Live From CES 2017: Top League Execs Discuss Future of Fan Engagement

When the annual CES took over Las Vegas for the past week, the aisles featured the latest in consumer technology of all kinds, but there was a quiet respite from the hype in the Sands Hall, where Turner Sports provided a showcase not only for its ELeague offering and NBA on TNT but also for leading sports-management executives to discuss the intersection of technology and sports-fan engagement. And one thing is certain: the new sports-fan experience gives leagues, teams, and broadcasters more ways to build strong and lasting bonds.

“We are connected to fans in a way never seen before,” said NASCAR Chairman/CEO Brian France. “There are some nice tailwinds with things like telemetry that can be captured and sent out to fans in smart ways, but there is also a challenge, as the attention spans are changing. It’s unprecedented and a great challenge and opportunity at once. But innovation and technology will solve the problems and make NASCAR a greater place for fans to interact all during the day and in different ways.”

That is a big change in attitude for France, who confessed that. a decade ago, he was nervous as to how technology would impact the way fans interact with the sport and whether they would keep coming to the track. But, with the telemetry data from the cars and the ability for fans to listen to conversations between the drivers and the pits, the fans in the stands have a more tightly integrated experience with what is happening in front of them.

“This is the new frontier,” he pointed out, “and we need to be as aggressive and smart as we can by using data and other things in ways we never thought possible.”

Helping in the efforts of an organization like NASCAR is that the elite drivers are brands of their own, complete with an understanding of marketing prowess, partnerships, and brand extensions.

“It gives us a real nice reach,” said France. “Sometimes, it can backfire with social media, but, by and large, social media is a positive and shows the size and reach of our sport.”

Advances in technology are about more than just the fans. Technology has leveled the playing field for the drivers (to the consternation of some purists) with things like new track-drying technology.

“Our races are outdoors, so rain is an issue,” France noted. “But new drying systems have reduced the time it takes to dry the track by 70%. It only takes 30 minutes, and that is huge for retaining the TV audience.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Generation Z is a top priority for the league.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Generation Z is a top priority for the league.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman described one way technology will help improve NHL action.

“We are working with a major technology company on something that will determine whether a puck crossed the line, like what they have done in tennis,” he said. “We’re close to doing that, and it will help with the integrity of the sport because, without that, you have nothing.”

Bettman discussed Generation Z, those born after 1995, and how they want content on their own terms and personalized. That will also extend into the arena for fans in the stands.

“We have to ensure that, wherever you are, especially in the arena, you get what you want,” he said. There should not be any aspect of the experience that is better at home than in person. “That means replays, data, features, and having more WiFi connectivity at the venues and event,” he explained, “things like letting you know where the food lines are shortest or where to park the car. It’s all part of making sure the fans have the best possible experience.”

For example, the NHL is celebrating its 100th anniversary this season and has digitized scoring sheets with the help of SAP. That allows fans to sort data as they want and focus on what is most important to them.

“Technology is providing more information about what is happening in real time,” said Bettman, “like with player tracking that can show how much time a player is on the ice, how fast they are skating, how far the puck has travelled. In our case, that makes the sport more understandable. And then,” he added, “the fans have a personalized experience on their second or third screen.”

Broadcasters are wrestling with how their relationship will evolve with sports, he noted, but things like 24/7 all-access shows and shoulder programming like player features are very important.

“If you were a hockey fan five years ago and your team was eliminated, you could not watch any more playoffs,” Bettman explained, “but our deal with NBC Sports gives us national distribution of all the playoff games and streaming of games out of market. You need to have partners and sponsors that are targeting the demos you want and know how to reach them.”

That is one of the reasons for the NHL’s outdoor Winter Classic games.

“Younger fans are more experiential-oriented and want to do things like the outdoor games,” Bettman noted. “NBC embraced that and knew it was important. And now we also have a traveling Hall of Fame truck that is going to all markets and big events.”

He agreed with France that social media has its ups and downs.

“At first blush,” he said, “a tweet can appear innocent, and then it causes an uproar. But, in general, players like talking about what is on their mind, and social media has been a positive.”

It also expands the international presence of the game, enabling players to remain connected with their fans around the globe. Approximately 25% of players in the NHL were born outside the U.S., and video consumption of the NHL outside the U.S. exceeds domestic consumption.

“The NHL is streamed to 150 countries to encourage the development of elite players, and one thing we are hearing is the need to have a presence in other countries, whether it is hockey clinics or local talent,” said Bettman. “You need something that goes along with what is on the device.”

While NASCAR and the NHL are focused on yearly activities, USOC President Scott Blackmon faces the challenge of trying to maintain momentum for athletes that typically pop into the mainstream American consciousness only every two years. That is part of the reason the USOC is working alongside NBC Sports on the Olympic Channel, giving the USOC and its hundreds of athletes a chance to have their story told 356 days a year.

“You can’t wait every two years to talk about what it means to be an Olympian,” he said. “We want to bring our fans as close as we can to the action. We have a digital command center in Colorado Springs that monitors what is trending on social media. We use technology as an enhancement.”

The USOC is also very much reliant on private donations, and social media enables increased exposure of athletes and sports, providing a new way to get sponsors involved.

Proctor and Gamble created a “Thank You, Mom” campaign, which has been a big hit with mothers and millennials.

“We can leverage that great investment they made,” Blackmon explained. “[With] a non-profit organization like ours, most of the money goes to the athletes. And the athletes have great stories and work hard, and that resonates with people.”

He added that, as with the NHL, the popularity of U.S. Olympic athletes is also expanding beyond the U.S. borders.

“Our team is more diverse than ever,” he pointed out. “Our challenge is how to build on that diversity as we have fans in Europe who are supporting athletes in America.”

Technology, however, does have its limits.

“Everything we do is to make the product better, more compelling, and more entertaining,” said Bettman. “But you can get to the point where technology can decide the results of a game based on an algorithm and you take the human element out of it. When we get to that point, we are out of business, because there is no reason to even have the event.”

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