Digital Survival Strategies for Sports Teams

Sports is big business.  The only constant in the world of big business is change. 

But change requires investment.  And sports have been reluctant to invest, causing commoditization, a loss of differentiation and reduced revenue potential. 

There is no better example of the decline of sports than the evening news.  Sports, which once offered important insights and unique content, receives a scant 30 to 40 seconds each evening just before the final signoff.  Sports appears last, not because it is the best part of the broadcast, but because its brief allocation of seconds can be further reduced if time runs shorts.  Sports is now relegated to the “play of the day” often taken from the wire services. 

Sports’ problem existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic.  The pandemic only highlighted the clear and present danger to the one-dimensional revenue model of sports Teams: the dependence of fans in the stands. 

Sports must embrace digital experiences that engages and energizes the fan base to diversify its revenue base.  Over-the-top content and direct to consumer engagements are a longer-term solution.  Fortunately for the industry, there are near-term tactics that can be deployed very quickly and segue into the long-term solutions.  Let us begin this discussion by examining what can be done immediately using the current engagement.  

Figure 1 - Sports were already in a tailspin before the COVID-19 pandemic.  (Andy Nietupski)

Team have three direct points of contact with their fans:  in-person game attendance, social media posts and website content. 

In the absence of in-person game attendance, idle Team front offices have been quick to fill the void using social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Podcasts).  Initial efforts relied upon long-used approaches like recapping the season’s highlights, focus on individual player achievements and reliving greatest moments. 

Some Teams took this to the next level, creating new content like podcast with coaches, players and members of the front office.  Others offered content on player’s lifestyle, fitness and nutrition.  Features on Team mascots provide a light-hearted distraction favored by the younger fans.  Fans found deep-dives on the behind the scenes technology used by the Team to be especially enlightening.  One Team even wrote a feature on their photographer (me). 

Hopefully, these efforts sufficiently stirred the embers of expectation until play resumes.  But when that play does return it will be under very different and restricted circumstances.  Very few fans will see a live game in-person.  After all, a single outbreak among players or Team staff has the potential to shut down a Team, a facility or even a league for an entire season. 

The easiest way to engage and energize the fan under these conditions starts with the Team’s website. 

Figure 2 - Team and fans alike felt knocked off their feet with the interruption of the 2020 sports seasons.  (Andy Nietupski)

Sports Teams website have up to four basic components:  informational, editorial, sales and services.  In theory, a website could contain all four components.  In practice, however, sports Team’s website functional mainly as an informational brochure, with sub-optimized editorial content and online sales, and little services. 

The informational website is a one-way push of essential Team data.  It includes rosters, player head-shot photos and stats.  Schedules are essential because it allows Teams to sell tickets.  These pages also include information about the stadium or arena where they play, the fan experience, and ticket packages. 

Most Teams treat the website as a cost center and use it as a low cost means to publish information.  These Teams ignore the net-new revenue generation potential if they treated their website as a profit center.  A profit center approach invests money into the site to yield incremental revenue that exceeds the cost.  

Figure 3 - The passive digital approach taken by some teams has left fans asleep in their seats. (Andy Nietupski)

Team never fully leveraged the potential advantage of digital strategies, opting for a 

passive digital presence.  Future success will be predicated on adopting an active digital presence in editorial content, and online sales and services. 

Nearly every Team offers basic editorial content consisting of game write-ups, box scores, an occasional photo, and, of course, videos that make the players look like toy soldiers on a field. 

This is the first aspect of the website that must be upgraded to engage fans, especially since only a small portion may be allowed to attend a game when play resumes.  Teams must give fans something interesting to look at and keep them energized.  

Every professional (major and minor leagues) and college (NCAA Division 1) sports Teams have live broadcasts, social media updates, post-game write-ups, and usually some still photography.  Unfortunately, this information is often presented in a way that’s easiest for the people assembling the content, and not in the greatest value to the fans.  

Figure 4 - Coverage of games by most Teams website leave the fans hanging in mid-air.  (Andy Nietupski)

The post-game wrap-ups by the broadcasters are not recorded.  The written post-game summaries are seldom read.  The video highlights are from the perspective of the press box, high above the playing field.  And there is usually only one photograph used as a banner to the post-game summaries.  

This same content can be made exciting with just a little additional effort.  

Lead with recorded post-game wrap-ups using the play-by-play announcers.  The announcers have the voice, words and delivery to make it sound exciting, even when the Team loses.  Use your field level cameras for your video highlights with voice-overs by the play-by-play announcers.  Place the entire album of the game photos on line and make it downloadable by the fans.  This content gives fans a chance to really enjoy the while not being in the stands. 

Every Team sells tickets and merchandise on-line, usually through a link to a third-party provider like TicketMaster.  These stores make it easy to buy, but they don’t sell.  A website must sell by making the fan excited about buying and giving them a reason to make a purchase.  

Figure 5 - Most Team's efforts to sell on their websites look like a runner picked-off trying to steal second base.  (Andy Nietupski)

Most merchandise sales simply show the clothing laid out and do nothing to encourage the sale.  Teams should mirror techniques used by online garment retailers, showing real-life fans wearing the apparel while having a good time at the game.  And an occasional push notification could alert fans to the latest arrivals in the Team store.  

Occasions can be created to encourage the purchase of merchandise during the pandemic.  A hosted virtual watch parties could feature the latest offerings from the Team store, and raise the bar on fan fashion, while watching the game online. 

As the density of stadium seating increases, online efforts could highlight various seating options to sell higher priced seats.  A virtual tour of the different seating options can show the views of the game and calling out the amenities that come with the seat.  Tours should run the spectrum from general admission seats to suites.  This may also entice the fan to upgrade their seating. 

These ideas are near-terms solutions that can be easily deployed by Teams to overcome the immediate challenges presented by the pandemic.  The long-term solution is for Teams to develop a services strategy that leverages data and content to that engages the fans, personalizes the experience, strengthens the relationship, and monetizes the interaction.  

Figure 6 - A multi-channel communications plan can maintain fan engagement in the absence of life games.  (Andy Nietupski)

This builds upon the existing direct-to-consumer engagement model used many professional leagues, such as NBA League Pass, NHL Network, AHLTV, MLB TV MiLB.TV, NFL Network and the NFL Red Zone.  Additional content could include eSports, virtual leagues, live shared game chats, virtual reality experiences, and behind the scenes moments. 

These efforts leverage multiple communication channels to maintain fan engagement.  

In effect, Team establish themselves as their own digital platform, relying on content and data collection to build the fan experience and solidify the relationship. The content strategy supports overall the overall Team’s brand, appearing in different compelling formats. 

These approaches are not prescriptive.  Measuring the effectiveness of the fan response and adjusting in a methodical, iterative manner is essential.  The digital engagement model provides the necessary tools to monitor this behavior and analyze the engagement. 

You won’t know what works well until you identify what works better.  Now is the best time to study these approaches.  The playing field is literally empty and there is a huge void waiting to be filled.  Fans are hungry, willing, even eager, to consume content they might not otherwise try.  Even the most modest efforts will satisfy the fans until the games resume. 

About the Author: 

Andy Nietupski founded Through the Lens Sport Media in 2015 after a corporate career of business start-ups and turn-arounds.  TTL Sports Media helps sports organizations optimize their business results using the latest digital sales and marketing techniques.  TTL Sports Media publishes 1,000’s pieces of content annually and curates a catalog of more than 100,000 items.  On behalf of its client interests TTL Sports Media annually publishes nearly 200 articles and makes greater than 1000 social media posts.  

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