Sponsorship, Agencies, Licensing, Multiple sports, North America, Europe, Global

‘Online communities offer a key value exchange for fans’: The Infront X take on the sports industry

Ahead of her appearance at the SportsPro Insider Series virtual event on matchday experience, Becki Civello, Infront X head of commercial, answers a few questions about the state of the sports industry and what's to come for the digital consultancy.

by SportsPro
‘Online communities offer a key value exchange for fans’: The Infront X take on the sports industry

What media, entertainment and sports industry trends will make the biggest impact in 2022/23?

The global pandemic accelerated many of the changes to consumer media consumption habits that were already underway. In 2020, the world of sports became more remote, more virtual, more streamed, more personal and more centred on the home than anyone anticipated, resulting in three key emerging trends.

Firstly, a change in consumer habits forces adaptation. With more time available at home, consumers significantly increased their entertainment consumption and increased their subscriptions to direct-to-consumer (DTC) services. However, many found themselves with an unbundled collection of entertainment options that is difficult to manage, a direct consequence of media fragmentation.  

This has been particularly true for the sports industry, as their audience’s viewing habits have changed, there is no traditional cable bundle to centralise content onto a single platform, and most have spent the past year indoors and away from live matches.  As a result, sports rights holders now need to ensure they are engaging with their spectrum of fans wherever they are, in-stadium and on-the-go, with experiences that address their evolving habits head-on.

Now sports rights holders are no longer competing for attention against other local and national teams, they are in an attention war against the likes of Disney, Netflix, Twitch, Roblox, and thus compete against a very fragmented landscape.

Secondly, gaming, fantasy, and gambling will deepen fan engagement. There is an accelerated growth in fantasy and betting in engagement in sports. Infront X knows from the experience of working with some of the biggest leagues and teams that fans who participate in fantasy, predicting outcomes, or legal sports gambling are around eight times more engaged than non-betting fans.

Sports gambling creates a sticky relationship between fans and events. As more US states legalise betting activities, leagues, teams and sports brands can seed gambling with fantasy and predictive gaming. We believe the organisations that will benefit the most from sports gambling will be those that go beyond standard sponsorship deals to integrate gamification product features that ultimately drive deeper engagement on the rights holder’s owned and operators properties, as well as drive traffic to the betting platform operators.

The third trend is that 'original' content has become key to building an online community. 

Original content, storytelling, user-generated content and athlete-created content will grow in importance to become a valuable part of a rights holder's digital content strategy. Examples include personalised highlights, microseries, long-form documentaries, expert podcasts, fan communities and athlete workout sessions, among others.

Online communities offer a key value exchange for sports fans. For fans, the feeling of belonging to a wider community and a sense of identification between the team and other fans is often developed. Teams have an opportunity to improve fan sentiment by providing fans with a sense of place and belonging, thus helping them further develop their identity inside the team brand.

With the rise of OTT and streaming, how has the gameday experience changed at home and in venue? 

At home it is all about immersive digital viewing experiences. The live event is where rights holders can win over new fans - and new revenue streams. Many sports fans are no longer interested in the game alone. Emerging technologies such as virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence  (AI) and augmented reality (AR) are the catalyst for the future of the sports new fan experiences and how the sports fan engages in real time. These innovations, many of which can be sponsored, have the potential to grow stadium attendance and or to enhance the at-home fan experience.

A frictionless stadia experience is becoming the norm for those returning to venues. As stadiums seek to lure fans from the comfort and safety of their homes and back into stadiums, technologies are streamlining and enhancing the experience. This includes biometrics, like digital fingerprints that make it easier to get into the stadium and purchase concessions, and wayfinding, which can help fans better navigate the venues, parking lots and transportation options. Successful rights holders will create immersive viewing experiences like Verizon 5G Multicast, which enable fans to watch unique camera angles from anywhere in the stadium through live video and data streaming on their smartphones.

Going forward rights holders also need to focus on the full matchday experience. For example, adding value pre-match by encouraging planning ahead with parking, wayfinding and pre-purchased food reservations in the stadium. As rights holders attempt to make a lasting impression during matchday, they will also need to add a halo effect post-match. This is done by giving fans the ability to add merchandise and memorabilia, as well as giving them reasons to stay in the stadium or entertainment district for hours after the match is over. Mobile ticketing will also need to become a passport for all types of digital experiences.

What can teams and leagues do right now to make an impact on the fan experience for rights holders?

Firstly, use their understanding of how their fans' habits have evolved pre and post-pandemic to create new consumer segments, and ensure those new segments can be catered to through personalisation features that support their content intake and preferences. 

Secondly, build digital products that have tandem applicability both in-stadium and at-home to serve needs and contexts of use across the fan spectrum. Providing a single touchpoint that consumers can revisit, regardless of context of use, elevates the value to that platform.  

They also need to embrace short form content. As a monetisable asset, short form content is a value driver. In order to unlock that value, rights holders can leverage solutions that use AI or machine learning based automation so content generation can be efficient and scalable. 

Next, with the rapid pace of innovation and the ever-evolving consumer behaviours and habits, the KPIs that are prioritised can shift frequently, necessitating organisations to institute reliable processes for agile optimization.

Rights holders also need to build products that are informative for where consumers can find you. As media and experiences become more fragmented it is increasingly difficult to keep up with when and where to watch the next match. 

Leveraging investments into collected data and ensuring the creation of hooks for each of the fan segments will also be key. Not all fans want the same thing, so organisations have to be strategic with where they focus.

Lastly, be original. Find the right distribution channels for your content. Ensure that you have a way to convert audiences from borrowed experiences (like social) to your own properties. Not only do you need a direct one-to-one relationship with fans and a compelling personalised message, you also need engaging digital experiences to continue driving the engagement that increases positive fan sentiment.

How should rights holders build their fan experiences?

Whether it’s linear media, digital media, sponsorships, digital marketing, or consumer revenue - fan engagement is the fuel that powers the rights holder’s revenue streams. More fan engagement translates to greater revenue across the board.

Although a fan's attention has always been difficult to capture, it is getting more difficult. New entertainment options are springing up every day. It seems everyone has a streaming service now and all are spending serious money to grab fans’ attention. As a result, fans will decrease their engagement with certain options and abandon others entirely - leaving rights holders, and their revenue streams, at risk.

The biggest mistake rights holders make is being reactive and not treating the fan experience as a product and managing it like one. Many rights holders conflate product management with business analysis and technical product management. It’s the same issue as interchanging user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) in a synonymous fashion.

A true product manager should be assigned to develop the fan experience and the product manager should:

  • Act as a product owner and the product should be viewed as a true business with its own success metrics that tie back to revenue. 
  • Be on the hook the same way a CEO is accountable for the organisations they preside over.
  • Be accountable for the teams that work under them. It’s not just about writing business requirements and aligning stakeholders on the path forward.
  • Select metrics that matter, set an unambiguous North Star, and manage their team to that result.
  • Establish a continuous innovation mindset and approach by breaking up the fan experience into independent variables and conducting micro-experiments to determine what works and what should be cut.

What exciting projects will we see from Infront X in the upcoming months?

Our team is actively working on a handful of really exciting projects right now for both new and existing clients including Nascar, PGA Tour, Chelsea, the Breeders Cup and Activision Blizzard. We’ll be sure to share more details with you as the launches get closer.

What sets Infront X apart?

Infront X is a digital solutions leader in sports, media and entertainment. We focus specifically on the design, development, delivery and operational support of content-driven digital experiences for companies in the sports, media and entertainment industries.

We provide four distinct unique value propositions to our clients. No other solution provider combines these effectively.

  • Trust - we deliver against fixed constraints like dates that don’t move.
  • Focus - we have more than 14 years of delivering digital products exclusively in the sports, media, and entertainment and have an in-depth understanding of the industry’s challenges.
  • Agility - we are an agile full-service digital solution provider that understands and masters complexity at every phase.
  • Commitment - we develop long-term partnerships to design, build, and support outstanding consumer experiences that people love.