Sports Execs Stress Innovative, Collaborative Approach to the Fan Experience

As video boards get bigger and brighter, WiFi networks expand to accommodate every fan in the stands, and new viewing technologies take center stage at CES and the NAB Show, it’s easy to forget that sports transcend the myriad ways in which we view them. As teams continually look for new ways to draw fans to the venue, media operators consistently improve the TV product, tempting many to remain home. The key is to enhance the fan experience, both in the home and in the stadium, rather than detract or overpower it.

Sometimes, the most innovative thing to do is simplify.

“This is a social experience that we’re facilitating,” said Jamey Rootes, president, Houston Texans, at last week’s SportsBusiness Journal Facilities & Franchises conference in Brooklyn. “Think about the sports experience. It’s not too dissimilar from what it was 40-50 years ago: people coming together to support their team … [We need to] create an environment where people can express their passion, can share a great time with family and friends.”

That’s not to say that technological advances are to be ignored. Fans who enter a venue expect their mobile devices to work, an issue that facility operators have addressed through WiFi networks and distributed antenna systems.

“Obviously, you need to connect fans,” said Steve Hellmuth, EVP, operations and technology, NBA Entertainment. “They have to feel comfortable in the venue because they’ve got babysitters, they’ve got businesses to run … They need to be able to push out to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. You have to absolutely allow that because it’s the best possible promotion you can get for your sporting event.”

Because mobile devices are so pervasive and addictive, facility operators increasingly look for ways to leverage smartphones and tablets during the game to keep fans engaged even when their eyes are not on the field or court.

“The great thing about the devices is, [they allow] a more customizable experience,” said Rootes. “We have to program [the main video board] for what the masses want; if you try to program [the board] that everyone is engaging with for what 10% of the population want to be engaging with, then you’re creating a problem. These devices allow you to do whatever you want to when you’re in your seat.”

For many fans, however, the center-hung video board is the primary way they engage with video throughout the game, especially because not every in-stadium network can handle pushing unique content to mobile devices.

“The devices are there now, but the networks aren’t sophisticated enough to handle scalable delivery of rich video experiences. That still needs to be in complement to what you do with the biggest screen in your stadium,” noted Hans Schroeder, VP, media strategy and development, NFL. “Everybody talks about what the Cowboys do in their stadium because they have their huge , but the more interesting thing to me is, they replay every play. If you’re in the stadium, if you missed anything out on the field, you can see that experience from anywhere in the stadium. … That’s one of the areas where sitting at home is a benefit because you can rewind and replay on television.”

Because fans at home can easily rewind to view replays on their own time, facility operators are looking for unique content to populate their video boards. The NFL is mandating that venues install cameras in team locker rooms and encouraging teams to play back video to give fans in the stadium an exclusive behind-the-scenes look.

“I think, when you look at 24/7 on HBO, you look at Hard Knocks on HBO, [fans] get accustomed to that. They like that, and they want that,” said Steve Griggs, COO, Tampa Bay Sports and Entertainment. “Now they want it every game, so how do you create that for every game? … We’ve got hockey fans: they love their content, and they’re tech-driven, so how do [we] get that information to them?

“That’s when they’re immersed in your brand,” he continued, “and then, when they’re coming to the game, they’re even more immersed because they know about certain players because they watched not only the shows but also the content we’re providing to these devices. Then, they’re sending it out via social media, and, all of a sudden, your brand is getting bigger and bigger.”

Delivering this exclusive, behind-the-scenes content to fans — both in the stadium and on television — requires a foundation of trust. Trust may take a while to develop, but, once it’s there, it allows venues and networks alike to give their fans an all-access pass to their favorite teams and athletes.

“That’s the content that our viewers most want, and it’s definitely been an evolution for us,” said Steve Raab, president, SportsNet New York. “At the base is trust. It’s trust with the team, whether it’s the Mets or the Jets or UConn. It took us a while to be able to routinely do something with the starting pitcher when he comes out of the game and the game is still going on.

“Thank goodness the Mets didn’t have a no-hitter until last year,” he laughed, “because it took us seven years to be able to be in that locker room when Johan [Santana] came busting in to greet his teammates.”

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