Innovative Sports and Entertainment Apps Are a Challenge for Event Marketers

The live experience has to be just as engaging

We are in the midst of a transformational shift in how fans consume and attend live events. Innovations that provide better interactive experiences outside of venues are clearly outpacing those that enhance the in-venue watching.

Illustration: Shaw Nielsen

If you need evidence, simply look at the apps being promoted by the major sports leagues. Watch live from your mobile device, get real-time stats for your fantasy fix, watch breaking video highlights from around the league. Good stuff for sure—but I’d argue these new platforms, innovating for the “couch” experience, might not benefit the long-term health of the live-event business.

One obvious consequence, which we’re already seeing, is decreased attendance. It’s become commonplace to see entire sections of great stadiums empty. And without an evolving and engaging in-venue experience, the trend will only continue to keep butts out of seats. A response I continue to hear across multiple sports and event-based industries is, “Yes, our attendance is down, but our ticket revenue is up.” In some circles, this even gets high fives in the belief that this indicates that people value the content and therefore are willing to pay more for it. This dangerous trend line is simply unsustainable.

The thinking is that the real money is in the television rights, isn’t it? Wrong. I think it’s safe to say lasting lucrative television rights are highly contingent on historic performances, great stories and see-it-to-believe-it moments in the making. These legendary happenings rarely ever occur in half-empty stadiums.

There is no stronger power within the live experience than the energy of the audience. Just look at the intensity of the Seattle Seahawks stadium this past season and the 12th man (the fan in the stands going ballistic is celebrated as part of the team and drives the electricity in the seats toward controlled mayhem). And it transcends sports. Ask actors about a specific performance and they will almost always answer in context of the audience. It’s human nature to play up or down to the occasion or environment you’re in. Poor attendance equals a poor experience inside and outside of the performance itself. Whether it’s King (LeBron) James or King Lear, the events industry needs to clearly recognize that every empty seat is a missed opportunity—not simply missed ticket revenue.

My mentors in the events space have always told me to nurture the input—not simply the output. The fans are the foundation from which our brands rise, and the stadiums and venues are where they are worshiped and glorified.

For example, the new Levi’s Stadium in the Bay Area has gotten quite a bit of mixed press—some praising it for the incredible innovations it’s bringing to the in-venue experience, others slamming it for ignoring basic logistical challenges like traffic patterns that will affect fans coming to and leaving the stadium.

I know nothing new is perfect and there will certainly be hiccups during its first season. But I have to applaud the San Francisco 49ers for its investment in the venue itself. Almost 10 percent of the budget was dedicated to integrating technology into the site. This new digital infrastructure will allow fans to seamlessly use their phones while they’re in the stadium. If you’ve ever tried to use your phone in a packed arena, just getting a text to go through is an exciting occurrence. And they’ve also installed close to 17,000 Bluetooth beacons, which will facilitate locating the closest bathroom or concession stand. The 49ers are not alone. Look no further than the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the entire growth model of Major League Soccer and their focus specifically on the stadium experience and proactive fan club structure initiatives.

I’m sure there is one thing on which we can all agree: Packed venues of passionate, digitally connected and engaged fans make for inspired performances and great entertainment for those inside and outside the venue. That buzz and excitement is probably why most of us got into this crazy business in the first place.

Seeing is still believing.

Damian Bazadona is the founder of Situation Interactive (@situation), a digital marketing agency.