SBJ/November 14-20, 2011/Opinion

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  • Teams can develop their own ‘intelligent assistant’ to help fans

    While I miss Steve Jobs and whatever was next in that brilliant mind, I am very happy with his last gift, the Apple iPhone 4S. While I am very pleased with the features of the phone (more on that later), the experience all starts with the video on the company’s website, which not only tells me about the product, but also uses the AIDA formula (awareness, interest, desire and action) to motivate me to complete the purchase. The video and the website are also up-to-date examples of my concept of edu-selling: teaching people why they should buy something and teaching them how to make the best use of it so as to be satisfied with their purchase.

    Now that you have probably turned the cover of the magazine or checked the website to make sure you were reading my column in SportsBusiness Journal, let me explain why I think this product and this approach are critical to sports organizations. Simply stated, Apple has become the success it is because it didn’t assume too much about the knowledge and computer skills of its potential buyers. It made its devices and applications so easy to use that the audience ranges from children to senior citizens. While there were no assumptions that anyone already knew how to use its products, Apple did make one assumption and it was correct: The easier and simpler the devices were to use, the more people would use them.

    Apple uses the AIDA formula (awareness, interest, desire, action) to teach and motivate buyers.
    Let’s translate that into our sports teams at all levels, including the collegiate teams. While a few innovative teams have some introductory information on their websites, most offer some type of printed or downloadable fan guide, which is one-way communication and is not interactive or intuitive. Go to apple.com and watch the video about the phone; then log onto the website of your favorite team and see if there is a similar attempt to educate or inform. Or, are they just skipping to the sale?

    Most teams offer some assistance in ticket buying by providing virtual views to show the sight lines from seats with a comparative feature that allows potential buyers to choose their preferred view. Most teams also offer all current ticket-plan holders a personal account representative to answer their questions and help them manage and enjoy their accounts. I have always been a big proponent of this system, but it has its shortcomings. First, the service is only available to current ticket-plan owners who, at least in theory, would have fewer questions than someone trying to go to a game for the first time. Second, it is not an on-demand 24/7/365 type of system, and many questions originate outside of business hours.

    Contrast this with Apple’s addition of Siri on the newest phones. Siri, which Apple calls “the intelligent assistant,” can answer questions and serve as your personal assistant. So my mind began to race and imagine similar technological innovations either directly on the teams’ websites or else through an application on a portable device that had similar intelligence to Siri.

    As I brainstormed, playing the part of a fan considering buying tickets to his or her first MLB game at Citi Field, my imagination created the following dialogue:

    Fan: Buddy, what is the best location in terms of affordability for my family and I to purchase tickets for the Mets vs. Cardinals game next Friday?

    Buddy: By “location” do you mean where to buy tickets or what seats are the most affordable?

    Fan: Well, both.

    Buddy: StubHub is offering a variety of ticket offerings for that game ranging from a low of $12 per person to a high of $48 per person depending upon the seating area you would select. In terms of location within the stadium, the most affordable seats in terms of price considerations only for this particular game are located in Section 501.

    Fan: Thank you, Buddy. We are staying at the Marriott Hotel in Times Square. What is the most efficient and economical way of getting to Citi Field?

    Buddy: You should take the No. 7 train from Times Square directly to Citi Field.

    Fan: When we arrive at Citi Field, I would like to have dinner with my family, and we have two children under age 12. What concession stand would you recommend for my family?

    Buddy: My recommendation would be Shake Shack, which is located in the outfield seating section near the bullpen gate. This area has several restaurants that would provide other alternatives for your family to consider, as well.

    While this may seem too simple, that is why it works. The questions that someone would have about something that they have never experienced are simple and they are usually directly related to their experience, more important to them than to someone else. The issue here is the need to change our existing processes and procedures, which are convenient and easy for us (the provider), and to move to a mind-set where the goal is to provide information to the person inquiring in the easiest, most helpful format possible. That will probably require some degree of artificial intelligence to prompt and ask the question correctly, like I did when asking about where to buy/where to sit.

    This is something that must be addressed immediately. “It’s not in the budget” is not the right answer when having the service could have a positive impact on the budget. Siri is in beta form, thus there are ways and means to improve the service and create applications for sports and other industries.

    Find and invest in a provider that can offer the technology and the service — and not necessarily in personnel and on-site technology, as it is developing far too rapidly to really be able to strategically decide what to buy. As usual, sports is the late adapter/adopter, but it is better to be late than to be too late.

    Bill Sutton (wsutton@bus.ucf.edu) is a professor and associate director of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_Impact.


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  • New York City is already a two-marathon town

    I was personally and professionally disappointed to see the upcoming inaugural Brooklyn Marathon go unmentioned in Fred Dreier’s article “Is New York City a two-marathon town?” (SportsBusiness Journal, Oct. 31-Nov. 6). While I admit that the Brooklyn Marathon as constituted is small (capped at 350 runners and nearly sold out as of this writing), a small amount of research on MarathonGuide or via NYCRuns.com (imho, the most comprehensive local resource on local racing and running clubs) would have revealed that we have planned a USATF-certified marathon in Prospect Park to address exactly the problems Competitor [Group] is having, namely building a broad base of community, political and sponsor support.

    This year’s Brooklyn Marathon is supported by good friends at the Prospect Park Alliance and Councilman Brad Lander’s office, the Brooklyn running clubs, and is 100 percent locally sponsored.

    We are cognizant of the path Fred Lebow took many years ago and fully believe that a second major local marathon should be a locally grown product that builds its support organically. Any simple market analysis indicates there is a market for more marathons in New York City.

    Competitor is running into walls here for exactly the same reason Wal-Mart and many other national chains have. New York doesn’t embrace cookie cutter products; New York embraces innovation and small business, and New York City is indeed already a two-marathon town.

    Steve Lastoe
    New York City

    Lastoe is founder of New York City Runs Inc.


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  • Cartoon: Shame on you!

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  • Forcing social media silence not the answer for colleges

    Over the last year, a growing number of college athletic departments have begun to unnecessarily punish their student athletes for statements made through various social media channels, particularly Twitter and Facebook.

    Western Kentucky University in October suspended running back Antonio Andrews for tweets that criticized the loyalty of WKU fans, who have been visibly absent during the Hilltoppers’ 4-26 run over the last three seasons. Earlier this year, Mississippi State basketball player Ravern Johnson was suspended for inappropriate tweets concerning his role on the team and lack of touches. There are at least a dozen similar cases involving disciplinary action in response to athletes’ tweets over the past two years at colleges across the U.S.

    All the more disconcerting is the trend of systematic prohibition of student athletes from using any form of social media during their respective seasons of competition. Some colleges go a step further and implement outright bans even when school is not in session.

    After a disappointing loss to Wake Forest in early October, the Florida State athletics department banned the use of Twitter, citing efforts to eliminate distractions and a concern that athletes were being negatively affected by “hate tweets.” This past spring, fellow ACC member North Carolina also placed a restriction on athletes’ use of social media in reaction to an improper benefits scandal that influenced the firing of head football coach Butch Davis prior to the start of the 2011 season.

    There is little question that universities face an uphill battle in monitoring their student athletes’ interaction with the general public, particularly with the Internet and other new forms of communication that make it easier than ever to broadcast every part of their lives to the world via the click of a button on their computer, phone or tablet. Yet almost every institution in the country has done little to nothing to be proactive about educating its athletes on what they should and should not be communicating over such channels. Instead, they have taken a reactionary approach that retroactively punishes student athletes based on the foolishness of an ignorant few individuals.

    Mississippi State suspended Ravern Johnson last season for some inappropriate tweets.
    Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
    Rather than use the cases outlined above as teachable moments, many institutions have attempted to sweep things under the rug with the hope that the problem would go away by itself. Unfortunately, as history has proved, the suppressing of one channel that individuals use to express themselves results in those individuals finding a new or alternate medium to fill the void.

    College athletics has always been a business that is slow to change. Many universities have limited resources and are stretched thin in compliance department budgets. Thus, school administrators and coaches often believe that banning certain unwanted behaviors is the most efficient way to quickly resolve contentious matters. Most proceed in such action without taking into account the First and Fourteenth Amendment issues concerning the restriction of free speech and freedom of expression at public universities.

    However, there is little reason why athletic departments cannot invest even limited resources into educating their student athletes on why using social media improperly can negatively affect their university, their team and themselves. The limited resources spent on education will cost less than the amount of time and money spent on restricting speech.

    There are many influential individuals with powerful positions in college athletics who argue that a student athlete’s use of social media, specifically Twitter, only serves to hurt his or her interests in succeeding in life. Yet, if student athletes use social media constructively, they can help parlay their popularity in the collegiate realm to build first-class reputations that will follow them beyond their college careers. As the saying goes, “There are over 400,000 NCAA student athletes, and most of us will go pro in something other than sports.” While athletic departments see 400,000 headaches, every one of those athletes has an opportunity to use social media to build a positive public reputation for himself or herself — just like the millions of companies and other individuals who build their online clout on a daily basis.

    The argument that social media is a distraction is a feeble one. Athletes have faced pressure from fans, coaches and alumni for generations. The channel that this negative feedback comes through has nothing to do with the student athletes’ abilities to deal with or deflect it. If they are properly conditioned to ignore criticism (as they should have been their entire sports career) or better yet, to use that criticism as a mechanism to become better at their trades, then social media’s easing of access for outsiders to communicate with them should make no negative difference. If a student has difficulty dealing with criticism, and the criticism is directly related to his or her status as an athlete, it is the athletic department’s responsibility to teach the student athlete how to deal with it instead of acting like it can ignore the problem by doing its best job to hide the athlete from the public light.

    George Washington once stated, “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” Instead of treating student athletes as dumb individuals, forcing silence upon them as a protective measure in an effort to protect them from being slaughtered by the media, universities should empower those athletes with education and allow them to use their voice to lead. Universities are providing a huge disservice to their student athletes by silencing their speech.n

    Jason Belzer (jasonbelzer@gmail.com) and Darren Heitner (heitner@gmail.com) are co-founders of Collegiate Sports Advisors. They can be followed on Twitter @JasonBelzer and @DarrenHeitner.

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  • Reframing team’s place in a fan’s life

    The most important statement of the year about the future of social media was almost an afterthought by Mark Zuckerberg during his keynote address at Facebook’s f8 developer conference in September.

    While describing the new features of an application that News Corp. has developed for Facebook, Zuckerberg said, “News Corp. is publishing the Web version of this app only inside Facebook because they believe that eventually everyone is going to discover the news they’re going to read through their friends.”

    News Corp., the second largest media conglomerate in the world, is saying that it believes that in the near future people will not find their news via the newspapers, magazines, television channels, and radio stations its empire is built upon. In News Corp.’s vision of the future, people won’t pick up their morning papers and browse the sports section for news on last night’s game, or Yahoo! News for the headlines. Instead, they’ll log into their Facebook accounts to see what stories their friends are talking about.

    This is where sports properties, and their sponsors, should take note.

    This vision of the future is founded on a few key changes Facebook debuted at f8. The main change, and key driver for the other changes, was a switch from user “profile” to user “timeline.” This essentially takes what was a snapshot in time and turns it into an online scrapbook of a person’s life, making the user’s experience less about what they want to share with friends and more about what they want to remember of their lives. A user can click to a particular time — say, September — and see everything they did within that time period organized neatly for them to review. Posts that got the most comments — say, an experience at an NFL game — or that are starred by the user as important are highlighted; less important updates are collapsed.

    To make the content of that timeline more complete, Facebook opened up its open graph to allow for “canvas permissioning,” meaning that a sports fan can opt-in to share the same type of action repeatedly without needing to give their permission every time — for instance, watch a highlight film, post a stat, go to a game, etc.

    Fans want to remember a much broader range of actions than just “liking” something, so Facebook also added the ability for teams to create their own custom verbs for sharing. “Watch,” “listen” and “read,” for example, were added at launch, but teams will also have the ability to add a variety of custom verbs such as “want,” “buy,” “join” or any relevant action. For example, a “want” button could indicate a holiday wish list on a team merchandise page; a “buy” button could reference a group offer to purchase tickets; a “join” button could highlight the ability to subscribe to a fan club.

    These changes present a remarkable opportunity to collect more information about each fan than has been known before. Where the fan database today is segmented mainly by purchase behavior, a team now has the opportunity to segment by highlight video watched, player stat tracked, or merchandise viewed. This information will allow for a lot more unique fan segments by which to target. From ticket sales to upcoming games to the sale of commemorative videos or throwback jerseys, Facebook will become a sports marketer’s window into fans’ preferences and behaviors.

    Even more remarkable is the opportunity to be woven into the fabric of fans’ digital lives. Once a user opts into a team application and gives it permission to share the person’s team-oriented activities through it, the team becomes a sub-timeline within that fan’s Facebook page, organized according to the team’s specifications. It’s a highlight reel of a fan’s life with his or her team, an interactive narrative of all the great memories. It’s less about sharing with friends and more about building a personal story the fan can review after the season is over to remember every moment.

    There are tremendous opportunities with this, but it will also necessitate a budgetary shift by team marketing departments over time toward the people and technology needed to take advantage.

    If an old media company like News Corp. can do it, teams can too.

    Matt Kautz (MKautz@paciolan.com) is social media director for Paciolan.

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