TMR POV: Time to Step on the Fan Engagement Pedal

Let’s face it, even when things get back to “normal” it will be a different kind of normal than what we’ve been used to. The most significant changes will certainly be seen on the attendance side of sports business.

Though there is likely to be a substantial pent-up demand for live sports–which will grow more intense the longer the shutdown–teams and venue operators will have to adjust to reduced attendance projections, alter manifests to accommodate newly formed distancing expectations, and do so while finding new ways to create engagement with their live product.

We can expect TV ratings to increase when sports finally come back live and we have precedent to draw from. Following the 2011 NBA lockout, which delayed the season until Dec 25, the league experienced a 16% lift in HH ratings over its 66-game regular season. Likewise, the NHL achieved its highest-ever average rating in 2013 following a lengthy lookout that pushed the season opening until Jan 19. The shortened regular season scored a 38% year-over-year HH ratings increase.

The opportunity for sports properties and broadcast partners going forward lies in fulfilling the promise of technology and delivering a more engaging viewing experience while fostering a stronger community of fans even as the gate takes a likely hit in the near term, if not much, much longer.

And I’d like to be clear about something here: engagement is not synonymous with sports betting. While inherently engaging, sports betting is not the sole panacea that leagues, teams and content distributors should be chasing for engagement.

Wagering on sports will be a revenue driver, no doubt. But true engagement will mean something more than the occasional prop bets in advance of games or at breaks in the action. Until near-zero latency streaming is more universally delivered, sports wagering has serious limitations, even within the states where sports betting is permitted.

A screengrab from the well received NASCAR iRacing series

Though monetizing near-term creativity will be a challenge, opportunities that are explored and acted upon now will reap long-term dividends as sponsors and advertisers begin finding value in engagement that accompanies programming. This doesn’t have to wait until live sports return. As we have seen with the viewership success of the iRacing ProSeries featuring NASCAR drivers on FS1, the appetite for live competition is real, even when virtual.

See also in TMR Insider: More Than Fun and Games: Sports Industry Learning From Simulations and Disruption

Not every sport lends itself as easily to a virtual version as motorsports, of course, but iRacing’s success is a positive harbinger for live televised esports.

NBC Sports Washington has made a commitment to providing a predictive gaming experience to its viewers during Washington Wizards games, as well as Washington Redskins pre-season games. While in-game prediction opportunities are limited, the RSN is looking to build the correct formula for fans that are looking for a more engaging experience, or perhaps a reason at all to watch a game.

NBCSW may be ahead of the curve among RSNs, but they’re only scratching the surface of where engagement will ultimately move, both for existing sports and new competitions that capture audiences.

Cord cutting and cord shaving are real phenomena, and I suspect the numbers are accelerating during this crisis. It is therefore more imperative than ever that purveyors of sports content address changing viewing habits, particularly among millennial and Gen Z audiences.

Television ratings among these audiences have been dropping, but that does not mean they are not consuming live sports content. Data shows that they are, however, watching fewer games and watching for shorter periods of time.

This information is a ringing endorsement for the need to increase fan engagement.

Doing so will increase the amount of programming consumed, as well as make the time spent with the content more meaningful. The more meaningful the content is to the audience, the better the environment for sponsors and advertisers to connect with the audience through the content.

While I’m sure many avid fans have loved being blasted with epic-game reruns by the sports nets, there needs to be more focus on fostering communities, one of the many wonderful things common to sports fandom, through new types of engagement.

Your Call’s highly engaging predictive app for the Auto Zone Liberty Bowl

So what are the possibilities? Here’s a brief example from Your Call, Inc., a company I’ve worked with as the distribution and partnership executive for the past few years. During the 2019 AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Your Call rolled out a predictive product that allowed fans to predict outcomes of every play called–all in real-time–from the AutoZone Liberty Bowl app.

The Your Call experience is predicated on building a game-within-a-game that fosters engagement and creates new revenue opportunities in the form of sponsorship and advertising inventory. Not wanting to deal with geo-fencing issues facing sports betting and desiring to create a fun experience for people of all ages, Your Call, along with the AutoZone Liberty Bowl offered prizing based on participation, even though a leaderboard was created to showcase which fans were best at predicting action.

Head-to-head competitions and leagues were created so fans could invite others and establish bragging rights. Though not right for the “AutoZone Liberty Bowl Predict-the-Plays” version, dialing up the gaming elements are simply a matter of prioritizing objectives.

Even in this simple format, Your Call demonstrated that you could align with a game even over linear (cable/satellite) distribution and provide a seamless experience for predicting plays throughout the contest. Importantly, the average engagement session was over an hour, while the app achieved a 94% registration-to-play rate.

Much of the predictive world is focused on prop betting and data and there is and will be a significant market for that activity. But as we wait for additional pieces to fill in before a more comprehensive user experience is available, there are technologies and platforms available that foster a stronger community while also delivering new revenue streams.

The opportunities in the near term should be squarely on having fans participate in our games like never before, even if the in-person experience is not available or desired.

Now is the time to consider how AR and VR can be made into affordable offerings that carry advertising potential.

Now is the time to consider how to utilize available near-zero-latency streaming technology to ensure smooth live engagement (and set the table for sports betting). Now is the time to develop new sports/gaming ideas, or brand extensions that enable fans to actually control the action of athletes.

Now is the time to consider how to best deliver goods and services to fans as they “confine within crowds” when live sports resume.

Now is the time to innovate for the new normal. And that will result in a far more engaged fan.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Not only is David Paro a talented sports business professional, he has legitimate singing and songwriting chops. With David’s permission, we wanted to share his clever adaptation of Don McLean’s “The Day the Music Died,” written and recorded on Mar 17, 2020: “The Week Our Sports World Died.” Enjoy and stay safe.

Brand and partnership marketing executive David Paro is a recognized sports business leader with a reputation for creating innovative, brand-building partnership programs. Paro serves as the President of Deep Alliance, a firm he founded in 2001 to provide companies of all sizes with high-level sponsorship expertise and branding services. During his time with Deep Alliance, Paro has managed sponsorship and activation for major global brands, including McDonald’s and Staples, while also providing an array of services to mid-sized companies and startups.