New Fan Engagement Tools Emerging

From LA to Halifax, baseball to lacrosse, new engagement tools bringing value to fans, brands, teams

If this was a normal Spring weeknight, you could wander Miller Park in Milwaukee and eat a brat or two while watching the Brewers, or even climb the long hill up Vin Scully Drive and catch a celebrity like George Lopez or Jaleel “Urkel” White, while the Dodgers take the field in Chavez Ravine.

This past weekend, if you so chose, you could even have been watching playoff action from the National Lacrosse League on Bleacher Report Live, second round match-ups of the NHL or NBA postseason or any one of thousands of other events going on either in person or on whatever device you have on hand.

However, this is definitely not a normal Spring. Instead, during this hiatus from sport due to COVID-19, many organizations–from giant to niche–are taking to unique ways to engage with fans.

That’s both the good news and the bad.

The bad is the obvious: thousands of jobs and millions of dollars lost, and a public growing increasingly antsy as the days pass with no clear end in sight.

The good news: innovation and engagement are rising from this difficult time. Engagement tools and platforms that will become a new normal for fans, brands, teams and leagues for when the games return in the near future.

What are some of those moves, here’s a look at a few.

Brewers Get A Cold One, Hold A Sold Out Happy Hour

Last Friday, the Brewers took to Zoom to find a better way to engage the collective Brew Crew audience. The event, sponsored by franchise beer partner Molson Coors, saw fans able to interact with Brewers broadcaster Brian Anderson, president of baseball operations/GM David Stearns, Hall of Famer Robin Yount and pitcher Brandon Woodruff. The result? A full hour of lively conversation and value add for a key partner, while having fans get to interact with each other and yes–tip back a few cold ones in the process. It filled all the slots the team had allotted, just over 1,000, with little drop-off during the hour.

“That’s our ultimate report card,” the Brewers Tyler Barnes told Sports Business Journal. “Did it resonate with fans? Did it provide some good value for Molson Coors for being so supportive for what we’re trying to do? It all met our highest expectations.”

How important is not just the fan engagement, but the connection to give key brands a role in the process? Very, as long as it is done correctly.  “While being sensitive to the environment, now more than ever, it is so important to take a collaborative approach and be willing to brainstorm and share ideas directly with your partners,” added Matt Shulman, VP, Client Services & Platform Sales, Athletes First Partners, which works with organizations like the NBA Players Association and brands like Budweiser. “Nothing good comes from being silent or not picking up the phone…From a conversation comes an insight…then a nugget of an idea. And, if you build that platform collaboratively with your partner, that one nugget from a casual call becomes a franchise that can be annualized and measured and continue to drive value to the partnership for years to come. We saw this during the financial crisis with some of our banking partners and we expect to see it now during these challenging times as well.”

National Lacrosse League Takes The Party Across The Border

While teams look to engage locally, leagues of various sizes are trying to figure out the right way to engage on a regional, and international scale. We saw the pull that the NFL Draft had on all platforms last week, with literally over half a billion fans engaged in some way for the three days of the event. Then we have the NLL, which found a unique way to pull in all of its clubs across North America and create a full “house” of its own last week.

Having completed a good part of the schedule when COVID-19 hit, the NLL has been able to leverage the deep digital engagement that was growing with players and teams to create content that has been fun, impactful and unique for our sport. The league used its in-house team, led by Joel Feld, EVP & Head, Broadcast, along with VP, Marketing, Katie Lavin, to find ways to reengage and reimagine connections with both avid and casual lacrosse fans.

The result has been ongoing engagement across all NLL platforms which has actually grown followers at a time–the offseason–when most leagues are either stagnant, or have even lost fans’ interest. While they have seen some continued growth from replays and highlights packages (and have launched the first-ever archived lacrosse game channel, “True Classics” on YouTube) the most engaging moments have been with a series of fun and disruptive activations.

One of the most unique and well received initiatives was the “NLL House Party,” a Zoom chat that created with the entire league and the sport last week. They tapped each of their 13 teams across North America to have a player or team official join for an open chat with fans and more than a few surprise guests.

They set the bar low not knowing what to expect, but with the full support of the clubs in the hour set aside, hosted by NLL Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz and Deputy Commissioner Jessica Berman they had over 28,000 views and maxed a full house of over 500 fans, along with player reps, announcers and mascots. They even had special drop-ins by people like former NHL star Brendan Shanahan and others.

“The world we are in right now, even if you are one team, likely means people are spread across multiple locations, countries, and cities to participate,” said Lavin. “What we needed to do was to make sure we had the support, and the buy in from all 13 teams across at least five time zones and two countries, each with their own level of connectivity issues. We wanted to show how united we can be not just as each single team, but as a full league and sport. The help from the local markets was essential, and the result was a proof of concept that we can share with others. We can replicate the experience with a refined approach not just during these unique times, but also once we return to action. The engagement and interest from our fans, players, coaches, and partners was phenomenal and exceeded our expectations.”

And just this morning, the NLL pushed out a salute to their fans via a more “traditional” medium: YouTube. Focused on storytelling and celebrating the scheduled start of their playoffs, the clip is titled, “We Are Stronger Together.”

Then You Have the Dodgers…and 20,000 Dodgers Nation Members

On Monday night, L.A. went all out to engage with their fans in a star-studded and player-filled Zoom party. The special event, the largest effort of any team thus far, pulled more than 20,000 sign-ups from Dodgers Nation members all over the country, with Brad Paisley strumming on a guitar, to Mario Lopez opining about learning new math skills for his kids to George Lopez talking about the benefits of CBD oil, tied to some great comments from the likes of Nomar Garciaparra, Orel Hershesier (sharing recipes that he has been using on his new Green Egg grill), manager Dave Roberts, Justin Turner talking about his charity work, and even Kenley Jansen showing off a huge sneaker collection.

While comments from fans were limited, all got a great slice of life into Dodgers goings on, sharing stories, memories and real life anecdotes that connected the fan to the team at a time of year when those connections would be distant.

“Baseball has always brought us together—especially during challenging times—and these shared digital experiences are invaluable in keeping our Dodger family connected,” explained Lon Rosen, Dodgers EVP & CMO.

These are just a few ways teams, league, athletes and brands are using the collective to connect at a time of year when that deep engagement would be lacking in a “normal” period. One question that remains is are these connections temporary and will they fade when we go back to playing games, or will the lessons learned here lead to more value and new opportunities for the “new normal?”

“It’s important, especially for now, but it’s also beyond lockdown,” says Tom Richardson, a veteran sports marketing professional currently SVP, Strategy and Business Development, Mercury Intermedia and a professor at Columbia University. “It’s technically easier and cheaper to reach/engage more fans in this virtual manner, so why not do more post COVID? It may be virtual, but I have to assume fans are still appreciative. That said, its important to be smart about it, and definitely creative. Why not ask team AMA’s (Ask Me Anythings) with players, coaches or execs? Why not more real time behind the scenes stuff…e.g. virtual house tours? Why not a virtual workout with a strength and conditioning coach, etc.”

See TMR POV: Large Market Teams, Media Recycling When Fans Want Re-Inventing

Why not indeed.

And, as value is shown, why not continue to connect using the digital doors that have now been opened?

Teams, leagues and brands are taking notes, and the best are learning. The future of engagement is happening, from baseball to the NFL to lacrosse and beyond, right before our eyes and screens.