Basketball fans arriving at the Amway Arena in Orlando to cheer the Magic may not know it, but they are part of a trend in digital in sports marketing. They can order a Cuban sandwich from the concession stand and have it delivered to their seats, buy team merchandise or upgrade their seats, all on their cellphones.
Across the country in Los Angeles, fans of the LA Clippers can choose a play to review on the Staples Center’s Clippertron using their phones.
The Magic’s phone app and the connected fan loyalty program, and the Clippers’ real-time interactivity are part of efforts by sports franchises to bring fans deeper into the game via digital channels. The playbook includes everything from simple Snapchat filters to virtual reality instant replays.
And the phenomenon goes far beyond the hometown crowd. Thanks to the ubiquity of social media and video streaming, sports clubs are building global franchises and players are building major personal brands far from their home courts. The Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James has over 30 million followers on Twitter; he made news when he quit tweeting during the basketball playoffs.
It’s all about access now, said Noah Garden, executive VP of business of Major League Baseball. Fans are more comfortable watching games on different devices and it’s become harder to make sports appointment TV, so teams have to engage when and where they can reach fans.
“As marketers we all used to say less is more. Nowadays more is more, particularly when you’re talking about social platforms,” said Pamela El, CMO of the NBA. “Fans just want more and more content … it’s not just here, it’s around the world.”
Sports marketing has grown as fans have found new ways to interact with the game and their favorite athletes in ways that go far beyond trading rookie cards. According to the annual PwC Sports Outlook just released, sports-related revenue will grow to $67.2 billion in 2016 and $75.7 billion in 2020, with the faster growth centered around media rights and partnerships such as sponsorship deals.
The fandom has evolved into real-time interactivity and teams are moving fast to leverage both channels and the data they generate to turn casual fans into loyal ones, brand ambassadors and influencers on behalf of their clubs.
Teams used to have a market limited to a radius of 75 miles around their home base before they crossed into another club’s market, but the whole model of fan changed, said Dawn Hudson, CMO of the National Football League. The challenge to marketers and leagues is how to reach fans, how to engage them and follow them across devices, to move them from casual to lifetime fan, she said.
“The nature of our digital world is: people prize finding something and sharing with the group,” she said. “That is driving our business—that pursuit of knowledge and sharing of knowledge.”
MLB prefers to provide fans tools and step out of their way, said Garden. For example, it did a promotion on Snapchat with a filter that let users put on a team cap on their picture and share it. That’s why the league likes Twitter, because it’s fans talking to one another and to the players, he said.
“We’re at this intersection where things are really getting real for the user,” said Matt Derella, global VP of client partnerships and brand strategy at Twitter, which has partnerships with MLB, the NBA and the NFL. Sports marketers had underestimated the power of combining the participatory nature of Twitter with fandom, but that is changing, he said. He noted how Twitter has now created emojis for each NFL team.
El noted all the NBA teams and all 12 teams in the WNBA have a social media presence and the league itself recently launched an advertising campaign called #thisiswhyweplay
that encourages fans to share their game videos. The NBA has 1.2 billion social media followers between the league and the individual teams’ platforms, said El.
“It gives us a chance to be where our fans are,” said Len Komoroski, CEO of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
He noted the basketball team’s most recent Media Day was able to bring in 20 million fan impressions worldwide via live Twitter and other platforms including the Twitter clone Weibo in China, where the team had several million people following. Nearly half the Cavs social followers are overseas, with the Philippines having the largest foreign fan base, he said.
The teams have been forced to up their game because fans’ expectations are changing, said the Magic’s CMO, Anthony Perez.
“The Magic fan is not comparing their experience at a Magic game with what the Atlanta Hawks have—name any pro sports team,” he said. “What they are comparing it to is their other consumer experiences. You have the Googles of the world, and the Amazons and the Facebooks that are on the cutting edge. They are defining the experience that we’ve all come to expect.”
Growth in revenue from gate receipts is expected to remain tame, at only 2.7% annually this decade, according to PwC, so other lines of revenue for teams are becoming increasingly important. Many teams are building loyalty programs, such as the Magic’s, and focusing on upselling fans to premium seating to fight that erosion. Meanwhile, revenues from the sale of media rights to air games and from sponsorship deals is expected to grow much faster, 5.5% and 3.9% respectively, so building a brand that can drive up prices in those areas is a priority for teams.
And given the Millennial consumer’s preference for spending on experiences instead of merchandise, the trend can only grow.
Millennials are a “two screen generation” and Generation Z could well be a “five-screen generation,” which brings on its own challenges, said Hudson. And the NFL’s younger followers are more international, too, with 20% of its social media users being abroad.
“You can’t do one thing and do the same thing,” said Hudson. “We have to adapt our content.”
The NFL, for example, used online video content featuring college football players in advance of the league’s annual player draft. The broadcast lacked the anticipation of a marquee college athlete going professional, so the league wanted to engage fans of collegiate teams, said Aidan Lyons, VP of fan-centric marketing for the NFL. The league used consumer data to help create both long- and short-form online video content about college players to drive viewers to the TV broadcast.
The campaign performed well, increasing viewership year-over-year despite the absence of any star players and helped increase the profile of several players. It was “a win for everyone,” said Lyons.
As technology continues to evolve, teams and leagues continue experimenting with new tools. Many franchises are trying virtual reality; Komoroski said the Cavs are the first team to have VR as part of their mobile app, offering 360-degree instant replays on games, so fans can watch a play from all angles.
“We talk about the right content on the right platform at the right time,” said El. “As they innovate, we will be there with them.”