Will Technology Be the Best Way to Improve the Fan Experience?

Last night, I began typing this article and after an hour or so scrapped the entire project.  Originally, I was going to argue that sports and technology truly came together in the closing decades of the 20th century, but that would have been false.  The 1932 Olympic Games held at Lake Placid were broadcast over radio and – arguably – marks the first great kiss between sports and technology.  The romance has continued for nearly 80 years and produced many industry-changing innovations (read my article on Roone Arledge and Mark McCormack to familiarize yourself with just a few).  So, I focused instead on the details of that remarkable love story and pondered the issue of how technology will shape the fan experience in the 21st century.

I read an excellent article in Volume 12, Issue 49 of The Sports Business Journal authored by Eric Fisher titled “Looking to the Future” that helped me arrive at my conclusions.  In it, Fisher includes a transcript of the Virtual Technology Leaders Summit that he and Richard Weiss, Abraham Madkour, and Don Muret from the journal presided over.  They spoke with Michael Gliedman, CIO and Senior Vice President of the NBA; Tery Howard, CTO and Senior Vice President of the Miami Dolphins and Sun Life Stadium; Jonathan Pannaman, Senior Director of Engineering and Technology for ESPN; Bill Schlough, Senior Vice President and CIO of the San Francisco Giants; and Lorraine Spadaro, Vice President of Technology and eBusiness at Delaware North.  Along with the executives, the journal staff also invited from Cisco Systems Stuart Hamilton, Senior Director of the Sports and Entertainment Solutions Group; David Holland, Senior Vice President of the Sports and Entertainment Solutions Group; and David Hsieh, Vice President of Marketing, Emerging Technologies.  Now that’s a mouthful!

If we watch TV or listen to the radio for just a few minutes and wager that not one commercial by a communications firm would appear, then we would be out a few dollars.  Taking our loss with us as we go back home and lament the fact that we made such a terrible bet, we should not even consider betting that we will not walk past someone either talking on their cellular phones, watching movies on a handheld device, or checking their “Facebook” accounts.  That would be a terrible move.  Only 10 years ago, however, either one could have been a moderately safe bet.  Today, leagues and teams are betting on the growth of technology – such as social media – and investing heavily in developing their wireless infrastructure at their venues.  But is technology the best bet?

As you have probably noticed by now, technology changes and “evolves” quickly.  The feature a sports entity may have spent top-dollar on that gave them an advantage one year easily becomes commonplace in the industry the next time around as quickly as star pitcher of the San Francisco Giants Tim Lincecum smokes a sizzling fastball past a blinking batter and into Bengie Molina’s distressed catcher’s mitt.  It’s a gamble.  Bill Schlough of the San Francisco Giants argues that to compete in technology with other teams will give you that momentary advantage should you offer a new feature at games that fans cannot experience elsewhere, but as the tide of technological advancement rises it will bring all others in search of the next big thing in fan experience enhancement.  Indeed, when the Giants built their new stadium 10 years ago or so, they installed modem connections in all of their suites.  However, they did not place terminals in the stands.  When you have tens of thousands of fans communicating wirelessly at games sending digital photos to their friends who could not weasel their way out of work that day or posting them on Facebook as the game wears on, bandwidth becomes an issue for stadiums with integrated 3G networks and costly reinvestment in modernized infrastructure is the only solution in an industry that progressively depends more on technology as time goes by.

But the ROI is there: those photos of the game laden with images of a myriad of sponsors who purchase signage or related items and even the team’s logo helps promote those brands and add value to the investment.  That is an example of an intangible benefit when it comes to sponsorship valuation when you are negotiating from the brand side.  That added exposure is something you want… and the property knows it.  Depending on the league, though, either the team or the league would benefit most since some leagues – like the NBA – centralize their digital content.  It’s all about who owns the rights to the digital content and how it is leveraged.

Now, that is just the content that fans share.  When you consider that the stadium’s bandwidth is also being shared with photographers who could stream content directly from their cameras and send large files almost simultaneously, that could, as Lorraine Spadaro puts it, “take your wireless to its knees.”  All of the iPhones and future iPhones of the world only complicate the challenge.  But the benefits are there.  Spadaro makes a critical observation that helps answer the question on whether or not all of this is worth the trouble.  She points out that younger generations are less likely to be content with a simple outfield display and an organ since they are growing up in a world with digital cartoons and television programs that allow the viewer to have a direct effect on the outcome of televised events, such as “American Idol” and even “Dancing With the Stars.”  They (the younger generation) view programs and experience events differently, and though older generations do not as often see the value of a giant screen suspended from the roof that could project 3D images with the help of passive lenses, the former almost expect it.  In sports like baseball, a significant amount of time lapses between actions on the field and digital content provided by the property helps keep the fan engaged.  As budgets tighten and competition from other sports and entertainment outlets increases, properties must find ways to enhance the fan experience and forums like the “Virtual Technology Leaders Summit” are held daily around the world as the industry undergoes an inevitable paradigm shift that embraces the ever-increasing presence of technology in our lives.

Television networks like ESPN also help fans connect with properties in ways we could not imagine just 20 years ago.  It was beyond my imagination to even consider that I would end up watching the NFL Draft or follow a baseball game over the internet, but ESPN has made that and more a reality as a result of technology and continues to push forth.  In fact, ESPN has a staff of coders that creates applications that make a sporting event and its related data more interactive, according to Michael Gliedman.  As they develop new outlets for the increasing amounts of information they receive from properties, ESPN works closely with them to ensure that the entire industry is moving forward at a similar pace.  With the right device fans can watch an ESPN feed of the game they are attending and enjoy analysts’ feedback and watch the game in-person all at once.  This is a sign of what’s to come.  Properties that either do not have the proper infrastructure or leaders to make the best decisions regarding technology strategy and information outlets (like TV networks) that are not adapting to changes in technology will be left behind and possibly suffer in the new decade.  The pace is only increasing and the pressure on front offices mounting.

In Major League Baseball, there are less than 10 teams with executives that represent information technology at the highest decision-making levels in their respective front offices, leaving over 20 teams that have yet to fully commit to the fact that properties must interweave their technology strategy with their business strategy.  TV’s capable of projecting 3D images are coming as Samsung, Sony, and Panasonic design and manufacture the screens capable of delivering this new experience to viewers.  One intangible benefit for properties from the upcoming 3D revolution is the fact that if their events are held in facilities that accommodate the additional number of cameras needed to broadcast in 3D, they can compete on a whole new level with other options on the dial that transmit in 2D and could otherwise make a far-from-die-hard sports fan who would usually opt out of watching the game tune in and possibly make him or her the newest fan of that property or sport because the idea of watching a 3D program was too exciting to pass up.

For fans who buy tickets and sit in the stands or are served in the suites, digital content adds value to their decision to pay to watch a game at the venue itself.  Leagues and teams are challenged to somehow embrace both the advantages of implementing a technology strategy and solve the problem of obsolescence that changes in every way every year.  By creating a position at the executive level that focuses on these issues, a general manager or president could count on having an expert at the most senior level who understands the problems with technology and can focus on how to exploit the benefits.  Properties cannot fear failure.  Even though ideas like “smart seats” (stadium seats equipped with televisions) failed when they were implemented a few years ago in Boston, experts found that the market simply was not ready for them – people still felt that such devices were intrusive.  Interestingly enough, though, Tery Howard of the Miami Dolphins and Sun Life Stadium mentioned that “we did a pilot project last season where we deployed about 2,700 devices… The surveys came back overwhelmingly positive with respect to having all of this information in their [the fans’] hands and they’re not missing out on any other out-of-town game that they could be watching from home.”  In case you did not know, the devices Howard referred to are similar to handheld televisions.

Conclusion

So, just like properties have experimented with ideas that have not always worked like “smart seats” and in-game player tracking similar to that used by the NBA on a few occasions over the last 10 years, trial-and-error is a necessary part of invention and development.  The Miami Dolphins and Sun Life Stadium were not afraid to fail and – as a result – may be on the brink of both enhancing the fan experience and activating sponsorships in a whole new way.  A senior executive who specializes in technology and understands the market could help the property make similar or better decisions regarding technology and business strategy that could generate more sponsorship revenue, expand marketing strategies, and enhance the fan experience (and even bring all three closer together.)  Technology is one of the best ways to enhance the fan experience, but without the proper support, it could also be one of the most expensive methods for the front office.  To me, the only thing better would be to actually mingle with the players and coaches themselves… but if you use technology to bridge the gap or facilitate that communication, then that experience can be monetized and even be used to gather vital market data with the proper tactics in place.

Cam Suarez-Bitar.

If you enjoyed this article and appreciate in-depth analysis of the sports industry, visit http://www.sportsbusinessjournal.com for information on how to subscribe.  I do not work for them nor am I affiliated with the journal in any way, but I feel that anyone who wants to learn more about how sports function, grow, and survive would be well-advised to familiarize themselves with their content.

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    • Gustavo Suárez
    • May 4th, 2010

    Very interesting and well written article. It does grab your attention and points to the subject easily. Long but worth reading!

    • Thanks for the feedback! Sorry for the length, though. It is a subject worthy of deep and both exhaustive and exhausting research (a good thesis project, actually).

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