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The digital transformation of professional sports

Mosaad Aldossary (Msdossary) of Saudi Arabia in action in the FIFA eWorld Cup Final

(Photo by Eamonn McCormack – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Cord-cutting is on the rise, as 1 in every 3 households don’t subscribe to traditional pay-TV subscriptions. While that might cause panic for television networks, shows, and brands, not all hope is lost.

In fact, the increase in cord-cutting opens up new avenues for connecting with viewers. And sports franchises are doing an exemplary job of leading the digital transformation charge. Here’s how they’re engaging with fans in the digital age. 

Using customer data for good

It’s no secret that sports teams are a business, and part of the business is connecting with customers. Fans experience games in a different way than they used to; teams that personalize their approach will come out on top.

That’s why data and analytics are huge for sports organizations. You’re likely familiar with in-game analytics. NBA teams track things like how many times a player dribbles before shooting or who’s best at finishing at the rim. MLB teams measure how frequently a player hits to the right side of the field and shift accordingly. NFL squads calculate the distance a player creates between himself and his defender.

However, organizations also use analytics for people who never touch the field. A sports team can track all kinds of customer demographics. Age, gender, and geographic data are common, while deeper intel can determine how often a fan purchases tickets or if they interacted with particular online ads. 

Teams must consider the traits of their specific market, too. A team in Phoenix will have different seasonal marketing efforts than one in Minneapolis.

“The increased focus on data and analytics has allowed sports and entertainment organizations to develop a deeper understanding of their fans, and as a result, they are able to get the right message to the right fan, at the right time,” says Vincent Ircandia, founder and CEO of StellarAlgo, whose platform uses machine learning and predictive technology to help teams use data to map customer journeys and segment audiences. “By better understanding fan behavior, teams are able to focus more on what their fans actually want so their overall experience improves.”

The Vancouver Canucks, a StellarAlgo client, uses the company’s Customer Data Platform to pull data from nine different systems, creating a master customer record that lets them easily engage with specific fan segments. All of these data points contribute to building a personal experience for each fan.

Fans check out the interactive displays inside Little Caesars Arena before an NHL game

(Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

Reaching fans in new ways

Teams are also realizing that sitting down for an entire game is an investment. The average baseball game is three hours and nine minutes — the longest it’s ever been. Last year’s Monday Night Football matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos was “quick” by NFL standards — three hours, five minutes — and featured 172 minutes where nothing actually happened on the field. Even if fans do want to watch a full game, they may be among the growing number of cord-cutters. How can teams keep up?

Offering highlights and news through social media and email is a good start, but sports are starting to embrace alternative viewing methods. Twitch is the exclusive viewing destination for Team USA exhibition games. The NFL airs Thursday Night Football games simultaneously on NFL Network and Amazon Prime Video. MLB.TV allows fans to catch out-of-market games on their smartphones, with pitch-by-pitch stats and updates.

These streaming services tie into the constant contact fans expect with their teams. While many organizations have their own apps to keep fans engaged, more teams are turning to chatbots to interact with fans and learn more about them. 

Companies like GameOn provide chatbot technology for teams, who can customize their message to stay true to their brand while acquiring valuable data about their customers. For instance, a team might have millions of fans on a social media platform that they’re unaware of, like Kik, Telegram, or WhatsApp.

The ATP Media Tennis TV bot keeps fans updated on events and highlights, but also offers fun features like GIFs and bloopers.

“When fans want to engage, they want answers in real time — and chatbots are a meaningful, affordable way for organizations to stay connected to fans in this global, always-on economy,” says GameOn founder and CEO Alex Beckman, who stresses the necessity of keeping people’s data safe. “In an era when data privacy and brand voice have become so important, being fun doesn’t have to be at the expense of being safe.”

A smoother ticketing experience

Reaching more fans extends to the ticketing process. Few experiences surpass that of going to a stadium or arena to catch a live contest. Stephen Glicken co-founded Project Admission because he felt there was an opportunity to partner with ticketing companies and bring more connectivity to the market. Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino estimated 40% of event tickets go unsold every year. That’s a problem for sports franchises.

“We’ve identified three key areas where we think ticketing could be doing a better job: discovery, end-user identity, and transferability, whether paid or unpaid,” says Glicken. 

Project Admission protects fans from ticket fraud while providing teams and venues with a better audience and attendance data. The end result is a customized marketplace for fans to easily buy and sell tickets directly through mobile or social media.

A fan uses her smart phone to try to buy tickets online

(Photo by Jessica Rinaldi for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

This is especially important for hometown fans. If they’re cord-cutters, they may only be able to experience games in person. 

“There’s a significant area where cord-cutting hasn’t made much inroads: local blackouts. Access to local sports teams is still harder than one might imagine,” says Sam Cook, writer and editor of the cord-cutting website “For example, if you sign up to MLB.TV, you can get every out-of-market game through its All Teams package for a fairly low price, but there’s the catch — you can only get out-of-market games.”

By giving the ticketing experience a digital transformation, it’s opened up new avenues to reach fans. But that’s not the only route sports teams are taking. 

Tapping into esports to gain fans

Sports traditionally considered video games to be competition — entertainment taking away from their broadcasts. That mindset is changing. Now, we’re seeing all kinds of athletes and teams partnering with esports teams.

Money is a driving factor. The esports industry is projected to grow to $1 billion this year. Players like Kevin Garnett and teams like the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, and the Cleveland Cavaliers have all invested in esports, viewing it as a lucrative opportunity.

While games like Madden and NBA 2K dominate the virtual sports world, there are options for any fan, thanks to mobile marketplaces like Skillz, which pairs nearly 30 million gamers with more than 17,500 game developers so users can find their perfect fit. You may never sink a game-winning free throw, but you can compete against people across the world and even win monetary prizes.

As with professional sports, rules must be enforced. Esports are less developed than traditional sports, but there’s still an emphasis on fair play.

“You wouldn’t want LeBron James to match 1:1 with players who are just learning to play basketball,” says Andrew Paradise, CEO and founder of Skillz. “We ensure fairness by matching every player based on their level of skill, so beginners only play beginners and experts only play experts.”

As professional sports continue their digital transformation, expect to see rampant growth in all these areas. With how much the fan experience has improved, it’s never been better to root, root, root for the home team.