Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Win One For The Sports Fan -- ESPN Truly Goes Online

ESPN Networks' online player

Chalk this win up for the little guy.  And while it may not seem like much now, this victory is going to change the way that avid  fans consume sports.

On Monday, for the first time, cable subscribers were able to legally watch an ESPN NFL game online with no restrictions.  Sure, NBC has their Sunday Night stream and the NFL has been its Thursday Night Football games online, but neither has been a full, easy-to-use viewing experience of the exact network feed.  While NBC's version was good but sometimes frustrating, the NFL Network games were more of a canned Internet studio show with live action football spliced in, making for a frustrating experience for the viewer.  But the ESPN Networks feed of the Cowboys-Giants game looked and felt like I was watching through a set-top box.

As it's been reported today in several outlets, including the Wall Street Journal (here; paywalled), Time Warner Cable launched its first real venture into broadband sports distribution through its partnership with ESPN.  TWC customers now can log on through a branded portal and see the ESPN national feed in crystal-clear HD.  (In fact, I'm watching SportsCenter right now on my external 23" screen, and frankly, it looks better than my 34" HDTV.)  Soon, Verizon FiOS and Bright House Networks subscribers will be able to do the same.

As adoption continues, sports viewers are going to begin to consume the ESPN product now in two ways.  Smart sports fans have long been fans of ESPN3, especially when it comes to college football and basketball, as well as international soccer.  But viewing has been limited to fans of regionally-popular teams and off-the-national-radar friendlies.  Adding ESPN3 to the Xbox Live interface is really going to be popular, possibly cannibalizing the WWL's own Game Plan and Full Court Packages (details here).  However, I believe that putting the national ESPN feed online for all subscribers is a game changer.

Now, I need to make something clear.  I have been critical of Time Warner Cable in its inability to come to the table with the NFL and get a carriage deal done for NFL Network.  I think it's a big miss, for both sides.  But this move shows that TWC is ready to play ball with broadband sports.  And as a subscriber, I am happy that TWC has this programming available to me.  But it may come at a cost.

MLB Advanced Media's Bob Bowman, widely recognized as one of the Internet's leading sports innovators, told the WSJ today that he has "doubts" about the model.  I respect Bowman's opinion, but I don't think his talk of password sharing and how that potentially drives free content for non-subs is a major concern.  (His company has figured out how to prevent multiples from viewing, and I'm sure ESPN can as well - if they want to.) 

The WSJ also comes out and says in the piece that the offering "could strain ESPN's relations with major sports leagues, as some content owners throughout the media have had misgivings about the TV Everywhere model, viewing it as a way for the cable industry to protect its business while limiting the ability of content providers to exploit new technology platforms."

Honestly, I can't envision deeper penetration adversely affecting leagues, but I understand the point of contention.  On one hand, proponents of ESPN Networks will see the service as a means to consumers to consume the product in new, innovative ways.  But on the other hand, the service is a direct competitor to online streams, such as Bowman with MLB.TV.

At the end of the day, I believe that this is a win for the sports fan and leagues too. 
It allows for "Everywhere" accessibility to the core product of the world's leading sports media entity.  Leagues and teams aren't going to be replaced -- nothing stands in for the live game experience.  Showing games and content in HD, be it through the set or online, drives demand for tickets, merchandise and other discretionary spending around sports.

In closing, I believe the jury is out on how long this venture will stand until the leagues step up and ask for relief.  I think the timing is incredibly interesting, as it comes at the end of baseball season.  I wonder how Bowman would feel if the launch was around, oh let's say, Opening Day?  Probably his "doubts" would turn into "concerns."  For now, let's call this a victory for the sports fan and an opportunity to continue to drive critical fan passion.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Listen, Then Engage: How #Sportsbiz Should Approach Social Media

Via @jonathan_norman, I posted an article yesterday from the ever-thoughtful Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer on Carolina Panthers President Danny Morrison personally reaching out to season ticket holders and fans after receiving difficult-to-swallow emails.  Morrison took the opportunity to give fans the ability to share feedback (and frustration, candidly) on the current state of the 0-5 team.

This is undoubtedly a difficult time in the Panthers organization.  But Morrison took two important steps that others in his position have not.  He picked up the phone ... and then, he listened.  He could have posted a press release, had an intern reach out through social media, or even ignored the mails.  But Morrison -- true to everything I've heard about him -- took the road less traveled.

I feel like more brands, teams and leagues could learn a lot from this simple act.  I still see countless tweets with shameless self-promotion, trying to sell tickets or whatever bucket needs to be filled that particular day.  It's almost as bad as the tweets from those self-proclaimed #sportsbiz social media experts-hiding-as-mavens (a term I hate, by the way). 

One of the terms that's typically overused by these "mavens" is that they're a "learner."  And unfortunately, a lot of these people have ended up in social media positions with some pretty notable organizations.  They are fluent in a language that many teams and brands aren't, and they've frankly been empowered through the opportunity given to them.

Read their bios.  "Still learning" or "social media learner" fits their bills, but really down deep, they're pedantic.  They want to be seen as a trusted source of information, but it only comes off as forced and trite.  From those that have said they are "learning," they're really listening and looking for a teaching moment ... in other words, the opportunity to show how smart they think they are.  It's really rhetoric.

(I want to pause here for a second.  <on soapbox> You may read this and think that, you know what, this Norman guy is full of it too ... but here's what this blog is all about.  I see and hear a lot from a #sportsbiz and #sponsorship perspective on a daily basis, and I form opinions based on those interactions.  I wanted a forum to share these opinions out, and that's what this site is -- my unfiltered opinion.  It doesn't represent who I work for or the clients I represent.  This is just me and the way I see it. <off soapbox> )

A mentor of mine once told me, "Sometimes, the smartest man in the room says the least."  This man is one of few words, but when he says something, he's like E.F. Hutton: people listen.  And he wasn't even talking about himself in that statement, but he could be.

I am forcing myself to listen, not talk (this is out of my DNA, by the way) and apply some simple concepts to make myself a better asset to my clients and company.  People in the #sportsbiz or #sponsorship space should challenge themselves to do so as well. 

As sports marketers, I believe we should conduct ourselves in three ways:
  1. Listen and observe what our social media environment is telling us.  There are millions of fans out there that want to share their opinion.  It's our job to listen to their communication and decide a path of action.  We need to know the answers to these questions.  What do our fans want?  What do those fans as consumers need?  How can we address their problems, or better yet for us, capitalize on their opportunities?  What can we offer consumers that they can't get through other brands, or more importantly, from home watching on TV?
  2. Form a thoughtful response -- even if it is 140 characters.  We have become a society that communicates in fragments.  Take the time to consider what the best response might be, what your desired outcome is and how to reach it.  (I cannot underscore this first point enough in my own life: take the time.) Then take care and pride to communicate a formal response.  If you paid for tickets to see your team or had the opportunity for a unique experience with a brand through activation, how would you want to be treated?  Apply that concept to social media interactions.  And if all else fails, be sure and keep the longevity of your brand first and foremost.
  3. Definitively act and confidently support your actions.  I think my major issue is that these "mavens" jump right to the last part of that statement, without even really considering the other steps and they can't even really support their positions without hiding behind the number of followers they have.  Say something important ... and be there to back it up.  Then prove the interaction by showing the person on the other end that you're dedicated to seeing it through and paying it off.
Danny Morrison did all three of those things.  It's obvious that he "gets it."  Actions like what Morrison did make me more excited to work with that property.  I believe if an action is made at the top of the organization, it should trickle down.

Let's challenge ourselves.  Let's embrace the engagement opportunity we have before us.  Let's develop timely, relevant interaction.  Let's allow our fans to direct us, not vice versa. If we work hard enough, it will be obvious to your fans and consumers that we "get it" too.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Hyper-local, Hyper-focused: Smart Brands Should Be Here

In my job, I look at a significant amount of sports content online.  I probably consume more than any human should, looking at a screen for most of the day -- through sites, Twitter, mobile.  If it's engaging consumers around sports, I'm considering it.  (So, if you have something to promote, Tweet me at @jonathan_norman and I'll take a look.)

Next week, I am going to be meeting with a strategic partner of our agency, joining a client of ours to help build out an integrated online campaign for next year.  Both the partner and the client do an incredible job of capitalizing the passion of sports fans, but in a smart way.  They've figured out the equation: leverage a specific facet of their interest, and feed that fire.

While I can't talk in any detail around the client, the partner and their plans, I do want to take the time to look at a couple of sites that capitalize on the hyper-local and hyper-focused phenomenon.  Each of these sites has a laser-like focus on who makes up their communities.  They know how, when and where they want not only content, but also interaction.

The first is Scouting the Sally.  Blogger Mike Newman covers the South Atlantic League of Minor League Baseball.  The "Sally" is one of the most notable leagues in the minors, as many MLBers have called the league home for a season or two.  Mike's approach layers in two targets: (1) rabid baseball fans who keep up with future stars, and (2) Northeastern U.S. fans who love coverage of their favorite teams' minor leaguers, especially those of the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox.  Mike's approach is to not only blog, but also tweet and post videos with information that's not readily available via the ESPNs or Yardbarkers of the world.  It's really great, rich information for those who need it.

Scouting the Sally is a place where advertisers who match up demographically with the fan targets could really break through on an intimate level.  While Mike doesn't drive the page views that a Baseball Prospectus or even Minor League Ball does, his content is top notch and he really knows his community.  Working with Mike would make sense for a Wegmans, Duane Reade (now Walgreens) or even Steiner Sports.

The second site example is Yadkin Valley Sports.  Eric Lusk is a former newspaper sports editor and writer who went online and powered up the coverage in this Northwest North Carolina area.  Eric covers high school and even elementary school sports in a very professional way, with a great depth of interaction with the community he covers.  I am from this area of the country, and feel like I know more now about high school sports than I did when I was playing.

Eric does a feature every Monday on high school football in the area, appropriately titled "Monday Morning Quarterback."  It's a slick looking recap of the weekend's action, and really has some nice features that could be sponsored.  While the audience is limited by the population of the area, I can think off the top of my head sponsors like Neighbors, Food Lion and even the voice of high school football in the area, WIFM, that could really make some noise.

Bottom line: not every media package or site sponsorship involves a six- or seven-figure buy.  Brands that play locally and regionally (think cable, utilities, c-store) can find efficient spends to reach consumers that actually appreciate your integration in the site, vs. turning it off with an ad blocker.  Brand marketers just need to be smart enough to look for these opportunities.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Going Beyond The Game - How We're Reaching Young Adults

The notion that teams must do more to reach fans is not a new one.  Even when I was in graduate school 12 years ago, one of the primary tenants of sports marketing that we were made to understand is that the product is the experience, not the game.

Teams have long known that they must reach the casual fan, not the core fan, to expand.  We as an industry are endlessly trying to develop fresh approaches for the best solutions, but the problem is timeless.

In this week's Sports Business Journal, Bill Sutton (@sutton_impact) discusses the idea under the headline of "Leagues, teams must give fans new reasons to give up the sofa."  (Story can be found here, for SBJ subscribers.)

He makes a lot of valid points, including cost.  However, I don't buy the idea that fans can't afford to go to games.  I personally believe that most NBA, MLB, and NHL teams, sans the truly major properties, have done a good job of providing cost-efficient game experiences that meet nearly every budget.  Teams in certain NFL markets are learning the hard lessons that they must also reach out to fans economically -- and in those markets, they're reaching new fans live at the stadium.

And people are spending money on entertainment, regardless of the economy.  They're just having to make more difficult choices.  Instead of being "five-game or ten-game pack," it's more like "game or movie, with some vacation money set aside."

So if we assume that price isn't an issue, why aren't more fans coming to games?  Are teams not communicating the benefits of being at the game well enough?  Are local marketing efforts falling on deaf ears?  Is the social media outreach falling short?

Let's go back to Bill's column.  He cites two issues to reaching a younger target: "participatory control vs. spectatorship" and "choice."  I think Bill's close on both of these, but to me it's about something more simple.  To me, it's about convincing young adults that it's worth the time and effort to enjoy the product live and in person.

Everything comes so easy to us today.  Online banking, iPhone apps, e-commerce ... things that make our lives easier and allow us to be more productive.  Even sports viewing have now come easy to us, through portals like MLB.TV and NBA.com.  

But the game experience ... I think teams need to do a better job of merchandising the benefits of in-arena experience, and how it's worth the effort.  Let's note that I'm not necessarily talking about rock stars at halftime (although that always helps), but rather some of the more refined nuances.  I sometimes think teams work too hard to create these massive promotions that end up distancing themselves from season ticket holders and devaluing the product just to get "butts in seats."

For this demographic, I think it's simpler than that.  I'll offer up two key selling points for consideration: access and amenities.  

I think most teams have gone the "young professionals" route, and are probably reaching them through social media.  But I rarely see any exclusive benefits being given.  We all know that club levels have long been reserved for companies, corporate outings and the financially able.  

But what if, on less-than-capacity nights, teams opened up the club or exclusive levels to a younger demographic, giving them a taste of access without forgoing major revenue.  And concurrently, find areas within your arena to continue to pay off that experience throughout the game.  Simple bar promotions on that concourse might be your in with the demo on that night.  Then, go back to that demo with the same proposition a couple of times throughout the season.  One night's not going to be enough to convert to a traditional ticket package.  As for underwriting, a beer or liquor sponsor or even a auto sponsor makes a lot of sense in this scenario.

Let's also look briefly at amenities.  I think that this demo considers amenities much more than sports marketers think.  In-seat dining, gated access and even WiFi is a differentiator.  Are the teams you're working for or with considered promoting in-arena WiFi for free, thanks to a sponsor?  I single-handedly changed my airline allegiances to Airtran because of their WiFi.  They thought enough of my time as a business traveler to offer me this service at a reasonable cost.  With iPhones, smartphones and iPads, WiFi is now a critical component to a person's overall daily existence.  But it's not a given in most arenas and stadiums.

Bottom line here: sports teams need to "think like and speak from within" the demo, versus "thinking about the demo and speaking to" this group.  Social media and game promotions alone aren't going to cut it.  We have to prove as sports marketers that the game is worth the experience, not the other way around.