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The Passion of the Fan

Consumers want more from their sports brands...more digital content, more entertainment, more fun
  • January 28 2013

Today’s sports fan does a lot more than root, root, root for the home team.

Digital media has forever changed how fans interact with the athletes, teams, leagues and sports brands they follow. From grabbing sports scores on their smartphone to viewing post-game highlights on the team or league’s website to interacting with athletes or fellow fans on social media, fans are hungry for a constant flow of real-time, 24/7 content. They want to be entertained with videos of their favorite athletes, play games related to the sports they love, and win prizes and merchandise from their teams. And when they’re not watching sports, they want to talk about sports and be part of the active fan community.

“Everything about sports is participation and fan participation is critical,” says Christina Miller, GM of NBA Digital and SVP of strategy, marketing and programming for Turner Sports. “It’s about engagement, giving the fan control, power and accessibility. That's what it means to be a fan.”

As sports marketing agency Catalyst found in its 2012 Fan Engagement Study, digital channels—league websites, fan sites, online sports news sources, sports-related Twitter feeds and other Internet and social media outlets—are now second only to TV as a primary and trusted source of information for sports fans. Those under age 35 and ethnically diverse fans, in particular, are now interacting with leagues, teams and athletes through social media rather than simply receiving information from newspapers, magazines or the radio.

With fans going directly to the leagues, teams and athletes, sports franchises and brands have had to become major content providers. For instance, the NBA recently passed the 1 billion view threshold for its YouTube channel, as fans go to the site—not the evening’s sports report—to get game highlights. During last year’s post-season, MLB.com set a one-day record with some 280 million page views across its online and mobile platforms when fans tuned in to follow the baseball playoffs.


Creating sports advocates

At the same time, leagues, teams and brands also are capitalizing on the social presence of so-called superfans, the hardcore followers who are essentially the “brand advocates” of the teams and sports they follow. These are avid sports followers who frequently use social media to broadcast news and insights, and whose passion for sharing equals the enthusiasm they have for their teams. “For marketers, the superfan is the hot area right now,” says Bret Werner, managing partner at Catalyst.

When the NBA’s Detroit Pistons share behind-the-scenes content with their fans, the team doesn’t immediately post to its own Facebook page, but gives the exclusive content to its superfans to post. It does this through a gamified app called SocialToaster that lets registered fans earn points for each item they repost to their social media feeds; those with the most points receive game tickets, team merchandise and other incentives.

The Pistons launched the Fast Break superfan program in September as a loyalty program for its social platforms, says Mike Donnay, senior director, brand networks at Palace Sports & Entertainment and the Pistons. The goal is to extend the reach of the Pistons in the community. Donnay estimates that for every 5,000 ambassadors in the program, the team is able to reach 1 million people via social channels. The key, he says, is to make sure the content that’s shared resonates with the fans. It might be casual Instagram photos taken by the players, a trick shot video by emerging rookie Kyle Singler, news of team members at a local event or something else that wouldn’t show up in the media.

“You have to listen, analyze and adjust the content you are providing your fans,” says Donnay. “In our case, what we’ve learned by analyzing our social metrics is that fans want exclusive behind-the-scenes content that you can’t get from other media outlets like ESPN.”

For AK Stout, who participates in the Baltimore Ravens’ RavensReps superfan program, the benefit is getting something exclusive. A season ticket holder for the past decade, she actively shares items she receives from the team not so much for the prizes (although she has won) but so that she can be appear to be “in the know” among fellow fans in her social network. Because the team shares information with the superfans before it posts it to its site, Stout and other superfans can be the first to share it. “It helps me feel more connected,” she says, noting that “if the team didn’t push me the information, I probably wouldn’t be going to the site to find it myself.”

That points to a key issue for teams like the Pistons. While, like many professional teams, it operates a slew of social media feeds, traffic to the team’s website remains crucial to its sponsorship programs. Social media feeds—those of the team and those in its fan program—are really seen as a way to build traffic to the website, since that's where commerce takes place, whether ticket sales or sponsor programs, says Donnay. “The dot-com is still the holy grail of where you want to have the eyeballs looking,” he says.

Brands as well are finding ways to engage their superfans in their sports programs. Timex, for example, in early 2013 will be launching a brand advocacy platform that rewards members for sharing content related to fitness and endurance sports that the watch company sponsors. According to Pia Baker, Timex’s brand director, sports & outdoors, it’s not enough for the company to simply acquire Facebook fans. “We want to engage our superfans and provide a platform for content related to the endurance sports lifestyle,” she says.


Keeping fans entertained

As sports sponsors become content providers, they need to come up with ways to entertain sport fans hungry for anything having to do with their favorite teams and athletes. While television and event sponsorships remain a part of the sports sponsorship mix, digital has taken center stage because fans are increasingly turning to the Internet for the kind of immersive content that gets them closer to the teams and athletes they follow.

For example, last May when Pepsi Max wanted to celebrate its newest spokesperson—2012 NBA rookie of the year Kyrie Irving—it didn’t create a traditional 30-second spot. Instead, it shot a five-minute YouTube “documentary” where the 20-year-old Irving, disguised as a sweatshirt-wearing, pot-bellied old-timer named “Uncle Drew,” schools some pick-up players with a flurry of crossover dribbles, three pointers and dunks. The Candid Camera-like video quickly amassed millions of views online and was the second most popular commercial on YouTube in 2012, with some 18 million views.

The unexpected viral success of “Uncle Drew” encouraged Pepsi to recut the long-form piece into a 30-second spot that aired during the NBA Finals. Still, the TV version was little more than a teaser—asking “Who Is Uncle Drew?”—to send viewers to the full YouTube video. According to Marc Gilbar, VP of content development at Davie Brown Entertainment/The Marketing Arm, which created the video for Pepsi, engagement for the long-form video was strong, as fans were willing  to watch the entire spot online. “We found that the completion rate was something like 85 percent,” says Gilbar. “People tuned in and stayed tuned.”

Pepsi Max is hardly the only brand to engage with fans by using digital video as a form of branded sports entertainment. Computer maker Lenovo recently posted a series of videos on Funny or Die featuring Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte to promote its Fantasy Football contest, part of its NFL sponsorship. And Under Armour, also working with Funny or Die, set up a 5-minute comedy featuring NFL star Tom Brady—called “Tom Brady’s Wicked Accent”—where a store clerk doesn’t recognize the New England Patriots quarterback but mocks him for his non-existent “Bah-ston” accent.

This was Under Armour’s first attempt to use humor and video as branded sports entertainment, says Dan Mecchi, director of digital media at the sports apparel maker. Given the number of people who follow the brand, this kind of video feeds their need for sports-related content that can also help bring the brand to life. “It instigates a conversation around the brand and fuels it around social channels,” says Mecchi. “For fans, it’s stoking a passion that’s already there.”

Just as important for Under Armour is the passion of its fans, says Mecchi. For its recent sponsorship of soccer team Tottenham Hotspur of the U.K. Premier League, the apparel company ran a social media contest challenging the team’s most loyal followers—members of official Supporters Clubs and other groups of die-hard fans—to demonstrate their devotion by re-enacting key moments in the team's history and posting them to social media. According to Mecchi, the global nature of social has resulted in entries from Spurs supporters representing more than 50 different countries.

Competitions and gamified programs work because they complement fans’ natural inclination to compete. “Predictive gaming, micro-fantasy, fantasy, etc. allow us to build our own personal brand in the context of the brands and competitions that we love,” notes David Nugent, a partner at Omnigon Communications.

This past summer, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt partnered with RockLive to launch his own mobile game, Bolt!, a freemium sidescroller in which players try to outrun a band of Caribbean pirates. The video game character gets extra life when he drinks Gatorade, one of the runner's high-profile sponsors. With his gold medal victories at the London Olympics, the game shot to the top of the App Store charts with more than a million users, according to the developer.

Games and competitions also represent another sponsorship opportunity for brands aligned with the various sports leagues. State Farm Insurance sponsors NBA Challenge, a predictive online game that links nba.com and the NBA’s TV broadcasts. Fans get to answer a question related to player or team performance during the game—for instance, how many points will Kobe Bryant have in the first quarter—and earn points for getting it right. Also, each Tuesday, online and mobile fans, in a promotion sponsored by Sprint, get to vote on which game will be shown on NBA-TV.

The NBA sees this kind of digital activation as a necessary way to keep fans involved in all aspects of the league. “It’s creating an immersive fan experience that guides us,” says the NBA’s Miller. “The days of sitting in front of the TV with a bowl of popcorn are gone. It’s a lean-forward experience. How can you be a part of it?”

Major League Baseball also sees games as a way to keep fans active while watching games, and even during the off-season. Dinn Mann, EVP at MLB Advanced Media, notes that these kinds of games have long been part of the baseball-watching experience, pointing to tried-and-true fan-pleasers like the sausage races in Milwaukee or the between-inning trivia broadcast in many ballparks. “Basically, we try to operate the site like it’s a stadium that’s open 24/7,” he says. “We extend that experience into people’s living rooms.”

Two new MLB apps target mobile and social users. MLB PrePlay—an app launched last fall sponsored by Choice Hotels—lets users score points for making the right pre-game predictions before a game. Ballpark Empire is MLB’s entry into social gaming, a Facebook game like Farmville where players run their own franchise, from signing and paying star players to making sure the concession stands sell tasty hot dogs.
“We believe in games,” says Mann. “It’s a way for brands to engage with people who buy tickets and people who watch games on screens of all sizes.”