Predictions on the future of fan experiences from a former NFL quarterback, now VP of a SportsTech company

I just want to say it now to get it out of the way: We are living through unprecedented times.

Every sector and every industry has had to rethink traditional, and timeless, annual events. They’ve had to relaunch practices that have been in play for years and years. Sports, entertainment, hospitality, and more, have all overcome the new normal of social distancing in industries that survive and thrive on packed stadiums and sold-out concerts and events.

Let me back it up a little. Hi! I’m Quinton Porter. VP of North America for Pico – Get Personal and a former quarterback in the NFL and CFL. It’s safe to say that like all of you, I’m an avid sports fan. And as a former player, I feel lucky that I’m able to work in the SportsTech space and tie my experience of the fan-to-player dynamic to my work on the business side helping teams know what their fans want, what they engage with, what they look for on game day, and what they expect out of their fan experience.

What I’ve seen – both pre- and post-COVID-19 – is that sports fans are naturally engaged. They’re hungry for team content, news, and updates in ways that other industries just can’t compete with. So when you look into what makes a positive fan experience positive, it’s important to go beyond the classic antics often seen in sports media and sports in general and begin the process of learning who your fans really are. Especially in these times when fans aren’t able to physically attend games like they always have, it’s been interesting to see how teams are mimicking fan interactions and game-day experiences for those of us at home. 

Here are my predictions for the future of the fan experience in sports:

At Home Digital Activations

Digital activations are a great way of keeping fans engaged with digital content that’s shared across any and all digital channels and it’s something we’re seeing more and more in the industry, across all leagues. They bring value to teams, sponsors, and they help in fostering those personal experiences and connections often felt within fans. 

Let me paint more of the picture for you. At Pico, our digital activations are paired and created from the content that our clients are already sharing. We’re adding a layer to the trivia, voting polls, and shared memories to ensure the fun part stays while being able to natively capture data that benefits both fans and teams, without driving them to external web logins, app downloads, or different pages. We’ll never ask a fan to leave the channel they’re currently engaging on. While engagement is important – it’s not everything. 

The engagement seen on social media makes for great bragging rights, but it doesn’t really tell more of the story on who is behind the likes, comments, shares, retweets, etc. Through Pico’s digital activations, teams are able to learn more about their fans and collect valuable data points in a non-intrusive, organic way. And in these challenging times, when game attendance by fans is fairly uncertain, the industry as a whole needs to understand who their fans are, separate from the ones that buy tickets. Engaging and identifying digital fans opens new revenue streams by creating a strategy that allows organizations to serve more personalized and relevant content and offerings. 

Let’s take the below example from the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals that went live earlier this summer. They wanted to connect with their fans and offer a comforting distraction. In this case, it was raffling off free merchandise from their pro shop. The quiz, with just 4 questions, called on their fans to choose what type of merch they would prefer, which Bengals player they relate to the most, their favorite touchdown dances, and the best way to contact them should they win. Fun, unique, and engaging.

The value here is the team learning which type of merch that fan prefers and the best way to contact them – in this case, personal email. Now the Bengals have two additional data points on that fan which will help in making data-based decisions when pushing content, offers, push messages, emails and more.

At-home digital activations are something we’ll definitely be seeing more of in this space. 

Second Screen Marketing

There’s nothing abnormal about second screen usage within the sports industry. In fact, it’s estimated that in 2020, over 91% of internet users are expected to use a second screen while watching TV.

When it comes to sports fans and their second screen, however, they tend to still be focused and engaged with what they’re watching and use the second screen as a way to share predictions, check stats, live-tweet/converse with other fans, post memes and more. There’s a creative and interesting opportunity to utilize second-screen usage as part of a digital fan-marketing strategy. 

If sports teams and broadcasters embrace second screen usage they can find a way to retain the fans’ attention and keep them engaged with their content in a way that’s very complimentary and can be part of both viewing experiences in an organic way.

Today especially, fans are tuning into broadcast programming even more than they have before. With more eyes on screens and less (or no) fans in stadiums, implementing a second screen strategy presents an opportunity to not only engage fans but to also capture data on live viewers. Who is viewing what, and when? What content are they engaged with outside of the game? What app are they using? Where are they tuning in from? Are they engaging on social, checking for tweets or memes? Are they subscribed to a newsletter?

Through embracing various second-screen strategies, sports organizations and broadcasters can start connecting the dots on who is watching or listening and who is engaging on social and can use that information to learn more about their fans’ viewing habits and preferences when watching a game.

It’s all about the views!

This time, I don’t mean social views. I mean actual views, in the Drake kind of way. The view of the game from home. Aka, advanced stadium technologies that allow for player-fan tracking, high-tech replays, new camera angles, and more. The NBA already started this journey back in 2018 and it’s crucial that other leagues begin to follow suit for a more optimal viewing experience in fanless games/stadiums.

One (of many) great parts about being a fan, is finally going to a game. Seeing all of the action on the court or field, listening to the stadium get louder from excitement – or quieter from tension. Hearing the sneakers squeaking, the balls bouncing, and whistles blown by the referees. That’s why it’s important that these sights and sounds that generate feelings from fans need to be reached now at home to keep building on and enhancing that part of the fan experience. 

More and more stadiums, leagues, and teams are implementing new camera and microphone technologies to enhance the viewing experience. It’s even more important for all of us at home watching the game.  

The future of the fan experience within the sports industry is that of an exciting one. With new technologies, practices, and more entering the space, it’s cool (to say the least) to watch and see how each league, team, and/or player adapts to them. How they use innovation for us, their fans, for the game, and for their own business objectives.

The Analysis of Sports Amidst COVID-19

After a long and argumentative time span in May and June, the NBA and MLB have concluded that the season will resume in the month of July.

For the majority of sports fans, it is a pleasure and a sign of hope that sports will finally be on television again. For the opposite side of the scale, there is reasonable doubt, as well as reasonable concern, for the continuation of sports.

In a world that seems to change relentlessly on a daily basis, the sports scene is certainly no exception and the above-average sports fan has certainly been starving for some sort of entertainment on television.

For a while, there was a considerable crowd that was highly invested in “The Last Dance” documentary, which then transitioned into a less than entertaining golf match between all-time rivals of Tom Brady vs. Payton Manning and Tiger Woods vs. Phil Michelson. Even though these two isolated programs attracted a considerable crowd, the background of the continuation of sports was still up in the air.

Fast forward to late June when Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred reached an agreement with the MLB Players Association to play a 60-game season in specified, semi-neutral locations to minimize travel. Similarly, the NBA reached an agreement to colonize the since-abandoned Walt Disney World to accommodate the players and their respective staff.

The NHL has released a schedule in which the remainder of the season – including the postseason – will be played without any solidified ramifications or logistics of how, when, or where the games will be played. Lastly, the NFL is still up in the air in regards to gameplay, although the presence of fans crowding into a stadium seems highly unlikely.

Essentially, I would like to analyze the intent and the possible outcomes of sports returning in the disastrous year that is 2020.

In a year where a pandemic was not plaguing the entire planet, the average sports fan would be just finishing the NHL and NBA postseasons and beginning to get a feel for their current MLB team before the all-star break to identify any changes that may need to be made to make a playoff run. Additionally, that same average sports fan is more than likely already thinking about football, imagining the outcome of the team they support after all the final trades and personnel changes have been made. Maybe they’d even be pooling the final contestants in the annual fantasy football league.

In 2020, baseball seemed nonexistent given that the peak of the epidemic and shelter-in-place orders began on what would have been opening day for several different programs, but furthermore, the climax of the NHL and NBA seasons was about to be in full swing.

Having said that, the question then becomes “If a franchise were to win a championship this season, what will be recorded in history?”

In my observation of the NBA, the season will resume. But there have been several players – even all-star players in fact – that have contracted the disease and are absolutely subject to miss a portion of this season. That will then affect a coaching strategy going forward; not to mention the health and wellbeing of the other players and staff.

Hypothetically, if the Lakers were to finish the remainder of what would be the 2019-2020 season as champions, this season would be the first dynamic of its kind and will be deserving of an “outlier” distinction. This same paradigm applies for the NHL and even more so for baseball given that the season will be played with less than half as many games as a normal season.

Is that deserving championship prestige? I believe history will decide.

Going further, sports have a tendency to bring everyone together. Not just by the overwhelming support for a team or an individual, but entertainment of any kind can cause the looming sensation of melancholy and cabin fever to subside while the game is on.

In that aspect, I cannot wait to be surrounded by sports and the culture alike again. I miss the premise of sitting down with my friends and loved ones and watching a sports game or match. Perhaps even more so, I miss those conversations I have with others about a terrible umpire, an astounding home run, a near-impossible three-pointer, or a rapid-paced power play that can seem to make any problem feel small.

However, sports in that respect are still just a game, but the athletes and the coaches involved in these games are real. In other words, these teams and individuals supporting these teams will be at risk, no matter what safety precautions are put in place.

COVID-19 did not by any means disappear, and will more than likely be amongst the populous of the United States for a lot longer than most are prepared for, especially me. I would rather remain in the comfort of my own home watching the same shows and highlight reels in perpetuity than sacrifice the health or safety of any athlete.

With more athletes testing positive for COVID-19, I am still under the impression that the beginning or resuming of sports this summer is still into question, and if gameplay were to resume, I will remain hopeful that everyone stays safe.