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Leagues have a message for teams: Make fans believe they get their money's worth.
With the economy crimping ticket sales and fans having improved viewing options at home, teams realize they must boost the in-game experience and show value.
Cleveland Cavaliers fans get into the act as their movement powers a video game created by CrowdWave.
Whether it's shooting T-shirts into the crowd or laser beams throughout the arena, entertaining with a mascot or informing with a smartphone app, the approaches run the gamut.
And while some added options provide the opportunity to generate additional revenue, team executives need to know when to dial it down and keep the focus on the game.
Just ask Chicago Bulls executive Jeff Wohlschlaeger, who has spent 15 years directing in-game entertainment at the perennially sold-out United Center. Each season demands new ways to enhance the fan experience, from up in the rafters to down at courtside.
"Fans are smart," Wohlschlaeger said. "We can't create fake energy and fans aren't going to cheer for no reason."
For teams, improving the in-game experience not only demonstrates value to fans, but it also provides opportunities to increase revenue. The trick is knowing when enough is enough.
"You can wallpaper the game presentation with sponsors' specific reads, but you can go over the edge," said Tom O'Grady, president of Gameplan Creative and in-game executive producer and consultant for the Chicago Fire and the Chicago Blackhawks.
"You want to sell everything you can but you want something that hooks the fans in," O'Grady said. "Teams are doing more of that than before, and off the shelf is not good enough anymore. It's about creating ideas that will stick."
So intertwined is the in-game fan experience and revenue that the Tampa Bay Rays now make it a policy to include game presentation staff on corporate sales calls, creating a seamless strategy between in-game presentation and sponsorship inventory.
Yet, at the same time, the Rays refuse to roll out a sponsored promotion during the middle of the eighth inning in order to preserve the feeling that the game belongs to the fans.
"Our fan experience department generates ideas that are put into sales pitches so they will be integrated from the beginning, but we are not going to do something that sacrifices the experience at the ballpark," said Brian Auld, senior vice president of business operations for the Rays. "We made the decision to protect that moment of the game that is exciting."
Even NFL teams, most of which sell out all eight of their regular-season home games, are paying more attention to the in-game experience. The Chicago Bears have sold out every game at Soldier Field for the past 27 years but this year gave suite holders and other premium customers FanVision handheld devices to enhance their in-game experience.
"We pay particular attention to the balance between entertainment and revenue generation in the game presentation," said Chris Hibbs, senior director of sales and marketing for the Bears. "If we can integrate sponsors into our game presentation that is related to the team, those are more valuable than overt advertising. My challenge is how to find more platforms inside the stadium. We can entertain fans and drive necessary revenue as opposed to running 30-second commercials on our video board."
In the NBA, which has long pushed its in-game approach to new entertainment heights, some teams are moving away from an overly scripted strategy to ward off any in-game sponsorship overload.
"The in-game experience has gone from being overproduced to finding a balance between the basketball and entertainment," said Shelly Driggers, director of event presentation for the Orlando Magic. "We have scaled back on the number of fan prompts, while the number of replays shown on the scoreboard has gone far beyond what we have done in the past. We let the game be the game."
Still, the Magic this year has nine entertainment teams to keep in-arena entertainment fresh during the club's 41 regular-season home games. The team's dancers greet fans in the atrium of the new Amway Center while jugglers, face painters and balloon artists combine to create a carnival-like environment.
NBAE / GETTY IMAGES
Stuff the Magic Dragon continues to be the Magic's most popular entertainment draw.
"We want to create amenities for every ticket buyer, not just for premium buyers," Driggers said. "We want to get the fans energized early, but once the game starts, we try to focus on the basketball."
To live up to the "driveway to driveway" entertainment goal for fans attending games, NBA teams can spend anywhere from $150,000 to $400,000 per season on their in-game experience budgets.
Halftime entertainment is still a major draw, as teams such as the Magic and Bulls pay between $1,500 and $4,000 for acts that make the NBA circuit. Yet, a new trend is for teams to use a revenue-producing component as part of their entertainment by bringing in local groups to perform, allowing teams to sell group tickets to the friends and families of those community-based acts.
Turnkey Sports Poll
The following are results of the Turnkey Sports Poll taken in January. The survey covered more than 1,100 senior-level sports industry executives spanning professional and college sports.
» Which of the following areas of pro sports do you think is in the greatest need of innovation?
At-event experience 25% Ticketing 22% Sponsorship 14% Marketing 10% Merchandising 6% Content distribution 5% Facilities 5% 360° media coverage 4% Live broadcast 3% Not sure / No response 6% » Compared to 10 years ago, has the at-event experience at sporting events …? Improved 67% Stayed the same 25% Deteriorated 8% Not sure / No response 0% » Is the development of at-event entertainment at sporting events driven more by sponsorship commitments or the desire to raise the quality of the at-event experience? Sponsorship commitments 56% Desire to raise quality of at-event experience 39% Not sure / No response 5%
Source: Turnkey Sports & Entertainment in conjunction with SportsBusiness Journal. Turnkey Intelligence specializes in research, measurement and lead generation for brands and properties. Visit www.turnkeyse.com.
NBA Entertainment logs every timeout of every NBA game and makes a video reel available for all teams. If a promotion or new entertainment element plays well in Portland, for example, teams in other markets will quickly adopt it.
In addition, the NBA assigns a game presentation manager to each of its 30 teams to assist and evaluate their in-game efforts through regular customer surveys. Every summer, the NBA holds a workshop for all in-game managers where new and best practices are discussed.
Currently, NBA teams are following a league mandate to increase player interaction inside arenas.
"Player imaging has been one of the focus points," Wohlschlaeger said. "We try to be creative in using players in our in-game and have them visible."
The Bulls, for example, spend about an hour with each player before the season, taping clips to be shown on the United Center video board throughout the year. Some are humorous spots, others are general question-and-answer clips to increase the fans' connection to the players.
"More than any other league, the NBA is in tune with the fan experience," said Dennis Mannion, the former president of the Los Angeles Dodgers who has also worked for NBA, NHL and NFL teams.
Baseball, Mannion said, is moving toward more sophisticated fan engagement between innings. He said baseball teams spend anywhere from $600,000 to $2 million on in-game operations for each 81-game home season.
"It has evolved from the old-school operator to where teams are so much more cutting edge with full production staffs, and those are the teams that will grow their fan base and create energy for sponsors," Mannion said.
Traditional or technical?
Teams are installing more high-definition and LED ribbon boards and scoreboards as the technology allows for a more unified arena messaging effort, which also makes in-game advertising more attractive to sponsors.
"The technology has gotten so much better. It allows fans to get close to the game," said Danny Meiseles, executive vice president and executive producer for NBA Entertainment. "Teams are using so many more replays and statistics while using their video boards as a bigger point of communication."
But not all clubs share the "newer is better" opinion when it comes to in-game entertainment. Advances in technology bring a bigger price tag and more sponsorship revenue opportunities, but ill-timed execution can have a dampening effect on the fan experience.
Tim Beach, vice president of game operations and events for the New York Islanders, said the club previously launched a Zamboni race video game that was powered by text messages. Beach said the game was slow and complicated, and few fans actually engaged with it.
"During a TV timeout, you have 90 seconds to capture the fans, and if you spend the first 30 seconds explaining how a game is going to work, they are gone," Beach said.
Beach said more expensive, high-tech activities run the risk of distracting the fans. "At the end of the day, fans are buying a ticket that says 'hockey game' on it. It doesn't say 'video board' or 'three-ring circus," he said.
Between periods, the Islanders' Ice Girls ride atop a Zamboni, blasting T-shirts into the stands with a pneumatic cannon. The club spent $25,000 constructing a FanZam miniature Zamboni as another attraction. The Islanders also are the only NHL team to regularly play the "Chuck the Puck" game, where fans purchase $5 packages of soft foam pucks, then throw them on the ice at a large target for a chance to win an automobile.
Kiss cams and laser beams
Other hockey teams have taken the simpler-is-better approach but added a twist.
Before each season, the Atlanta Thrashers make videos of local actors engaging in humorous kiss-cam-style situations in the stands, and then splice the funny scenes in during the live kiss-cam segments. In one situation, an elderly woman removes her dentures and places them in her beer before kissing her husband. In another, a group of actors dressed as Darth Vader and Star Wars stormtroopers dance to "YMCA."
"[The humor] reinforces the brand. The Thrashers are the fourth child in Atlanta so we have to have a little bit of a chip on our shoulders to get attention," said Peter Sorckoff, senior director of game operations and creative services for the Thrashers. "We've never done a shoot for more than a few thousand bucks, to bring in some pizza for the actors and staffing costs."
The NHL does not have a league-level policy for how teams run in-game entertainment, although the league does have personnel to assist clubs in choosing and refining entertainment.
The Los Angeles Kings entertain fans with a pregame laser show.
According to Chris McGowan, chief operating officer for the Kings, both the laser system and projectors represent significant six-figure purchases for the club.
"Los Angeles is the creative capital of the world. We need to have a game presentation that is above the rest," McGowan said. "It is a significant expense, but people are paying good money to come to the arena, and we feel it is what people expect nowadays."
Like the Islanders, the Kings sell presenting sponsorships for the entertainment infrastructure, and the light projector regularly beams trailers for upcoming Hollywood movies onto the ice.
Still, the Kings find time to use more traditional elements during period breaks, calling on elements such as sumo wrestling, musical chairs and midget hockey games.
"For about $5,000 a season, you can get all the props you need," McGowan said. "Then it's just a question of staffing."
Traditional forms of in-game entertainment may be cheaper, but according to Beach, they do have drawbacks. In 2003, the Islanders welcomed hundreds of fans clad as Santa Claus onto the ice during the first intermission for a parade. When a pair of fans threw off their costumes to reveal New York Rangers jerseys, a fight broke out.
"It took a while to break up and we were pretty late getting the Zamboni on the ice," Beach said, laughing. "Santas were wrestling on the ice. It was mayhem."
CrowdWave technology uses cameras and software to interpret body movements of fans in specific seating sections and then uses those combined fan movements to power games or surveys on a video board. The technology measures the coordination, direction and intensity of fans to power the games.
CrowdWave President Mark Edwards said he developed the concept after the debut of Nintendo’s popular Wii gaming system.
Hugo Boss sponsors a CrowdWave dance game featured at Madison Square Garden.
Edwards tested his system with the Ottawa 67’s junior hockey team for six months before debuting it in March 2010 with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Since then, the company has installed its technology in New York’s Madison Square Garden, American Airlines Center in Dallas, Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Philips Arena in Atlanta and Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. Ten teams currently use CrowdWave, and Edwards hopes to be with 24 teams by year’s end.
CrowdWave operates as a vendor to individual venues, and Edwards said the service’s cost depends on the size of the venue, the number of games used by the venue, and the length of the contract. Edwards declined to discuss the specific range in cost.
Of the company’s 30 or so games, the most popular is a dancing competition. Others include a tug-of-war, a Zamboni race and trivia games. Edwards hopes more teams use the technology to help fans choose more traditional arena entertainment, such as music and highlights.
Howard Jacobs, executive vice president of marketing and sales with Madison Square Garden Sports, said the technology takes a new step with fan engagement and marketing opportunities. MSG debuted the technology in October with the Knicks and recently signed Hugo Boss to sponsor CrowdWave’s dancing game.
“It really pays off when there is a prize involved, where fans can win something or are rewarded for their participation,” Jacobs said. “We think that is the key to elevating the fan experience.”— Fred Dreier
Pittsburgh-based YinzCam is a smartphone application that provides alternate live camera shots, real-time game statistics and replays to fans within a stadium or arena. YinzCam beams its signals to any smartphone, be it an Android or iPhone.
YinzCam is free for fans to download and use.
“I’ve spent my life working in technology but I’m a nobody in the sports industry,” Narasimhan said. “The fact that the Penguins [gave] me my first break in hockey and the Patriots in football, those are things that give me goose bumps.”
YinzCam made its debut in Mellon Arena, and the Penguins liked the service enough to incorporate YinzCam’s servers and wireless technology at new Consol Energy Center. The team sold presenting sponsorship rights to Verizon, and the new arena features YinzCam coverage in the entire seating area as well as touch screens in the concourse and all 66 luxury suites. The service required a mid-six-figure investment from the club that covered the technology costs as well as the installation of cameras. The application is free for fans to download and use.
Pittsburgh’s YinzCam also provides closed captioning for hearing-impaired fans and the live high-definition radio broadcast.
“The feedback has been incredibly positive,” said David Peart, Penguins vice president. “It gives you that personal control over your game experience.”— Fred Dreier
With scoreboard hardware technology continuing to push ever bigger, brighter and in crisper high definition, ANC Sports’ VisionSOFT software platform is helping teams and venues turn their diverse programming dreams into reality.
The Mariners created an outfield, digital out-of-town scoreboard.
The Seattle Mariners this past season at Safeco Field introduced an outfield digital out-of-town scoreboard that through VisionSOFT mimicked the look of a traditional, hand-operated board, complete with simulated manual controls.
The Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center bought VisionSOFT to tie together the building’s various center-hung, fascia, dasherboard and concourse displays, allowing for quick-trigger synchronization of content throughout the building.
Numerous other teams, including the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Heat, are developing their own particular applications through VisionSOFT, and the system was recently buttressed by a partnership with Georgia-based software firm ScorePAD Inc. to integrate that firm’s real-time scoring interface into VisionSOFT for ANC’s MLB clients. That alliance will allow for the display of a greater array of real-time and situational statistics.
“Every team wants to operate differently, and market forces are dictating they make their shows as different and unique as possible,” said Mark Stross, ANC Sports chief technology officer. “Before, teams were forced more to go with more standard, off-the-shelf applications. But now, a fan is going to get an experience at each venue that is much bigger, much more unique.”— Eric Fisher
Austin, Texas-based Bypass Lane is one of several entities looking toward wireless technology to solve an age-old fan problem: how to get food and beverage from the stadium concession stands quickly, efficiently and without missing any of the action.
The Bypass Lane technology carries a surcharge, typically 99 cents, above and beyond normal concession menu prices. In some cases, such as at the University of Texas’ Erwin Center, that surcharge is subsidized by a corporate sponsorship.
Other Bypass Lane clients thus far include the Texas Rangers, Phoenix Coyotes, Carolina Hurricanes and University of Georgia. The company is also pitching its technology to major stadium and arena concessionaires.
“Mobile ordering is happening, and teams and food vendors are all at different points now of figuring out what their strategies are,” said Brandon Lloyd, Bypass Lane president. “But mobile ordering is definitely here and here to stay. It’s not a question of if, but when and how.”— Eric Fisher
FanVision, formerly Kangaroo TV, takes direct aim at replicating the at-home sports viewing experience at the stadium. Using a portable device roughly the size and weight of a Nintendo DS, FanVision units offer alternate camera angles, statistics, fantasy information, audio feeds, the NFL RedZone channel, out-of-town games and other content.
The company additionally is making inroads into the collegiate sports market, signing deals to get FanVision units into schools such as the University of Miami and University of Michigan for use with their football programs. More recently, the technology was used at the BCS national championship game at University of Phoenix Stadium, which also is home to the Arizona Cardinals, another NFL FanVision client.
Fans typically pay about $199 initially to obtain the FanVision handheld unit and to cover the first season’s games. Subsequent seasons are substantially less expensive since the fan has already paid for the hardware. The devices incorporate an advertising model that teams can sell against to generate revenue.
Now under development is a version of FanVision that works on users’ smartphones. The mobile application would represent a slightly streamlined version of the FanVision technology, while its dedicated units will likely remain the flagship version.— Eric Fisher
SportsBusiness Journal’s Ryan Baucom asked team executives to provide insight on how they review options for improving the in-game experience, and what fans could expect to see next. The following are highlights of their responses, which were submitted via e-mail.
• How do you evaluate ideas for improving the in-game experience?
The Minnesota Twins survey fans to measure opinions on such elements as customer service, wait times and pricing.
Pam Gardner, president of business operations, Houston Astros: We certainly visit and study other stadiums, businesses and teams in the sports, entertainment and hospitality industries. We research future trends — trade shows, reading trade magazines, relationships with other teams, and through other sources of media — to understand best practices and future trends. We talk to our customers — focus groups, in-game communications and surveys — to get their ideas.
Larry Miller, president, Portland Trail Blazers: One thing we have done is we have given our people in charge of that area permission to fail, to not be afraid of trying new things or experimenting with new ideas. If our people are afraid to fail or fear the repercussions of failing, then they are not going to push the envelope and strive for that “next big idea” and settle for the status quo. That being said, it is important to learn from our failures and build off our successes. We are catering to 20,000 people and everyone has different opinions about what is going on inside the arena. So we try to cater to all tastes inside the building. … One timeout there may be something for the basketball purists, while the next timeout we may feature a funny mascot video — that way there is something for everyone at our games.
Larry Hoepfner, executive vice president of business operations, Columbus Blue Jackets: We seek periodic feedback from season-ticket holders via surveys and season-ticket-holder meetings, and receive constant feedback from fans via phone and e-mail. All ideas and feedback are based on how the proposed changes might fit into our overall game experience objectives and plans.
Alex Martins, president, Orlando Magic: As an idea is presented, we look at how it will fall in line with the Magic brand and if it is in line with our target audience. … The NBA is very collaborative among the teams and we share best practices of those elements which enhance the fan experience. If something is making a difference, we will find a way to implement it into our game presentation for our fans.
• What is fan feedback telling you about what fans want to see/have/access in their fan experience?
Klinger: Fans are looking for more access to the game in terms of information on players and plays. Beyond general stats, fans are looking for incremental access to replays, monitoring balls and strikes, etc. Fans are also looking for incremental value in relation to loaded tickets, food and beverage specials/ordering capability, merchandise options, etc.
Gardner: Technology — utilize smartphones more to communicate, replays, order food/merchandise. Fans like spaces where they can socialize and gain different experiences in the ballpark. Fans like to feel like they are part of the team and brand through communications and specialty events. Fans love to get close to the players. Continue to bring themed events to the venues and give fans many new experiences like concerts and other entertainment experiences. Fans love humor and great ballpark entertainment. … Fans also look for choice and quality of food they purchase along with price point. Finally, fans are being entertained visually with HD-quality video and ribbon boards in the ballpark and HD-quality monitors throughout the concourse, club and suite levels.
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Portland Trail Blazers fans have told the team they like being part of the show and not just sitting back and watching.
Hoepfner: Regarding seeing — they want to see more replays and have game action available to them. In terms of access and experience, the behind-the-scenes, off-ice experience and access to and with players is very important.
Martins: Fan feedback is telling us that they desire more interactive experiences as well as the opportunity to interact with players as much as possible. We attempt to accomplish this through the many fan interactive elements of the new Amway Center. Fans want to feel included in the entire experience, so in our new building, Amway Center, we offer amenities on all levels (including access to bars and lounges).
• What’s next for the in-game experience? What trends do you see?
Klinger: Technology will be the single-largest driver of change in the future game experience. If we aren’t there already, we are quickly approaching a day when all fans will rely on their mobile device to enhance their in-game experience via in-facility applications.
Gardner: More with smartphones/mobile promotions to sell tickets/discounts at ballpark team stores and concessions and create amenities and improve convenience. More branding, marketing and entertainment at the point of purchase throughout the ballpark. … Continue to create events for all demographic segments. Invest and keep improving food and retail experiences. Finally, a high level of service (a five-star service culture) for teams in the stadiums for all customers and an upgraded level of service and perks for premium customers (suites, clubs and prime seating areas) is such a focus. … We will also be monitoring how the 3-D video experience develops in ballparks and stadiums as we move forward.
Miller: Fans want to have more information, access and control of the experience — that is something we are definitely watching. These days you can sit at your computer and control what camera angles, replays or stats are displayed — it gives the fans the ultimate individualistic customized experience. However, despite having all of that control, you aren’t at the event. If we could deliver that customized technology to fans at the game through a handheld device or some other display, I think they would be getting the best of both worlds.
Hoepfner: For Columbus specifically, the in-arena HD experience is going to take off in coming years. Whether that is delivered en masse to all fans or delivered individually via a number of personal devices, no sport is better in HD than hockey. Delivering that feature to fans in different ways is going to be important.
Martins: In Orlando, the in-game experience is evolving to be more authentic and rely more on the fans. Instead of constant promotions, we are making fans a part of the game — showing their passion, fun and competitiveness. Utilizing the Magic TV board to highlight fans in the crowd is making them more connected to the team and enhancing their overall experience. Technology will definitely lead the way of future trends, focusing on digital signage, the use of hand-held portable devices and smartphones, and enhanced statistical information delivered through technology.