The Expanding Definition of Sports Fandom and What Sports Business is Doing About It

It took sports shutting down to speed the sports industry into a new era.

Sure, fan engagement and monetization had digital elements before covid entered the daily zeitgeist. But the conditions for a complete paradigm shift happened as everybody was stuck at home and the sports business was left with no choice but to innovate. An industry that had for so long enjoyed enormous recurring reliable revenue had to pivot (unless you had insurance, like Wimbledon!). But for these billion-dollar businesses whose moneymaking models had largely not changed in over a quarter century, the path forward is anything but certain.

“Sports, I think in a lot of ways is one of the fastest-moving industries because it is a little bit smaller than some other big things, but it’s also a fairly slow-moving industry in a lot of other ways,” said Jacob Feldman, who covers innovation in fan engagement, among other broad topics in sports business, for the publication Sportico. “So to see those changes happen, basically overnight during the pandemic, was really fascinating. And now we’re kind of seeing a proving point of are these things worth keeping. Are they worth pushing forward on it? Should we put these ideas back on the shelf and maybe they weren’t ready yet?”

Digital engagement became paramount during the pandemic as so much of, well, life was spent on Zoom or watching streaming or engaging with online communities or games. Sports wanted to ensure they were part of that engagement diet, capturing hearts, minds, and, more broadly, attention and time spent.

But something else was bubbling up, too, during the time that digital fans and localized fans were one and the same. ‘Fans’ couldn’t go to games, they couldn’t wear their team’s t-shirt in a pickup basketball game at the gym or talk about being at the big game at the watercooler the next day. Life was being lived online more than ever — a lasting challenge and opportunity for sports business.

“You have thousands of other things to spend time on now. I think that has been the biggest driver of teams, leagues, players, media networks, all saying, okay, how do we, whether it’s looking more or working more like those new things are, or just improving our product so that it can compete with those things I think is the biggest driver (of innovation),” said Feldman, who has written extensively about NFTs, web3, fan engagement startups and more for Sportico.

“It’s competing for attention, it’s also competing for identity. Like, people who are young people in the world, young adults, maybe just out of college, trying to decide who they wanna be, what are they gonna put in their Twitter profile and their Instagram profile? Are they gonna put Warriors fan or are they gonna put Fortnite player? Once you determine who you are and what you do, everything else kind of comes from that.”

The broad scope of identity is an important inflection point for sports fandom. It was once about having a bumper sticker on your car, wearing your team’s cap, or going to a team bar to watch the game. All that can still be part of being a fan, but, as Feldman stated, digital identity can be just as important. For some, being a fan on digital platforms is the only way they can express their fandom. They evangelize the team as they engage on digital and social, and they showcase their identity in whatever way they can. And oftentimes the team has no idea who they are, let alone a way to give or get value from it. Feldman used himself as an example, at Atlanta Hawks residing in the northeast, and the opportunity to strengthen and activate his Hawks engagement.

“I’m a big Atlanta Hawks fan. The Atlanta Hawks don’t know who I am, don’t know that I’m a Hawks fan and at some point that’s frustrating, right?,” said Feldman, who grew up in Winston-Salem, NC before heading up north to attend Harvard for college. “Like, in every other way I go about life — I play Magic the Gathering sometimes when I have some free time, and Wizards of the Coast — the people who put that game out, they know who I am. They have my email, they message me, I get rewards, all these kinds of things.

“I don’t get that for spending hundreds of hours watching the Hawks, reading about the Hawks, talking about the Hawks. I’m a massive evangelist for this brand and I get nothing back from it. So I think NFTs hopefully were a wake-up call that teams need to be doing more in that world to connect with fans [like that].”

Connecting with fans, making them feel appreciated, and giving them more chances to engage with the players and teams they love are not altruistic endeavors, of course. There is money to be made. The technology that sticks around is not only what fans will adopt, but what will enable all these displaced fans, and the sports businesses…err….teams that they support to manifest that investment and engagement in tangible ways. “[Sports organizations are] recognizing how much money is being left on the table from fans who don’t live within a hundred miles of the stadium,” Feldman stated. “Whether that’s international, whether that’s just kind of national, that’s been changing a lot in terms of what teams are able to do. Obviously, technology has allowed them to reach those fans and monetize those fans.”

The sports industry has plenty of incentive and necessity to make moves and to do so quickly. Organizations in sports need to explore emerging engagement vehicles and platforms, lest they get left behind. There was a lot of experimentation in the last few years in sports, and it’s not yet clear which paradigms will prevail in the years and decades to come. But we’re watching it play out right now, and the road ahead for what it means to be a sports fan is uncertain and exciting.

Said Feldman: “I think whether sports is being dragged or sports are finally coming around to some of these innovations, it is happening now. And we can go back to the pandemic thing — I think that was a big push. It’s also just kind of where the money is, right? You know, Apple and Amazon have the money, and they’re going to be slowly gaining a bigger and bigger foothold in sports.

“[Innovation in sports business] was slow in the past. I think it is speeding up, but they still have a way to go to catch up to some of these other industries.”


How Sports Organizations Should Think About Sustainability and ESG Issues

    “I’d say 2020 is the year everybody got religion.”

    So I plucked this out of a more extended response from Aileen McManamon, discussing sports organizations and their role, activities, and opportunities in driving progress worldwide. Be it sustainability, diversity, social justice — the power and, in many ways, the responsibility of brands in sports and beyond came to the forefront in the last few years.

    McManamon is a Cleveland native (and big fan of Cleveland sports) and therefore has witnessed the fracturing of the Cleveland Browns fan base when they brought in the embattled quarterback Deshaun Watson. That’s just one of many examples in which the most loyal, unconditional customers of all — sports fans — have had a reason to question their fidelity to their favorite teams and athletes. That represents a wider trend throughout society of employees and consumers of companies not turning a blind eye, no matter how passionate their fandom and support.

    “It’s not a blind loyalty…We’re becoming more critical,” said McManamon who founded 5T Sports Group, which helps sports properties, partners, and event sites drive impact. “And now it’s evolved even more forward because we know this particular generation of fans has a greater affinity to the athlete than they do to the team…You make space for even athletes that you’re not particularly a fan of, you might have never seen them play, but you just love what they stand for.

    “So this is an interesting evolution of that is that what we find is the more that someone stands for, the more drawn people are to that.”

    Something else happened the last few years, too, as organizations witnessed and participated in the broad reckoning of a multitude of issues in the country and the world — many brands tried to cover all of it. To make statements, promise results, and declare their stance on just about everything that the populace seemed to have an opinion about.

    But statements catch up, so while it’s easy enough to put out said statements, consumers and fans today are skeptical of just statements. Statements without action are meaningless and oftentimes can even be detrimental. So how does an organization know where to allocate its scarce resources, attention, and genuine efforts?

    “If you’re in conversations with your fans on social and if you have a good presence on social and you’re following that conversation, you’ll know what they care about more, and what they care about less,” said McManamon discussing the importance of listening to and knowing your fan base. “And when something happens in your community, you better be there on it, right?”

    Sports teams and athletes really do have an outsized role in their community and the world. While the companies and athletes themselves have a modest bottom line, relatively speaking, their influence and the passion they inspire are unmatched. And the good news for the power players in sports is that doing good for the world is also good for business, now more than ever. But the incentive goes beyond driving customer or fan loyalty and beyond some sense of self-righteousness or even genuine altruism — it’s a matter of survival, in many ways. McManamon talked about how sports ecosystems — the teams, the locales, the venues, the economies — are microcosms of society, and therefore they have the ability to be a testing ground, proving ground, and force for progress.

    “The sports industry is a component of everything going on. It’s still relatively small; as large as the sports industry is it’s still a small component of the overall economy,” she explained. “But the platform that they have is quite substantial. Where they should approach [sustainability goals] from is by saying, ‘We’re not doing this because, ‘It’s a nice thing to do, or it’s the right thing to do.’ You’re doing it at this point to preserve your business on the environmental side.”

    Sports also have an outsized influence because there exists within sports an incredible capacity to unite. The prince and the pauper can still talk about that great game last night, and fans can agree that the rival team in the state sucks, regardless of those fans’ political leanings. That power goes beyond a broadcast platform, McManamon explained, making a salient point. And when you can harness that fandom fire and activate it in a directed manner, you can achieve an outsized result.

    McManamon said it well: “Sports are not just kind of a stage broadcast platform, but also a unifying platform. When we go to see sports, that’s where you’re gonna see a professor and a plumber sitting next to each other, or a Republican and a Democrat…people are sitting side by side that are coming from very different backgrounds, but in that moment they’re united in that passion for the [team], everybody’s pulling on that same rope. So this is really the lever that our sports teams can use, the broadcast and the medium.”

    McManamon continued: “We’re united in our dislike for the other team…So imagine things like getting your fans all rolling on a food bank challenge…this is where some of these things fall flat; they’re like, ‘Oh, bring a can [of food] to the game’…How about, ‘Hey, let’s beat the other guys. We’re gonna do better than them [on donating food]. Our team might lose today, but this is in our control as fans.’

    “So you can really rally people around taking actions collectively. And even when it has a little bit of animosity to it, that’s okay because you have to press the emotional buttons that people respond to.”

    Sports fandom engenders a particular sort of patriotism, but modern fans want their teams and players to live up to such passionate pride. Fans want to know that their favorite team is worthy of such affection. When forces for good intersect with the communal, competitive nature of sports, the world is better for it.


    Episode 163 Snippets: Ed Cahill Oversees Orlando City SC’s Extensive and Thoughtful Content Strategy

    On episode 163 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Ed Cahill, Senior Director of Content for Orlando City SC and the Orlando Pride.

    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 156 Snippets: Ty Rogers on the Keys to Great Sports Content and Creative

    On episode 156 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Ty Rogers, Freelance Content Creator formerly with Michigan/Duke/Indiana 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 149 Snippets: Inside Social Media Content Distribution (and Collection) in Sports and How Greenfly Wants to Change the Game

    On episode 149 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Shawn Green and Daniel Kirschner, Co-Founders of Greenfly.

    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 134 Snippets: James Giglio and MVP Interactive are Behind the Novel Fan Activations You’re Seeing in Sports

    On episode 134 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with James Giglio, Founder and CEO of MVP Interactive, a leader in experiential fan engagement activations, utilizing cutting-edge technology.

    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.

    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.”


    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.