Inside the Mind of the Modern Sports Fan: Insights from an Interview with a ‘Normal’ Fan

Once you work in sports business, you’ll never experience sports and sports marketing the same way again. Once you work in social media, you’ll never be able to relate to the average social media user again.

These may be well-worn adages, but they nevertheless true. It’s why we must be always be inquisitive – you can read all the studies, observe all the data, but nothing beats a conversation with a human  – to get the true take on their perception, their habits, their values, their reasons, and their experience. And it’s why for the 150th episode of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, I spoke with a ‘normal’ sports fan – my brother, Steven Horowitz.

I uncovered some interesting insights on fan development, on driving game attendance, content consumption, engagement channels and habits, and more. Here are 7 1/2 findings from my chat with Steven, trying to go inside – as much as possible – the mind of the modern millennial sports fan.

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Push Notifications are incredibly important

Many of us live on Twitter in sports. We may even have notifications turned on for noted bomb droppers like Woj, Schefty, Shams, Rosenthal, and Bobby Mac (bonus points if you get all these nicknames). But guess what? Most fans aren’t first seeing that news on the platform with the blue bird – they’re more likely getting an alert from their preferred sports app or hearing about it secondhand from a friend via text or private message. Steven explained, using a recent example related to breaking news about his favorite team – the San Diego Padres:

“For me, how I’m finding (big news) on a normal basis…it’s typically a push notification from one of my apps…[Steven gives the example of a recent Fernando Tatis Jr. injury] I happened to be on Twitter when Kevin Acee from the (Union Tribune) broke the story…shortly after seeing that on Twitter…I started getting notifications from the apps on my phone. When I did find that out about the injury, I was texting someone I work with that’s a big fan of him just to let him know…For the most part, it’s finding out from notifications or another friend or colleague texting me if they hear it before I do.”

We think of apps and push alerts as afterthoughts, oftentimes, but the fact is they work. Fans may not open every alert or expand every alert, but rare is the alert that goes unseen from one’s sports app. And with app downloads for teams only slated to grow as mobile ticketing nears 100% and fans access tickets via their team’s app, push notifications can’t and shouldn’t be simply an afterthought. There can be just as much data analysis and targeting as there is with digital marketing and social media content. Are your push alerts analyzed and executed thoughtfully?

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Fans don’t default to pirated streams anymore

A generation of us grew up with Justin.tv (which later morphed into Twitcb – heard of it?) – as an endless source of free live TV. Other sites popped up offering similar free streams and many are linked off from Reddit. They may be grainy, they may get pulled down frequently, but they’re free and they’re difficult to police. But with more options than ever to pay only for the content you want, needing nothing more than a connected device of any type, not as many fans it seems rely on the pirated web to satisfy their sports needs. Steven explained his evolution (and, yes, an income has something to do with his evolution, too) –

“I used to (watch pirated streams) a lot. It’s been a couple years since I’ve done that. There was a time when it was a lot easier and then they started cracking down on it more…Now, I get the Red Zone (subscription) every year. Sometimes, if there’s a big boxing match, I’ll try to stream that on whatever sites are available, but other than that I’ve gotten away from (watching pirated streams).”

Steven noted he’s heard of many new players and platforms in the sports streaming space – DAZN, ESPN+, YouTube TV, et al. (but not so much fubo TV, Pluto, and Flo Sports). The pirates may not be winning as much as they used to, but the live sports space is becoming ever more fragmented and we can’t take for granted fans are aware of all the emerging platforms out there, which sports are on them, and how best to bundle their subscriptions to meet their needs while also not paying more than they have to. We can’t take for granted the average fans keep up with this space, it’s hard enough doing so when you’re actually trying to keep up!

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Season Tickets are emotion-driven > value-driven

Yes, fans today seem to be more attuned to what, exactly, they’re paying for. And the term ‘membership’ has largely displaced season ticket holder in many cases (even if some, not all, seem more lip service). But being a member is not all about a laundry list of benefits, 10% off at the team store, access to a preseason VIP or seat selection event – those can all be great perks – and it’s not a mathematical equation looking at average cost per game or potential resale value investment – even though many do sell their tickets, let alone ‘members’ that are actually brokers – it’s still a purchase largely driven by emotion and connection to a community and an experience. Steven was once a San Diego Chargers season ticket holder (yes, San Diego, this was years ago) and he tried to articulate his reason for being a season ticket holder:

“I’d say the real reason why I wanted to go and get season tickets was my love for the team. There’s nothing I enjoyed more than tailgating at Chargers games, spending the day at the stadium, and seeing them win…It was a good time and I always look back fondly on those times…”

Getting season tickets wasn’t a calculated decision for him. It was because he could picture no better way to spend a Sunday than heading to Qualcomm Stadium, pigging out at a tailgate, donning his jersey – those powder blues are pretty cool – and cheering on his team among all his fellow fans, friends, and members of a community connected by that shared passion. Maybe this is an anachronistic, nostalgic view of things, but if being a season ticket holder was about love for a team a decade ago, becoming a ‘member’ is sure as heck about an investment of the heart, an emotional tie.

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Football watching when you don’t have a favorite team

As a follow-up to the previous point, Steven abandoned the Chargers when they abandoned San Diego. He then became like many fans today – cheering on their fantasy players and their chance at winning money / beating friends instead of cheering on a specific team. Worrying more about who scored than the final score, more about the name on the back than the name on the front. With players shuffling around the superstar-driven NBA, fans growing up in a culture of fantasy and rarely attending games (pr being priced out of games), it’s the new norm. And while local broadcasts still do big numbers, there’s a reason fantasy and daily/weekly fantasy keeps growing each season and more fans are filling their Sundays with Red Zone or a panoply of highlights and updates across a suite of apps. Steven described his fandom nowadays:

“To me, the NFL has become different. I still enjoy watching it, but the way I experience NFL now really revolves around fantasy football. I watch it to see how my fantasy players are doing, see how my team is doing, and that’s really how I go about watching football now (Steven notes he won his fantasy league last year)…I’m able to be unbiased now about who I choose for my teams, who I start in my weekly matchups because I don’t have to worry about (if they’re playing against the Chargers)…It’s definitely changed how I watched football.”

Fans of teams, fans of players, fans of gamble-able outcomes in sports — no matter how they’re watching, plenty of reasons remain for fans to be as attuned as ever to live content and content about who will win and why and to learn more about the players on their rosters and driving these exciting moments each night.

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Daily fantasy (and gambling) can create new fans

Speaking of fantasy and gaming, many in the sports world see a future of new fans and more avid fans brought on by the growth of gambling and continued growth of fantasy options. Will these new opportunities bring about new fans? Steven has lived one fan’s story, finding himself a more avid fan of the NBA than ever – thanks to daily fantasy:

“I never hated the NBA, but I was not a huge fan of it. I followed it casually, but more so in the playoffs. But how this happened is – on the daily fantasy website that I play on typically, they gave me a free play (to win money) for a NBA (game) and I think I ended up pretty high in the standings and won some money…and that got me hooked, and I started playing NBA dailies almost every day and that quickly evolved into enjoying not just following the sport, but I also found myself watching the NBA regular season on TV and I hadn’t done that in years.

“I would check Rotoworld a lot because I was having to teach myself about some of these players, too…I would check their stats, I would also see who they’re up going up against…It’s a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to continuing to playing it.”

It’ll be an interesting next few years to see how teams, leagues, and rights holders can harness these fans entering via gambling and fantasy channels and bring them into their ecosystems. The gateway is there, but it remains to be seen how this new wave of potential fans plays out.

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Sponsored content is fine, but don’t be disruptive

There are a lot of ways sponsored content is presented these days – a logo bug in the video, tagged on the social platform, the incredibly original “‘sponsor name’ x ‘team name'” or ‘presented by’ in the copy, an end card, pre-roll, and many more options. The good news? Fans don’t seem to mind if a sponsor is involved or even integrated as long as the content is quality. But don’t be disruptive. Don’t interrupt content viewing or steal attention to simply insert a ‘normal’ commercial or ad. Steven shared his thoughts:

“I would say overall I more tune it out and I’m not really paying attention to who those sponsors are. Even sometimes, if I pull up a video and there’s an ad before it, I’ll turn off the sound for it before the content even starts…

“I would say sometimes when they do videos and they do an ad in the middle of the video, I will turn off the video – whether it’s because I don’t care what’s coming up or it just didn’t have me interested enough to continue to wait 20-30 seconds…I will sometimes just turn it off…”

Fans want the content. And, unlike the days of previous decades, fans and users don’t necessarily see sitting through ads as payment in their side of the value exchange for the content they actually want. There are too many ‘free’ options out there and too many content creators doing a better job of integrating sponsors whether passively or actively. Don’t abuse the attention and don’t disrupt the experience – add to it or, at least, don’t detract from it.

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Consistent promotions FTW (and be mindful of price sensitive fans)

There is no secret sauce or magic pill that made live gate for sports rise to the level of 20 years ago. Attendance isn’t falling everywhere, but the trend is clearly a downward one from the highs of previous decades when no one gave thought to building stadiums with smaller capacities. But nowadays, even as many teams and schools are awash in media rights money, getting butts in seats is more challenging than ever. So what could we learn from asking a fan about his experience being driven to go to games? Let Steven share his take:

“Over the last year, I pretty much have been only going to Padres games and occasionally a Gulls (AHL hockey) game. How I hear about them? I obviously follow the Padres pretty closely, whether it’s through an app or the team’s website or social media pages..I just know there are games going on. In regards to the Gulls…I don’t go to a bunch of their games, but really what does drive me there is when they do do promotions – they do $2 beer nights sometimes on Friday nights, I’ll go to those games…”

[Steven notes he finds about Gulls promotions typically through their organic social media and will sometimes check their website to see when their next $2 beer night is]

Marketing and sales staffs at teams are getting more and more sophisticated with targeted emails and ads, retargeting previous buyers, and doing their best to assure the right fans see the right promotions. But a takeaway from my chat with at least this fan, Steven, is that, while advertising and digital/social media remains a key tactic, you can’t rely on these platforms to always assure fans find out about your upcoming bobblehead giveaway or flash deal. Which deals are most effective and/or which promotions are the easiest for fans to recall? If you ask an average fan of your team – especially one not coming to every game – to name a promotion the team runs, what would they say? It may be fun to joke about LeBron usurping ‘Taco Tuesday’ for his own, but every Padre fan, including Steven, knows Tuesday games mean Taco Tuesday at Petco Park. Get the word out about unique or ad hoc sales and promotions, but try to create some that stick with fans, so they look forward to your next Half Price Beer Mondays without having to see multiple ads to remind them.

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Why does he attend several Padres games? Nostalgia, atmosphere at the ballpark

What drives fans to go to a game, especially if it’s not a novelty or a one-off? Well, the previous point touched on promotions, but the compulsion to seemingly always have consideration top of mind, the internal notion that watching at home is never the same, the key to penetrating the heart and mind of a fan – that doesn’t come overnight. For Steven, our fan guide, much of his inherent desire to be at the game comes from a sense of nostalgia and a practice and bond that originated as a kid. It’s why so many leagues and teams are focused on getting kids to their games while they’re still in grammar schools and they’re just developing their earliest passions and memories that’ll conjure goosebumps of nostalgia when they look back in 20 years. This is how Steven tried to articulate why he finds himself more than once at Petco Park every season:

“Obviously my love for the team. You and I have been going to games since as long as we can remember. We used to go with our dad all the time to the games…I always look back fondly on those times; I love going to games and I still like watching on TV, but if I have the option of going to watch the Padres in person, I’m gonna be there…”

We’re drawn to things that remind us of good times – and nostalgia plays a big role in that. It’s why those in sports say we’re in the business of making memories. Every game is a chance to help a fan form a memory that’ll last forever and bring up of warm feelings every time an element of that memory is resurfaced. Every night is an opportunity to build a fan for life.

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LISTEN TO MY FULL INTERVIEW WITH STEVEN HOROWITZ

Episode 148 Snippets: How Doug Wernert Leads Storytelling for the Detroit Pistons on Social Media

On episode 148 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Doug Wernert, Director of Social Media for the Detroit Pistons.

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 Adam White Built Front Office Sports Into a Trusted Resource for the Sports Industry and Built a Business

On episode 140 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Adam White, Founder and CEO, Front Office Sports.

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.

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!

Where Does Digital and Social Strategy Fit For Division II Athletics? Jeff Mason of UCM Offers Insights

On episode 138 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Jeff Mason, Athletics Development Officer for University of Central Missouri 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.

Episode 135 Snippets: Keith Stoeckeler Goes Deep on Digital, Social, Sports, Structure, and…Burgers

On episode 135 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Keith Stoeckeler, Vice President and Group Director, Digital, at MKTG.

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.

Episode 133 Snippets: How Greg Wyshynski Helped Change the Paradigm in NHL Journalism

On episode 133 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Greg Wyshynski, Senior NHL Writer with ESPN, who also spent time leading Yahoo Sports Puck Daddy, and currently hosts two podcasts – ESPN on Ice and Puck Soup.

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.

Indianapolis Colts Sponsored Social Media Gameday Review

The NFL’s Indianapolis Colts hosted the Tennessee Titans on November 18, 2018 and won in dominant fashion, 38-10.

What follows is a curation of their gameday / game week content. Some if it was posted across channels (FB, Tw, IG; no activity on Snapchat) and some was exclusive to the platform. Good stuff, Colts!

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.