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Volume 26 No. 208
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Mobile viewing propels new era of tech and marketing innovation

While sports marketing and fandom were already changing due to second-screen experiences, they are about to be changed at a much greater pace due to COVID-19-based realities. To stymie the spread of coronavirus and protect public health, arenas will be nearly empty when the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, and major college sports resume. Because of this odd situation, sports teams and their broadcast TV/radio network partners will be experimenting with creative, technology-driven ways to keep fans at home engaged with not only the game but the entire production. 

Sports marketers for brands like the Cleveland Cavaliers, Sacramento Kings, and the U.S. Open Tennis Championships were already figuring out how to interact with fans in-stadium with mobile alerts and promotions that combine the big screen with attendees’ smartphones. The same can be said about sports TV marketers and mobile content. As one example, in recent years, real-time pitch-tracking stats for MLB Network games have been available on the league’s app. And some post-COVID-19-era-inspired plans have already been revealed. For instance, the NBA is considering mixed-reality concepts, including virtual tickets as well as players and fans interacting in real-time via video screens and audio/digital platforms that allow people to “cheer live” for their team. The players may even hear the virtual applause while they are on the court.

Due to COVID-19, these kinds of experiments will be accelerated with a strong emphasis on how to keep fans connected on their couches with the games and the broadcasts’ advertising partners. Here are a couple of ways I believe we’ll see it play out. 

Romoifying’ the broadcast experience

Since January, Amazon Web Services (AWS) has been working with the MLB, NFL, NASCAR and Formula 1 to integrate more stats into live viewing and — while details are scant — the possibilities seem endless. For instance, imagine if AWS helped the NFL figure out the probability of different kinds of plays that could be called on 3rd down and 1 yard to go (quarterback sneak, fullback handoff or halfback sweep?) or 2nd down and 15 yards to go (waggle route, screen pass or reverse)? I would enjoy such data analysis, and I know I’m not alone. I mean, we have had CBS commentator Tony Romo predicting plays and inspiring great Twitter praise for it in the few years. Consider the “wow” factor if he and other broadcasters had data and graphics at their disposal in between plays and actually included the fans. On their phones, fans could weigh in on what play they think will be called with live polls on the TV screen showing the results. A “Romofication” of the viewing experience should be afoot.

What’s more, there could be sponsors for each play: “And this AWSdata point is brought to you by Coca-Cola.” Network sales executives would certainly welcome the extra ad inventory. 

Turning the corner: Amen to innovation

The Masters, normally a television affair beautified by the springtime glow of Augusta, Georgia, will instead take place in mid-November. Augusta National’s “Amen Corner,” which comprises holes 11, 12, and 13, always inspires golf fans to tune in and has in recent years led Turner/CBS Sports, ESPN and The Masters to run web-only cameras for those crucial holes.

There should be even more Amen Corner innovation this fall. CBS typically includes flashbacks to memorable Amen Corner shots from greats including Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, and the late Seve Ballesteros. What if CBS created a mobile platform for TV viewers to watch these classic shots on-demand while also offering probability stats for birdies, pars, and bogeys? And then on Saturday and Sunday, what if the network brought the mobile app and the broadcast together by focusing on the top seven on the leaderboard as they headed into that crucial stretch? Each player’s odds — based on their histories with the holes — could be explained by the broadcasters when there’s enough of a break in the action. “And you can see more predictive data on the Masters mobile app, which can be downloaded via the Apple and Google app stores in a matter of seconds.”

Golf fans would eat these stats up. And seeing in real-time whether the probability stats are accurate would make for next-level, TV-mobile interplay. 

Enhancing TV-mobile viewing 

In brief sum, we see that the NBA and MLB are getting prepared for the new normal while the NFL, the PGA Tour and their partners have great opportunities in front of them. With crowdless arenas, it’s going to be an experimental time for sports marketers, no doubt, and they should test and experiment with these mobile-experience features on focus groups to see which versions perform best.

The big thing to remember is that many of these new features will continue to be used far beyond the pandemic to spark deeper levels of viewer engagement and fandom. It’s the job of every sports marketer right now to step up to the plate and create great new tools that knock it out of the park.

Mike Herrick is senior vice president of technology at Airship.