought-provoking to consider because, as has been oft-cited, the vast majority of fans will never attend a live game of their favorite team.

7. The best brand-celebrity partnerships start organically and are a true partnership. Bleacher Report’s CMO Ed Romaine talked about how the powerhouse publisher’s partnerships with celebrities and athletes often start with organic engagement. The celebs and athletes are already engaging with B/R/s content. The relationship then is not an endorsement or sponsorship, but a co-creative partnership. They collaborate on creative oversight and create produce something both sides can be proud to activate and promote. Properties don’t have to steal the attention that influencers, celebrities, and athletes garner and have earned, they can act more like an agency, giving these influential individuals the resources, platform, and creative assist to produce something extraordinary for fans, together.

8. Logo slaps are outdated, said Bleacher Report CMO Ed Romaine. Brands want to be more organically embedded in content and the story, getting that ‘halo benefit,’ he explained (and I paraphrase here). It has taken some time for the industry to catch up, the easier route with social and digital media was to put it alongside the print ads and ballpark billboards that prevailed on rate cards for decades in sports business and sports media. But the most valuable sponsorships are not built by eyeballs being borrowed away from the live or digital content they actually came for. When brands aren’t stealing away attention, but instead embedded ‘organically’ within good content, that’s a winning formula for all sides.

9. Many have recognized the opportunity to monetize the thousands and, for many teams, millions of fans that will never buy a ticket to a game. The reality imposed by the pandemic, when digital touchpoints are the only fan touchpoints made teams think about what it means to prioritize the at-home fans. Los Angeles Dodgers VP of Digital Caroline Morgan spoke about helping fans feel connected as they would at Dodger Stadium at a game, but also spent more time than ever thinking about how and why it’s valuable and lucrative to cultivate a global fanbase. A diehard Dodgers fan living across the country may never be a season ticket member, but is there another form of membership or path of sustained monetization (beyond sponsored social media) that should be more strategically approached and activated? There are a lot more social and digital-only fans than there are fans who attend live games, and the next big revenue opportunities will come from figuring out more ways to serve and monetize this enormous pool of fans.

10. There is a growing number of fans that are fans of players more than teams. There is a growing proportion of players that have more followers — and a higher number & proportion of engaged followers — than their teams on do. Those two telling trends are among the reasons why Opendorse’s co-founder and CEO Blake Lawrence says athletes should be out front – for recruits [in college] and for fans. It’s the athlete-driven and athlete empowerment era, he said. Leagues, schools, and teams that have realized that are looking internally and allocating resources and investment into equipping athletes with the resources to rock social media. Because engaged fans of a team’s players helps the team and the league. It starts with funneling game content like photos and highlights, but the next level is acting like something of an agency (ideally scalable) to co-create content with players that is as thumb-stopping as anything the team spends time on for their own feeds.

11. With more purchases of all products taking place online, there are more opportunities for brands to have direct relationships with consumers. And for brands to be more than just providers of products. Red Bull has earned praise for years for being a content brand that happened to sell energy drinks. Nicole Portwood, who is the Vice President of Marketing for Mountain Dew, discussed the increased movement to DTC (direct-to-consumer) for brands like Mountain Dew meant they could be more than just a beverage product that runs ads about said beverage product. Brands can deliver more and pull customers to them through content. The best content and distribution can win and there’s nothing stopping brands, like Mountain Dew, from attracting individuals to them through content in the level playing field of digital and social media. There is no competition for shelf space in digital, it’s a different kind of competition.

12. 2020 was the year that the comfort level of players posting video to social media went way up. Vice President of Marketing for the National Lacrosse League Katie Lavin noted that players started to that understand raw, unpolished video was okay and it “took away the fear” that content wasn’t good enough for their channels. Players who were once uneasy about posting anything that didn’t look produced or professional, let alone portray them as anything besides an elite, competitive athlete realized that it wasn’t just okay to use their iPhone to post a video to social, but that fans loved it when they did. And their social media engagement reflected it. There’s no turning back now, the willingness and eagerness for players to not be bashful about posting their own social media content, no matter how raw and amateur, will only increase. (And many will discover apps or in-app editing tools as they gain more fluency, too). Pro athletes were already influential on social media, but now many more are on the path to be influencers and creators.

None of this sports business matters without the fans. Everything should be framed around what is good for them, what helps them to connect to the team, the partners, and each other in authentic ways, and what makes them feel alive by being a fan of their team. Make this the year longstanding practices and status quos are challenged, imagining a better way. Innovate with the best of intentions. And remember why we do this.

Thanks again to Hashtag Sports for an excellent event!

How Brent Gambill Helped Develop and Package Strong Stories with SiriusXM Baseball

The circumstances brought on by the pandemic has caused evolution in a lot of industries to happen more rapidly than anyone could have imagined.

When athletes were stuck sheltering with the rest of us, and certainly as many entered their respective league bubbles, the sports world witnessed the rise of the athlete journalist. This may not be exactly what Derek Jeter had in mind for athlete journalism when he founded the Players Tribune back in 2014, but no one can deny the power and scale of athlete-produced content now, ushered by social media.

But here’s the thing — as cool as it is to see athletes giving us the pictures, the reactions, and feel of things, this development in sports media perhaps helps fans appreciate sports journalists. The storytellers, the objective eyes and ears, the ones who can put to words the emotion and novelty of the moment. It’s hard not to consider this unique value reflecting on my recent interview with Brent Gambill, now the Director of Communications for NASCAR, Mid-Atlantic region and formerly a longtime producer with XM (and later Sirius XM) radio and their show ‘Baseball Beat.’ Their show was different because they didn’t chase down players, they wanted the writers instead.

“(Baseball Beat host and current LA Dodgers broadcasts) Charley (Steiner) used to describe as the show as ‘I didn’t want to start a show with players, I wanted to talk to the people that were actually in the room, who are actually covering everything,'” said Gambill. “Who can tell you what they ate and what the feeling of the crowd was and know how to report and put cohesive sentences together and really paint the picture o the sports universe and what’s happening on the baseball diamond…

“He goes: It’s the romanticism…'”

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That mindset of embracing the writer perspective continued to carry the show for Gambill and Steiner. Their cumulative sensory knowledge and intuition of the stories playing out in front of them were invaluable. Fans have, and likely always will, want to relate to the players. To try to put themselves in the shoes of these aspirational super heroes and experience what it’s like to be a pro athlete. But it’s the journalists who are the flies on the wall, taking in the sights, sounds, and storylines. And the story of the storytellers emerged just as intriguing as the stories themselves, oftentimes.

“I can still remember Game of Shadows [book detailing BALCO and steroid usage in MLB], getting an advanced copy because we had worked so closely with Mark Fainaru-Wada and the rest of the team working on that…,” Gambill recalled. “All those guys for the New York Post that were writing all these amazing stories covering the scandals, we were talking to those guys…We tried to tell it from the perspective of the writers who were doing it. It was such a unique time to be a part of it.”

But while the reporters brought great intrigue and interest to the show, Gambill also knew that much of sports radio — and that’s what he and Steiner were doing, even as their content began showing up online, too — is driven by engaging with fans: listener calls. A lot of the Baseball Beat listeners, however, were listening passively often at their desk at work. Previous attempts at caller segments were mostly mediocre. But when social media arrived, new avenues for interaction opened. Gambill explained it:

“What happened was – radio was driven a lot of times by callers and you have an audience who’s listening. They’re passive listeners, but they can’t pick up the phone and talk…We said ‘let’s start finding a way to (engage them).’ So we started doing a question of the day…”

Nowadays fans want to, and can, engage directly with players. But, realistically, only a select few will get a like, let alone a comment or reply from their favorite player. The writers are more accessible and the two-way relationships developing between fans and journalists are nearing a golden age.

As more bubble games begin and most fans remain confined at home, there is more demand than ever for the stories and more options to find them. The players are giving their unfiltered view of experiences through their lens. Media is curating many of those stories. Reporters are consuming it all, giving their objective firsthand view, leveraging their sources, and having on and off the record conversations. There’s a place for both and the fans are the winners.

Something happened when the sports stopped. Players realized that fans were eager to engage even when there were no games. Fans still cared what they had to say. The PSA’s for COVID and the response to social justice that came weeks later empowered generations of players that were already increasingly social media savvy. Meanwhile, reporters are bigger brands themselves, whether it’s Woj becoming an institution or The Athletic’s writers bringing hordes of subscribers with them when they joined the publication.

The stories will always reign supreme. But there is a renaissance for great storytellers, each with their own unique perspectives, points of view, and personality.

LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH BRENT GAMBILL

 

 

 

Episode 174 Snippets: NASCAR’s Brent Gambill on Evolving Storytelling Over the Years

On episode 174 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Brent S. Gambill, Director of Communications, NASCAR— Mid-Atlantic Region.

What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.