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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It used to be so easy. Before the days of every game on TV, of highlights available moments after the plays occur, of Netflix and Twitch – before all that and more, the stadium or arena was the place to be on game day. Those were salad days with a butt in every seat and attending games seen as traditional and darn near obligatory as attending church on Sunday (yeah, I know, a weird reference for this Jewish author to make).
But those days are gone. Simply announcing the schedule and opening the gates are not nearly enough to attract fans to games in the midst of all the other options and amenities one can get at home with their recliner, their fridge, and all of the screens and games within easy reach. The battle to boost attendance, particularly in college football (though applicable to almost all sports), was dissected with great insight by The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach, informed by conversations with prominent professionals working in college athletics. (NOTE: Read the full article and subscribe to The Athletic because it is freaking awesome and well worth the price of subscription). There are plenty of ideas you may have heard before, some areas that haven’t gotten the consideration they merit, and other new opportunities to explore that were discussed in the piece.
Here are 12 topics broached in the article as leaders in sports and college athletics look to recapture those glory days of packed stadiums every game, every week, every season.
Seating – For years, we just kind of accepted bleachers at college football games and many other sports. Pro sports may have upgraded to some individual seats that one could tolerate if they brought a seat cushion. But when you have a recliner, a comfy couch, or a massage chair with your name (and crease) on it back home, sports pros are realizing making the time one is at their seat and, well, sitting something to enjoy and relax, rather than simply tolerate.
[Cool real-world example not from the article are the mesh seats at the home stadium of the Las Vegas Aviators, in an attempt to keep fans comfy (and prevent hot + sweaty butts) during the hot Vegas summers.]
FOMO – Fans at home can rest assured with their plentiful WiFi and all the outlets and screens they could want. Stadiums have gradually been filling this need over the years – WiFi is becoming more the norm (even if it’s not the panacea for attendance woes many hoped), charging stations are located throughout the venue (though I need one at my seat!), and – after years of archaically avoiding it – replays are completely shown in the stadium, so there’s no FOMO that you’re missing out on looks and angles and highlights fans back home are getting.
Quality > Quantity – In the past, it was all about getting the most fans and seats in the building as possible (fire codes permitting!). Now, leaders are thinking less about cramming in every last fan than they are about providing the best fan experience – so that may mean more open concourses, standing areas, and even roomier seats and suites. Better to have 75,000 happy fans than 80,000 fans just tolerating the experience. They’re also paying more attention to boosting per capita revenue rather than living and dying with the announced attendance (especially when one takes into account no-shows).
Transportation + Parking – A common complaint, according to the article, revolved around getting to the stadium and finding / dealing with parking. As someone who attended a school that required a student bus ride to get to the stadium, I can understand the pain of students whose stadium is not a couple steps from campus. Parking, of course, is an endless hassle at just about any sports events, but that’s why schools and teams are working with a) ride-share companies to make their use and flow easier, and b) partnering with parking apps (ParkWhiz is cited in the piece) to allay this concern for fans. Ingress is also an area noted in the comments section of the article (solutions weren’t discussed, but ideas like pre-check and companies like Clear with their biometric identification are things to watch).
Open concession areas – Not only is the selection of food getting better (and fans don’t have to decide quite as much between going out to get a good meal and going out to the game), but stadiums in college athletics are putting more thought into the concessions experience – with larger, open areas to combat congestion, mobile ordering (not mentioned in the article), and concessions areas that may look more like a mall food court, with seating and socializing, than just some stands selling typical cheap fare.
Video everywhere – Fans can go and enjoy those social areas and that food without having to worry about missing the game or, in some cases, other big games going on simultaneously. There are screens everywhere – showing the game on the field and games from all over. Particularly in college football, where there seem to be always be multiple ‘big games,’ leaders are making sure fans don’t have to feel like they’re missing out, including pregame opportunities to watch other games.
Entertainment > Advertising for game presentation – There are a lot of media timeouts (that’s what ultimately represents the biggest slice of revenue pie) in addition to halftime, and while old favorites like the dance cam have been around for years, there were previously a lot more straight ad reads or commercials on the video board. Those are gradually being replaced by sponsored features, contests, on-field presentations, videos, and fun that are far more welcomed and valuable for fans. The fans at home are probably flipping through the commercials, and if you want fans in the venue to have a positive experience from driveway to driveway, stealing their attention for traditional ads is not an ingredient to keep them coming back.
Every game is an event – These were cool to read about and certainly continues a trend seen in other sports. It’s not enough to just say you’re going to the game or went to the game last night, there’s a lot more and to the experience now. There are pregame parties, concerts and DJ’s, and other activities so that the game is just one part of the overall experience for fans.
Alcohol – Alcohol sales were not practiced and mostly prohibited at college football games for years. Now, many schools and conferences are beginning to crack open the door, or swing it wide open, for sales of beer, wine, and even hard liquor in some cases. Proponents argue, often armed with data, that selling booze in the games cuts down on pregame binge-ing before stadium entry and reduces security issues. Of course, it’s a nice boon for revenue via sales and sponsorship, too (though not a massive windfall). Getting a beer at the game is such a traditional part of the sports attendance experience for fans in pro sports and certainly a part of the experience for fans tailgating or watching at home or at a sports bar – and now it is one less thing missing from the live game experience.
Rewards programs and/or Priority – Rewards programs (whether for students or for all fans) are making a mega comeback (they’re a lot more advanced and data-savvy than those of the ’90s, that’s for sure), and they’re another weapon in the arsenal to get fans to attend games. But it’s more than that – they’re also incentivizing fans to arrive on time to games and stay til the end, offering extra credit for being there late in the 4th quarter. While most rewards programs offer prizes like merchandise and tchotchkes, something even more valuable on the table is ticket priority, especially for students for whom priority was heretofore largely based on seniority. If fans want to be able to see those big games, they have to attend all the other games and not leave at halftime. It’s also an incentive for season ticket holders to actually show up to every game.
Smarter, more aggressive, targeted marketing – The type of sophisticated marketing and sales strategies that are now the norm in pro sports arrived kind of late to college athletics. There wasn’t as much a need, especially in places like SEC country where the school’s games were the only show in town and the best form of entertainment and outing one could possibly find. Schools spent far more time worrying about driving donations and external relations than ticket sales. But strong sales and marketing is now a must in the college athletics game and programs are utilizing CRM, data warehouses, and many are bringing in external partners to take over or train their sales programs. This point about more savvy sales was brought up and articulated well in the article by longtime sports sales leader Steve DeLay.
Flexible ticketing – While you’ve likely read about a MLB or NBA team offering ‘passes’ or the chance to ‘subscribe’ with a monthly ticket, this notion really seemed to get its initial steam in college athletics and now more and more schools are creating such flexible ticketing passes. Further, in an interesting observation from DeLay, schools are learning from their counterparts in the pros and offering more options for their potential fans and buyers. Along with season tickets, there are the aforementioned passes, mini plans, and pick ’em plans. These, in turn, can be marketed in a targeted fashion to fans for whom each membership/ticket plan is best suited. It’s a new day for college athletics and the bar and burden is higher and tougher to fill their stadiums on Saturdays. But the strategies and tactics are more thoughtful, proactive, and innovative as they’ve ever been.
First, I urge you again to subscribe to The Athletic and to read the story from Nicole Aueberbach that inspired this piece and the takeaways. I’ll end this post with an excellent quote/anecdote from the article, offered from Kenny Mossman, senior associate athletic director of external operations at Oklahoma:
“I went to a Disney seminar one time and they said, ‘What do you think is the goal that we aspire for Disney?’” Mossman said. “You sit there and scratch your head and you think, ‘To make people happy?’ They told us no — it was to get you to come back to your next visit. That’s really what we have to be motivated by as well. What can we do when they’re here that makes it so much fun that they have to come back? That’s really what’s driving a lot of us.”
In December 2018, I attended a Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on a Saturday night, a game they’d lose to the visiting Miami Heat.
As always, I took in the fan experience, checking out the engagements and activations in action. What follows are a handful of photos and observations. I hope you enjoy and learn from the collection!
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.