Last updated: The future of sports: Digital experiences for the win

The future of sports: Digital experiences for the win


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Sports and entertainment will always be about the audience, but the future of sports requires thinking about how to mesh the physical and digital realms.

Years of being unable to pack stadiums or theaters have changed audiences. Many of us have gotten comfortable enjoying things from home. We don’t have to dress up, deal with awkward small talk, or spend precious time commuting back and forth to a physical location because many locations and experiences are now just a click away.

These societal changes have athletic teams reinventing the art of spectating – they need to sort out how to meet and engage fans where they’d like.

How can you recreate a live performance or game’s open-air excitement or intensity? The answer may be that you can’t, but you can open an entirely new realm of fandom through digital activation and customization.

The future of sports: Scoring with an assist from tech

The tech industry is known for taking risks, pushing boundaries, and innovating to achieve greater products and experiences for consumers. When Jonathan Becher joined Sharks Sports and Entertainment – which owns the National Hockey League’s San Jose Sharks – he used his tech background to grow the organization. It paid off, big time.

The Sharks didn’t have Twitch, a popular live-streaming service with interactive content for gaming, sports, music, and more. During the pandemic, he led the organization through the adoption of the platform, employing a mindset of, “Let’s get it 60% right and then adjust on the fly.”

Implementing Twitch allowed the team to take the game, its players, and the fans to people’s homes and phones. In addition to watching games, people found community, and the fandom grew.

By breaking the digital divide, they removed participation barriers.

Becher discussed the future of sports and entertainment during a fantastic podcast episode – if you identify as Gen X, you’re going to love the opening riff:

Thinking digital-first rather than digital-afterwards is a must when it comes to the future of sports

If you don’t come from a sports family, you may not have an affinity for a team, or even a sport.

It’s up to teams to create new fans – but where do they begin? Making it easy to engage and humanizing sports is a start.

Elements of the future of sports include:

  1. Streaming events is a must-have
  2. Incorporating social media platforms to engage with fans in real-time
  3. Creating revenue bases that are digital-first rather than being reliant on a physical inclination

How does a brand that’s rooted in the physical realm extend into a profitable digital realm? Becher says they call this process “think beyond the rink, because the rink is the physical constraint.”

Getting creative, they started the largest online three by three e-gaming tournament – that they intentionally aren’t monetizing. With 180 teams participating in the last tournament (that’s streamed on Twitch, with commentary happening on Discord), they’re drawing in fans that’ll likely end up spending money in the long-run because they enjoy the experiences where they aren’t being asked to spend money.

Becher also said, “I’m not gonna say the word metaverse… ” but it doesn’t take a big stretch of the imagination to see exactly how the metaverse could play a big role in the future of sports.

Combining omnichannel, a willingness to take risks, and a flair for being first creates prime conditions for growth. The secret to this is channeling a part of a brand’s draw to another experience that’s easier for consumers to enjoy.

Say you realize there’s an audience for certain types of training or meal plans; there’s a good chance a professional athlete has a trick or two. Finding ways to connect the life of a professional athlete to the goals of a consumer on social media creates a connection simply by proximity – from there it can go anywhere.

Fans for life, AKA: The story of how tattoos for die-hard fans turned into an important lesson on how (not) to grow your brand

Most of the time, brands are trying to turn customers into fans, but in sports, the trick is to turn fans into customers.

Digital-first activations deliver personalized actions to the fans, delivering content and offers that allow fans to interact with the team and create lasting connections.

The Event Track Study by the Event Marketing Institute showed that nearly 98% of users feel more inclined to make a purchase after experiencing an activation.

Becher aims to shorten the gap between what people do and what the organization says is important. To some, a logo may be untouchable, but his view was that if modifying it within reason expanded the profile of people who feel a connection, it was worth doing.

One method he used was to take the Sharks brand and adapt it to different audiences. Daring to stretch the brand to create meaningful opportunities for consumers led to a strong relationship with the Bay Area’s Hispanic community.

Becher also shared a lesson in how not to grow your brand that involves tattoos.

During his first year with the Sharks, the team went deep into the playoffs, which further galvanized their fans. The Sharks captured the brand ethos with the phrase “Sharks for life.”

As a longtime tech entrepreneur and marketing expert, Becher found himself very excited to be leading a brand with an incredibly enthusiastic fan base – you don’t really get that kind of affinity in a B2B setting. He came up with a “crazy idea” of offering free tattoos to fans before the beginning of the playoffs.

The Sharks struck a deal with 3 local tattoo parlors in San Jose, each of whom agreed to give tattoos to the first 50 fans who showed up. 150 people lined up overnight, and about 800 people showed up by morning.

Becher noted, “my entire life of thinking about product led growth, it never occurred to me that someone would brand themselves – literally – with our logo on their body.

But it turns out that kind of brand affinity can also have a downside.

Following the tattoo saga (which was featured in news outlets around the world), the Sharks held a customer panel with fans comprised of hardcore loyalists as well as moderate fans. When they brought up the tattoo story – which was meant to engage the panelists –  a couple of fans said they actually really disliked it, and also didn’t care for the ethos “Shark for life” because they weren’t able to conceive of being part of a base that would “actually burn ink into skin” if that’s what it took to be considered a true fan of the Sharks.

So in reality, the Sharks were unknowingly pushing people away from their brand with the die-hard mentality.

They ended up changing the brand ethos because, as Becher said, “there’s room in this for everyone, regardless of whether you’re a first time fan or a RA fan, if you’ve lived in Silicon Valley your whole life since Apple meant “orchard” and not a company, or you’ve just gotten off a plane as you’re coming here. We don’t care what your background is, ethnicity, etc. – there’s room for you and we’ll try to treat you authentically so that you feel like you are included in the game and environment and entertainment that we love.”

Industries stand to gain from one another

The future of sports and entertainment might look very different from the future of business-to-business marketing, but learning digital best practices and survival in a hybrid world are something they have in common.

If the idea of taking a little bit of this from one industry and a little bit from another appeals to you, don’t miss the Breakout Growth Podcast episode featuring Becher. Whether you’re changing industries or looking for inspiration to switch things up and accelerate growth, the no-holds-barred chat is for you.

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