On Tuesday, Jan. 12 at the first digital-only CES 2021, a group of sports leaders discussed “Trends Shaping the Future of The Fan Experience.” The four panelists discussed technology and how fan behavior changes will impact the future of sports.
The online webinar featured Gary Bettman, commissioner of the NHL; Cathy Engelbert, commissioner of the WNBA; Stephanie McMahon, chief brand officer of the WWE. Angela Ruggiero, co-founder and CEO of Sports Innovation Lab served as the moderator. She is a four-time Olympian who represented Team USA in ice hockey.
Moderator Ruggiero: There’s a lot of changes in sports. Obviously, COVID has brought tremendous changes. You’ve all had to operate under tremendous situations with bubbles. I want to know your process for site selection, some of the technologies that have enabled you to keep your fans engaged during COVID and are there any best practices that you’ve learned during this time?
Cathy Engelbert: “I think this year, we had to turn our business model on its head with no fans and completely unchartered water. What we learned is… we had to have our first-ever virtual draft. We immediately tapped into technology. I said, we’ve got to have a way to engage with players on draft night as well as fans watching at home. We used an augmented reality Snapchat technology to create a video that we sent to the draft prospects. We know these draftees are into Snapchat so we partnered with them. We also experimented with a Google Lens app that brings AR activation during the broadcast on ESPN and all throughout Draft Day and thereafter. The most one that we’re going to carry forward is throughout the season we built into our WNBA app our first-ever Second Screen Experience because if all of your fans are sitting at home, we called it the Tap to Cheer app. It allowed for fans to virtually cheer at home. It led to an 85 percent increase in mobile app downloads. We actually had 140 million taps during the 2020 WNBA season.”
Moderator Ruggiero: Stephanie, how have you been dealing with kind of the new rules as chief brand officer keeping WWE relevant during this time?
Stephanie McMahon: “For WWE, it was never a question of if we were going to continue to show. It was a question of how. We actually went from our biggest event of the year, it’s called WrestleMania. That was supposed to take place at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa in front of 80,000 people in the first week of April. Needless to say, that did not happen. It was pretty a last minute call really it was about three to four weeks that we made the final decision. We started producing our content, at a minimum is seven hours of live content, for our broadcasting cable partner. There were no fans, there was no audible audience. It was an experience that was less than to say the least. Then, we really did start to experiment. We started piping in audio. We started having some of our developmental talent giving live reaction but it still wasn’t enough. Our goal was to be back in arenas by the fall. But unfortunately that did not happen. So we invested in the ThunderDome. First, we took up residency in the Amway Center in Orlando. Then, we partnered with a technology group called The Famous Group that enables us to bring nearly 1,000 fans virtually into the arena live. It is multiple levels deep so it really does feel like the audience is there.”
Moderator Ruggiero: Gary, what about you? The longest serving commissioner, you’ve got some experience. We’ve never had a pandemic but how have you dealt with this and where do you see this headed?
Gary Bettman: “How we reacted to the pandemic starts with a low-tech answer. It was, how are we going to play, finish our season, we were 89 percent through the season. We still had the playoffs to go. How are we going to finish it and protect the health and safety of our players, of our support personnel in the communities of which we were playing? My answer to that was…we have to be agile, we have to be flexible and we have to make sure we considered every option conceivable and be able to execute on it. We decided, in conjunction with our players, that we were going to create a ‘Return to Play’ format. We have an incredible competitive balance and there were a number of clubs that hadn’t completed the regular season but had a very good shot of making it. We had a playing round to the playoffs and we expanded the number of teams. We then had protocols that we had to work out, again for safety. We announced everything we were going to do except where we were going to play. We didn’t want to go to a place where there was going to be an increase, a spike in COVID. We actually changed gears and went to two places we weren’t planning on namely Toronto and Edmonton. Those were the safest major cities in North America. We conducted over 33,000 tests over two and a half months and not one positive for a players or our personnel who were accompanying them.”
He also spoke about the technology that was used to help bring the fans back into the in-game experience while they are not able to be there in person.
“Steve Mayer who runs content and events for us, made the decision early on, that without fans, which is a vital part of our game, the energy, the excitement of our buildings. The game itself feeds off of our fans. The players feed off of their fans. He goes, ‘I’ve got to turn these arenas into television studios.’ Because whatever we’re doing has to work on television. Whether it was the tarping we did over the seats, whether it was the video boards we did in conjunction with the big screen and the scoreboards, whether it was putting background noise to make it feel like a real game. I didn’t join the bubble until there was about three weeks to go. The first game I went to was jarring. I mean to walk into an empty building, colder than normal, what I found was after the first game you didn’t even notice it. We were focused on the game. To connect with our fans, we made sure that we were putting out tons of content on every digital platform imaginable, creating new content and engaging fans. Once we got to the bubbles, in addition to creating it like a television studio, we brought in more cameras and more camera angles than ever before. We didn’t have to worry about blocking fan views. We started using Puck-and-Player tracking which we were scheduled to do anyway. Also we would create more data and a more connected experience particularly for young fans so that they would feel a part of the game–even in the absence of fans in the building. For toppers, I got to present the Stanley Cup without getting booed which I thought was a pretty good innovation.”
Moderator Ruggiero: I can’t imagine the complexity of putting on a sports event in this current environment. Cathy, Gary was talking a lot about content as was Steph around keeping your fans engaged. How do you really bring the fans to you? You saw a 68 percent increase in your year-over-year viewership numbers during the bubble. I’m curious what were the core tenants to that growth.
Cathy Engelbert: “Less than 4 percent of media globally cover women sports. Given the WNBA size and scale, we’re a summer season so we weren’t 80 plus percent through our season, we were zero. Here, we had to do everything we could as Gary said, safely and responsibly and for us it was to play. We had just come off a very tough collective bargaining negotiation and got an eight-year deal, a really exciting free agency period and so I think it was storytelling. We had 90 percent of our games covered on some national platform unheard of in our case. We had our great partner, ESPN–also CBS as well as Facebook stepped up on their platforms. They did 20 games and Twitter did 10 and you mentioned the Orange Hoodie which just got the Women’s Sports Journal fashion statement of the year. A 350 percent increase in our merchandise sales. We’ll hit our 25th anniversary season next year. I think the momentum around women’s sports is really hard, I’ve learned coming into this role. I couldn’t be more proud of the players right now and how they are presenting themselves.”
Moderator Ruggiero: Stephanie, you are one of the best content producers in the world. Sometimes less is the more, having the right content on the right platforms obviously is key in your role. Number one channel on YouTube, hundreds of millions of fans across your social media channels. How important is it to have this multiplatform approach and can you tell us a little more about your strategy at the WWE?
Stephanie McMahon: “For WWE, our content strategy is critical. WWE’s content distribution strategy is really across three key areas: We still believe in the linear, pay TV strategy where in the U.S. we have partnerships with FOX broadcast and NBCU. You had mentioned we’re the number one sports channel on YouTube but we’re the fifth most viewed YouTube channel in the world with over 50 billion lifetime video views and that does not include UGC content. We are the second most followed sports brand on TikTok behind the NBA and hopefully we’ll be catching up soon. Our third distribution platform is WWE Network which is our OTT property which we actually launched right after Netflix and Hulu. We were one of the first in the space, we launched six years ago. We increased our content strategy across all platforms. We increased the types of content we were providing to our partners to support them for the sports that actually weren’t playing at that time. WWE does not have a season. We have no offseasons, no reruns, we’re live every single week. I think that’s an important point for clarification. What we also changed was our posting strategy. We started posting longer-form clips and we also started posting more historical content. We actually saw our YouTube viewer numbers increase 70 percent. On WWE Network, we invested heavily in documentary-type content that really explored the real person behind the characters. For example, the Undertaker’s Last Ride was a huge success for WWE. It was a four-part documentary. What happened in the pandemic just sped up the transition to streaming and consumption behaviors really changing. You have to be flexible and nimble to Gary’s point. You have to be able to make decisions on the fly in order to survive in business in general. But in particular in times like these, that flexibility is really critical.”
Moderator Ruggiero: Gary, you mentioned player-puck tracking and you mentioned some of the new camera angles. You’ve had the opportunity in some ways to experiment as well. I know with our sport, hockey, sometimes fans just don’t understand the rules. How you are leaning into tech to help fans engage better potentially betting.
Gary Bettman: “What we all share in common is passionate fans. It’s that emotional connection to our games or our events that fuels that passion. Particularly with younger people and particularly when we’re fan challenged in person, how you connect becomes even more important. I start with the philosophy though you adapt with technology to the game or the event. You don’t change the game or the event to comply with the technology because in the final analysis we have to be really authentic to ourselves and it comes down to the great athletes that do what they do on our various platforms. We believe that giving younger fans the ability to get what they want, how they want it and when they want it more than ever before. When I was growing up, all you could do is imagine what the inside of a locker room looked like. But now we have these all-access shows which Millennials and Gen Z’s crave. Not only do they want to know what we are doing in the community and do we embrace social justice, making a difference in people’s lives. All things that are more important to them than prior generations but they also want to know more about the players. They want to know more about what leads you to the point of putting on your game or your event. We’ve strived very hard to give them new touch points. Whether it’s all-access shows, whether its sports betting, whether it’s the creation of new data, million data points in one game. We invested tens of millions of dollars in creating a puck that we can track and being able to track the players as well–how far they are skating, how fast they are skating, where they are in relation to each other. Our game is so fast that people who don’t grow up with it are sometimes intimidated by it. All of these technology platforms can bring you inside the game, slow it down for you and give you a better understanding. Once you become a fan, you can do it on your own terms. You want to sit on the goalie’s shoulders, we’re going to be able to do that for you. We’ve got great technology partners, Verizon, SAP, we’ve got a great technology collaboration with Apple. You see our players using iPads on the bench.”
Moderator Ruggiero: Massive technology companies are coming into sport at an accelerated pace…helping us understand our games, helping us deliver a better experience for your athletes. How is the business of sport changing as a result?
Cathy Engelbert: “The important evolution is these technology partnerships. No one sports league can do it alone without the technology partners who are innovating and have the capital to innovate. My prior life was on data and digital. Sporting events remain one of the only types of content people want to watch live anymore. It’s really changing the business and how we interact with fans. I think this kind of partnership and making sure that we all get the best thinking around how to evolve our technology platforms whether its in the arena, in our fans hands, whether its at the office quite frankly when we finally get back in. The one thing I learned in my year and a couple of months in this role is that sports is big business. Big business is about relationships. There’s some many things changing our business model.”
Stephanie McMahon: “I couldn’t agree me in terms of all of the type of technology partners. Driverless trucks, we’re on the road 365 so how is that going to impact? Wearable tech for the athletes. We saw our e-commerce business increase by 60 percent. It actually offset the loss of venue merchandise. We were very grateful for it quite frankly. I think one of the biggest points about technology and sports is what Gary said about the passion and the emotional connection and something you said Angela, the values. The tech really becomes successful when it creates an emotional experience, an emotional connection for the audience. One small example is we had the Undertaker, who I mentioned before, retire after 30 years in the ring. He is one of the most iconic superstars of all time. We call it Shakeapeare, he gets one knee and uses his hand to look up to his manager who’s name was Paul Bearer. Paul Bearer unfortunately passed and we brought him back to life in this retirement show as a hologram. To talk about it brings goosebumps because it was real, it was emotional. It was a moment nobody thought they would ever see again. They probably saw it for the very last time. That’s when I think tech is the most successful it can possibly be is when it generates that emotional connection.”
Gary Bettman: “I agree with Stephanie and Cathy completely. It does start with our fans and you see the way everybody is evolving. This panel doing it virtually. If this pandemic was 25 years ago, I’m not sure how any of us would be able to work. You need to evolve with the times but you also need to stay true to the people who love whatever it is you are doing. It’s about being authentic and using technology to connect people in more ways than ever before. That creates additional income streams. I’m not sure there’s anything in sports that’s as more important as having the people who attend live because that’s what brings people of all backgrounds of all diverse ways of life together with a common dream, a common passion and a common emotion. That’s really the businesses that we’re all in.”
While major sports leagues are continuing to play safely, they are using new ways to keep their fans engaged. Hopefully, fans will be allowed to attend more games in-person later this year.
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