There are only so many things in which a team or athletics program can invest. And the vendor exhibition at the annual NACDA conference is a visual manifestation of just that – from compelling new products to nice-to-haves to innovations, and enough to stretch the budget of even the boldest behemoths.
I love these things. Because, if nothing else, it is a showcase of what college athletics folks, in this case, want and need; and at what those out there think they want and need. (Except free booze; always free booze). It is also an opportunity to identify pain points for college athletics programs, because these businesses should, in theory, help solve a pain point or at least enhance or streamline a strength.
With that in mind, here are eight of the most common solutions and types of vendors I saw pitching their services to the college athletics folks (in digital, in marketing, in development/fundraising, in ticket sales, in operations, in media relations, in external relations…all over) at the 2017 NACDA Conference vendor showcase
Everywhere you turn, there is a new and novel way to propagate your brand. While digital is growing more and more, there is still a lot of faith, and a lot of value, in physical, visual branding. From logos on the carpet to branded accessories to wrapping a bus, and just about anything you can imagine, there is a way to find a branded version for anything, a way to make sure the school’s logo is front and center all over. Colleges are getting more and more savvy and self-sufficient with graphic design, but sometimes you need someone that specializes in pool tables, corn hole boards, or gymnasium floors.
You may have heard about the University of Texas football program’s new $10,000 lockers. Not sure there any that ostentatious, but there were plenty of locker companies and displays there that could no doubt make them. Lockers aren’t just a utility anymore, they’re an attraction and a sign of brand and grandeur for a college athletics program looking to impress recruits. It is another cog in the arms race and vendors pitching the latest and greatest and most innovative and visually appealing lockers were not in short supply at NACDA.
Digital / Video
With the proliferation of social, mobile, and digital among fans (and, well, everybody), colleges know they need to have the digital and video capability and output of a colossal conglomerate. Content is key to affect all departments in athletics, and video and digital offers the youngest and largest audience, and the best bang for the literal and figurative buck, in many cases. These companies help hook up complex camera and video / video replay systems, offer streaming solutions across platforms, streamline the transfer of content from phone or camera to social or web, allowing any associate SID to provide amazing content, that gets disseminated, at the drop of a dime. The mind is ahead of the body for some athletics departments – they know what they want to do, but may lack the resources, bandwidth, or knowledge to make it happen. That’s where these guys seek to come in.
There’s nothing college athletics loves more than scaffolding. Perpetual construction connotes shiny new facilities or additions, a sign of financial health and progress for their athletics programs. And I was struck by the number of architecture firms specializing in sports facilities seeking to catch the eye of attendees to design their next new buildings funded by the next successful campaigns. There is indeed big business here, and a number of firms were there trying their best to stand out as best-in-class, most trusted, or most creative.
There were also a handful of artificial turf companies, which seemed fairly indistinguishable. There is still demand for the product and therefore an opportunity to win market share (maybe someone has?) and seek to stand out through innovation, creativity, and/or relationships.
Screens, screens, and more screens. Society has a surfeit of screens, and there are solutions that want to help fill and organize those screens, and other digital signs of all shapes and sizes. There is opportunity to expose more fans to more content, more marketing, and more sponsors. It’s not easy to serve and organize all the content across those screens, and measure it; let alone come up with the physical signs and screens themselves. Another case of knowing what one can and should be doing, and seeking a solution to make it happen.
Digital has certainly penetrated content, ticketing, marketing, media relations, and operations. But fundraising, a major part of college athletics, have yet, it seems to reach full digital maturation. There weren’t a ton of solutions targeting this space, but there were some. Solutions helping to marry technology, data, and digital with fundraising and donations. This is a unique space that no doubt catches the eye of the development folks there, as these businesses seem to have things streamlined and figured out to make donation via digital both optimized and in compliance with the oh-so-many regulations.
While many can name the major players in ticketing for college athletics, there remains opportunity for a number of smaller players to get a small piece of the pie. Almost every program needs a ticketing solution and there is increasing demand for digital, for mobile, and for data among every one of those programs, of any size.
In the end, industries will evolve by seeking to make things better, easier, more successful. The vendors that win the value prop equation and have feasible, actionable solutions will capture college.
Virtual reality content seeks to transport users to another place. Put on a VR headset and the world is transformed around you and, at least for me, stimulates a desire to look around. It’s part FOMO and part exploration. As with most video content, one is, well, watching it. But it can be powerful to feel a part of it all, an active participant, too, in VR or with any content.
The Everest Series on the Life VR app (part of Sports Illustrated) is a VR documentary, first and foremost. Between watching that, amid other VR experiences, there are a couple key things I learned about content, in general: The periphery can be cool and treat users like they’re there with you.
Immersion means taking in the surroundings
While the mountain climbing, the high suspension bridges, the ice and waterfalls, were all cool, one part of Everest that stood out to me more than anything was so simple. It was walking down the streets of Nepal. The chance to see average people walking down the street, the shops and traffic; the overall scene of a foreign place.
It was the little things that mattered most – experienced only by actively looking around. What are fans missing out on, what can you show them that they’ve never seen before? Maybe it’s a unique knick-knack in a player’s locker, the hustle-bustle of players and staff and equipment managers for a hurried trip to the airport, the lunch being served after practice and the music playing in the locker room during lunch.
Give a first person perspective of the second-hand content typically being produced. And share the details, little by little.
Make Fans Feel There and Present
One of the most valuable takeaways I’ve had with VR is the power of eye contact. Of the subject looking at you like you’re there and part of it all. It was one thing to be a fly on the wall for some of the conversations on the climb at Everest, but I know it would’ve taken things to another level if the climber was talking to me, the Nepalese Sherpa looking me right in the eye, telling a story or giving a tip.
Everywhere in social and digital media, there is increasing proliferation of live video, and the opportunity for it to be and feel interactive is great. Invite fans into the content with you – show them around, talk to them, enhance the feeling of being there.
The bar for content is constantly being raised and fans these days value deeper engagement with content. Whether it’s VR or not, transporting fans to the surroundings and making them part of the story can deliver amazing experiences with content.
Sports media outlets used to be just about content. The games on the channels were more important than the networks broadcasting them. It’s not like consumers had a plethora of choices from which to get their sports content in the past.
But that has all changed. It’s no longer just ESPN and the local paper. Or even a half dozen sports content websites. It’s thousands upon thousands. So how do the big guys maintain their place at the top of the mountain, particularly in the free-for-all world of digital and social?
They build brand.
Cultivating a brand, and having an active brand presence on every platform on which fans are consuming is an increasingly important concern for players in the social media game. These notions were recently elucidated at the annual Sports Business Journal World Congress of Sports, held April 20-21, 2017 in Dana Point, CA. (Check out a recap)
“SportsCenter is not a show, it’s a brand,” said ESPN Executive Vice President of Programming and Scheduling. “It lives online, social, mobile, our OTT [over-the-top] apps.”
ESPN has long been more than just a set of TV channels, and nowadays they recognize the need to be that omni-channel brand that fans know and trust. As the cable paradigm continues to diminish, too, sports media brands like ESPN know it may be a direct-to-consumer play, not protected by the bundle.
President of Turner David Levy emphasized the need to ‘control platforms’ and not to dice up the distribution, especially in sports. Appreciating the shift in the ways fans are consuming content was a central motif of the conference’s opening panel. Michael Neuman, Executive Vice President, Managing Partner, Scout Sports and Entertainment – Horizon Media, noted in a tweet: “[The] Biggest theme of opening panel is “decentralization” of media consumption and inability of youth to embrace current delivery.”
So how are sports media businesses seeking to combat this conundrum? Build a unique brand, of course.
For Turner and Levy, it means serving a cross-section of the interests of their fans, earning more of their attention every day. “The definition of a network is changing,” stated Levy, specifically speaking about Turner’s brand now including Bleacher Report. “The future of B/R is a cross between sports and culture (music, fashion) and maybe live games.”
Perhaps the best manifestation of finding success with a unique brand in sports media is Barstool Sports. Their irreverent, authentic, informed, unfiltered take on sports stories and content has found some startup success in an increasingly crowded sports marketplace. They’ve done it by letting the punch line that are Internet takes and memes drive much of their hyperbolic content.
“We are SNL [Saturday Night Live] if it were born out of the Internet,” said Erika Nardini, CEO Barstool of Sports: We have the fan base and loyalty…
“Brand has to be part of the conversation.”
The lesson lies in the fact that fans are no longer coming straight to you in droves. Consumer have so many choices for content and their attention must be earned; you’ve got to make yourself easy to reach and then you’ve got to them want to come to you.
The leaders in the sports business world are constantly on a quest to get bigger and better. They’re studying, predicting, measuring, analyzing, evolving. And many of them came together for the 2017 Sloan Sports and Analytics Conference. While the conference is very much about athlete and team performance, there is also a wealth of sports business stats and insights shared.
Here are 29 quick sports biz bytes from the conference, shared via Twitter from #SSAC17:
[See full recaps of Day 1 and Day 2 here. Lots more.]
*Leagues are evolving in their relationships with sponsors. The NFL talked about actively collaborating with corporate partners on all facets of the business of the league and he game. The success with Microsoft Surface was highlighted as a win.
*Fanatics has become such a dominant player in the sports merchandise space because of its robust digital offering that can act upon demand in an instant. An example cited was that after just five games into his breakout career, with his name hotter than ever, Joel Embiid’s jersey was one of the top-selling in the NBA, thanks to the speed of Fanatics.
*While this principle was stated from the NFL and MLB, it was a theme (and has been) for thought leaders for a while – content must be disseminated to reach fans at the places and on the platforms on which fans are consuming their content. Simple enough, right?
*Also from the NFL and MLB [and another recurring lesson] – a major key to the growth of any sport is youth participation. Get them playing, make them a fan while they’re, and there’s a better chance they’ll be fans for life.
*It’s great if you can collect data, but it’s all about what you do with it. Casey Wasserman clearly shared a lot of wisdom to SSAC attendees and this one resonated, as it should.
*Teams and leagues are now seeking to serve every fan, regardless of where or how they’re consuming and engaging. That means focusing during games on digital engagement, on the in-venue experience, and on the TV broadcast. Each offers an opportunity to engage, and treats every fan of the team with care.
*The FOMO acronym seemed to be another common consideration. It’s still about making others want to be there, at the game.
*Lots of talk about personalization. Ticketmaster envisioned reaching a place, soon, where every experience for fans is personalized – discovery, purchase, amenities. Team execs are similarly focused on personalization, particularly with fan messaging and in-venue experiences. The new norm is personalization, and it’s only going to get better.
*A stat that certainly stood out – 50-70% of Fanatics listings on Amazon are counterfeit. Bad news for consumers, perhaps fodder for teams to convince fans to buy from their stores. Or maybe teams should sell directly on Amazon.
*Every league is worried about the waning attention spans, and desire for ‘content snacks,’ of Millennials and Generation Z. The objective is not so much focused on shaving minutes off games, but more so about reducing dead time in games [NFL, MLB, NBA]. Less time between action. The NFL also noted adjusting their commercial ad structure, for something more fan-friendly.
*Some interesting findings from stats around Los Angeles Dodgers concessions – alcohol comprises 49% of concessions revenue. Perhaps not surprising, but interesting. Also from the Dodgers – fan cart size increased with self-serve kiosks, and the Dodgers saw concessions revenue and sales decrease when Clayton Kershaw pitch, because his starts were so much shorter. (And fans likely want to be in their seats to see the ace in action)
*Stats to consider from WWE – While we focus on so much on mobile TV viewing, just 15-20% of WWE Network viewing is on mobile devices. Even on the digital-only WWE Network, fans still seek out the big TV for their sports. Another eye-popping stat from WWE – 70% of their content consumption comes from outside the US.
*Wasserman Managing Partner Elizabeth Lindsey noted the need for sports leagues to focus on international growth, despite so much attention at home paid to driving youth, female, and minority viewership growth. The NBA has their eyes on India (looking for India’s version of Yao Ming), while the NFL is hoping to crack China. The NBA, in discussing their success growing the game and the league in China, noted that content was provided for free to a Chinese network to show on TV, building in exposure for the NBA and the game.
*Pretty impressive user and user engagement stats from Twitch. The esports and video game streaming platform boasts 100 million monthly active users, and their users average a mind-blowing 140 minutes per day on Twitch.
*The aspects of personalization are also of increasing concern when it comes to content and digital marketing. As more data is collected and put into action, greater degrees of custom experiences with content is a goal for the sports business industry, as well.
*Virtual reality and augmented reality were not surprisingly popular topics. A stat that stood out that either means future growth or stuck in the rut for VR is that the Consumer headset market for VR in the US is currently around six to ten million. One definite positive was the news from sports VR company STRVIR, which reported that it has been profitable the last two years.
*NBA Commissioner Adam Silver talked about how lucky they are to have players that market the league themselves, with all their activity on social media and in the media. The league also focuses on social media education and empowerment, which, along with willing and already social media-savvy players, makes for great success there.
*170+ million fans watched March Madness games in 2016. That’s a helluva number, and is certainly happening on an ever more diverse array of platforms now.
*Uninterrupted, the player-driven and video-focused content network co-founded by LeBron James, is not trying to displace journalism outlets like ESPN. Instead, explained Maverick Carter, their competition is more premium content producers, like HBO.
* This stat just stood out to me a bit…Which sport would you guess has the fifth most estimated fans in the world? I’ll give you a second…
It’s volleyball. I wouldn’t have guessed correctly.
*Good gambling stats to heed, as legalization expands in the US –> In Europe, sports gambling via mobile comprises 80% of the market and in-play [during the game/match] gambling makes up over 50% of total handle. Lots of $$ to come in this space for the US. That said, one limiting factor for such real-time gambling, it was noted, is the slowness/lag of data feeds delivering the stats.
*The CTO of Ticketmaster provided some fascinating insights on a panel at the conference. One that stood out to poder was that 68% of all tickets on Ticketmaster are sold after the original on-sale and presale. This could mean a lot of things, but mainly that most tickets are not bought early, which aligns with notion that fans are waiting to buy tickets.
Another ticket sales stat, that ws quite mind-blowing, was that there is an estimated $7 BILLION worth of arbitrage in the ticket sales market. You think teams want some of that/
*Another stat that opens some eyes for teams (via Ticketmaster) is that the names captured to tickets sold ratio is 1:2.8. Yep, nearly 3 of every 4 tickets are sold without teams knowing the identity of the buyer.
*The point was raised that there are two main cohorts of fans attending games. There are those fans that are there because they’re fans of the team and feel invested in them. And there are those who are there for the experience of attending the event, the spectacle (and, yeah, probably the social media fodder).
* A great insight from the San Francisco 49ers VP of Sales & Serivce Jamie Brandt, as he noted that, for Millennial fans, share-able experiences are valued far more than expensive things/items. Something to keep in mind for memorable fan experiences.
*An interesting stat from the panel on gambling was a study estimating that legalization of gambling would result in an average 10% increase in viewership for pro sports. Fans that are invested, literally, are engaged and don’t miss the game.
*In the ever-evolving world of tickets, paper and paperless, the 49es talked about everything from all-mobile ticketing to even a ‘biometric’ solution for fans of the future to gain entry into the game.
*As teams, leagues, and brands continue to try and do social media the right way, a statement that permeated and penetrated was that ‘Social media is for consuming content, not [conducting] transactions.’ (Though, Facebook Ads do work pretty well). Don’t forget why fans are there in their Feeds in the first place.
*There was a fascinating panel on sports journalism with Adrian Wojnarowski, Adam Schefter, and Ken Rosenthal that was full of good nuggets, some of which you can see in the SSAC recap. The powerhouse reporters talked about the nature of breaking news and how it’s not always so simple when you want to balance confirming vs. getting beat, and throwing in promises to sources to hold info until a certain time. They also spoke about the importance of building relationships and getting to know a lot of people in the industry, as well as getting to know the athletes as people. Other tips included a warning against burning bridges (because word spreads quickly) and when reporting news answer and bring out the why and the how, not just the what.
*It’s a dialogue, not a monologue on social media. This is paraphrased from VP of Wasserman Mike Bernstein, which succinctly reinforces the need to remember the social in social media. If you’re the only one talking, that’s broadcasting, not relationship building. Creating conversation through content is powerful.
I’m always thirsty to learn more and greatly enjoyed picking up on some insights via #SSAC17. Be sure to check out the recaps.
Listen to episode 87 of the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast, with Katlyn Gambill ,Digital and Social Media Coordinator for the Minnesota Wild.
The LA Lakers have one of the strongest, most storied teams in professional sports. With a brand that transcends their sport, brand association is no doubt a valuable proposition for corporate partners. While the Lakers have their share of activations on game night, it is clear this partnership association holds the most value, thereby lending credibility to more traditional, less active approaches.
I attended a game on January 31, 2017, and here is a brief look around at marketing, engagement, and sponsorship elements that caught my eye.
Upon arriving at Staples Center, walking through LA Live, one can see Lakers wraps to show that, tonight, Staples (also the home of the LA Clippers, LA Sparks, and LA Kings) is home to the Lakers. Lines to get in through security were slow and long (~ 25 minute wait; issues with ingress is real. Egress would be far easier). Like the wraps, the ‘Team LA’ store is full of Lakers merchandise, while ticket tables are peppered throughout the concourse and the floor and dasherboards are adjusted to Lakers. Notably, Lakers.com was the main digital property promoted, as opposed to any social media, in addition.
Throughout the game and between game play, the eyes are constantly drawn to the Staples Center video board, and the Lakers content and eye-catching graphics. The Lakers know where much of the attention is going and show their sponsor messages in that line of vision. It’s not a lot of ‘presented by’ elements or integration, but organic content and graphics to attract/earn the attention, while also borrowing some attention for sponsor messaging.
This is not to say there isn’t room for more active sponsorships and more elements that can organically tie in a partner, while providing value for fans. But instead of the Toyota Halftime Highlights, it’s just Halftime Highlights. Similarly with other on-screen elements and fan engagement features like the ‘Bubble Cam,’ Kiss Cam, Dance Cam, and more.
While there were fewer booths and activations of any sort overall at the Lakers game version of Staples Center than the Clippers’s version I attended weeks earlier, there were will some effective sponsor activations around. These were all, notably, on the first floor, whereas the Clippers had some on the upper levels, as well. There was a Verizon-branded activity (shooting for basketball games, changes for hockey games and concerts) that was popular, even during the game. The Los Angeles Times was also giving away t-shirts to market their newspaper subscriptions.
The most memorable and unique activation was the StubHub memento maker. Fans could sign up with name/phone number/email, get their photo taken, and then customize an image to be printed on the spot and shared digitally. A fun and creative way to get some shareable content and a commemorative ticket lanyard to wear it around. An excellent and effective activation.
The Lakers also had their own data capture activation, with an enter-to-win VIP tickets to a game/event. These digital sweepstakes are active for every Staples Center event. There were also a few ticket sales tables peppered throughout.
While there were not a lot of directly sponsored elements in-game, there was one late in the game as the Lakers sought to close out their victory. In the fourth quarter, the scoreboard exhorted fans to Make Some Noise. Jack In The Box is a fixture late in Lakers home games, as fans get free tacos if the team holds their opponent under 90 points.
Overall, the Lakers are not overly blatant, nor overly novel or engaging with many of their sponsor activations and in-game entertainment elements. The traditional brand has a handful of major corporate partners and hammers home these relationships with repeat impressions and positioning as true partners, as opposed to just sponsors.