User, Player Data Become Driving Force for Sports Content Creators

As fans flock to new digital platforms to consume sports content, leagues and broadcasters are finding new ways to track their habits, judge their preferences, and appeal to their widely diverse sensibilities. Whether it’s marketing a product to a specific demographic or providing deep analytics and player-tracking metrics to fans, the key to it all remains not only gathering the data but interpreting it in a fashion that is valuable to content advertisers and content owners.


From left: Moderator Bill Squadron (Bloomberg Sports), NBC Sports Group’s Rick Cordella, Fox Sports’ Pete Vlastelica, NeuLion’s Chris Wagner, and NBA Entertainment’s Steve Hellmuth

“I think there is going to be a time where we will know exactly where you are streaming, so if you live in a white collar neighborhood we will serve you a Lexus ad and if you are in a blue collar neighborhood you will be a Toyota Camry ad,” said Rick Cordella, SVP and GM, Digital Media, NBC Sports Group, during a session at this week’s Cynopsis Sports Business Summit in New York. “And think it’s going to get there pretty quickly. It’s just a matter of finding the precision to identify where those messages to go rather than just basing it off a single [product] buy.”

The fandom that sports is based on makes it easier for leagues and networks to identify what fans want and deliver team-specific content to them. However, this basic data can only take content owners so far.

“What is really going to be interesting over the next few years is determining what the other variables are that make a sports fan a sports fan; it’s not enough for me to know you are a Lakers fan, I also want to know if you played basketball in high school or if your dad a Lakers fan or if you ever live in Los Angeles,” said Fox Sports EVP, Digital Pete Vlastelica. “All of those variables will change the kind of content that you might be interested in getting. I’m starting to think… that we should try to map the sports fan genome because I just think there is so much more to what makes a fan a fan than just who you root for.”

Facebook, Twitter Integral to Content Promotion
As fans begin to make social networking and multiscreen experiences a part of their every-minute lives, sports content creators must find new ways to capture as much consumer data as possible to cater to these new habits. According to a recent Sporting News Media survey, more than half of all viewers use Internet-connected devices while watching games and events on television, creating new opportunities to serve fans with content, but also new challenges.

Vlastelica noted, for example, that Facebook is not only becoming a viable video platform in its own right, but it is also becoming an even more important promoter of content than the Fox Sports homepage itself. “We still have some loyal followers that type in,” he said, “but I think the number in general, especially younger people, that type in ‘www.anything’ is a lot smaller today than it was a couple years ago.”

Like Facebook, Twitter has also transformed itself into a newswire and video hub for fans looking for the latest sports content and information at the tip of their fingers.  Thanks to Twitter Amplify video advertising platform and growing awareness of how to utilize the platform to promote content, Twitter is quickly becoming an invaluable branding and sponsorship tool for sports leagues and broadcasters. The NBA, for example, experimented with posting short sponsored videos on both platforms over the past year and, after a successful 2012-13 season, will look to expand this practice next season.

“If its really good video content, then fans look at it as a reward,” said Steve Hellmuth, EVP, Operations and Technology, NBA Entertainment. “They don’t mind if it’s sponsored because it’s something they really want to see. I think we are going to continue to amplify that next year – reaching the fans where they already are, which is on the social networks.”

The Mass Convergence of Digital, Broadcast
While the ad-based model can benefit greatly from user-consumption data online, content providers with a  subscription-based model stand to gain even more valuable insight into their users.

“You have a growing [business to consumer] subscription business and you know a lot about that person that you typically would not know otherwise,” said NeuLion EVP and Co-Founder Chris Wagner. “If you are paying for something then you are typically going to provide more profile information than something you would get for free. There is a lot of data there for cross-selling and reward programs. Netflix, Pandora, the leagues all have their own B to C subscription businesses. There is a great opportunity for rights holders to have a B to C transaction.”

Hellmuth said that the NBA goes as far as to monitor NBA League Pass subscribers’ streaming habits and reach out to those whose usage has decreased in hopes of retaining them as a subscriber in the future. “Once we have acquired them, it’s time to spend money to keep them,” he explained.

Biometric and Tracking Data on the Cusp of Breakout
While data and analytics play an integral role in the streaming and digital side of content distribution, there is a whole new set of data being collected on the playing field. All four major U.S. leagues have begun to institute player-tracking technologies at varying levels – the MLB launched a three-ballpark test this year, the NBA established its STATS SportVU system across all its arenas last season, and the NFL and NHL plan to launch their own systems later this year.

“The advanced analytics have actually improved our sport,” said Hellmuth. “We got a full year of statistics that proved that a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer is 7% better than one where you catch an dribble. The coaches always knew this, but the stats reinforced it. so we have a game where the ball is being whipped around quickly and [everyone] else is crashing the boards. The mid-range jump shot got pushed down again.”

In the NBA’s case, its website – powered by SAP’s Hana database – allows fans to gather their own statistics, share them via social media and other platforms, and in doing so promote the NBA and better understand the game.

“A full year of tracking has shown us just how important it is,” said Hellmuth. “That has been a real attraction for the fans.”

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