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Don’t blame millennials – it’s technology that is changing the sports landscape

The way we relate to sports is changing dramatically. Even the definition of sport is constantly being updated. Fans today can enjoy everything from video game “eSports” to the World Series of Poker to women’s mixed martial arts. And we can enjoy all those events from an exploding menu of viewing options.

But it’s a mistake to think that these changes are being driven solely by millennials – they’re not. Technology is driving the changes, just as it always has. It is true that twenty-something’s embrace technological innovations more readily than their parents. But the sports franchise that shifts its entire organization to speak to 22-year-olds (or dismisses them and waits for them to grow up) is going to regret it.

Older generations may take more time to adopt new technology – from cable TV to web surfing to Uber – but they eventually catch on…and faster with each new innovation. Today, they’re actively using smartphones and social media, playing fantasy football and buying single game tickets on the web. Are millennials loath to commit to season tickets? Probably. But no more than the Baby Boomers were. They just didn’t have the choice.

Fans of all ages want richer, more versatile digital channels that let them watch on their own terms, from any location, without missing out on the other things they care about. That’s why ticket sales and TV ratings for many traditional sports have declined, especially by the “old” definitions of season tickets and linear TV broadcast

Some leagues are actually disrupting their own business models. NFL RedZone delivers live, commercial-free, whip-around coverage of every Sunday NFL game, both on cable TV and the web. The days of getting stuck watching two NFL games on local TV are over. Today, viewers get to see every score as it happens, along with a steady stream of stats for fantasy players.

Give the fans what they want

It’s never been easier for fans to get what they want from sports without actually attending a game. Somewhere, there’s a four-minute clip of game highlights that’s so compelling that you’ll feel like you were there.

So, if their business model is built around filling huge stadiums, teams need to continue figuring out how to improve the live experience in a big way. Some fans prefer to pay less money to watch games from stadium concourses or in bars and restaurants instead of paying for a specific, physical seat. And that likely has little to do with how old they are.  I recently went to a Rockies game.  When I wandered into their amazing rooftop bar, I never wandered back out and had a great game experience.

What else can teams do? Adding awesome wi-fi is a good start. The Sacramento Kings’ arena set the gold standard here at the time of their new building opening a few years ago, with wi-fi service that’s many times faster than what’s in your home. Every fan can stream the game – or post video to social media accounts or anything else – live from their seats.

Several sports venues are considering installing gambling kiosks, a nod to the trend toward legalized gambling across the country. And the initial designs of the new Oakland A’s ballpark even includes an actual park on the roof – open to the entire community.

What do wi-fi, gambling and parks have to do with age? Nothing. They have everything to do with staying competitive in an increasingly challenging entertainment marketplace. And while community parks may not require advanced technology, wi-fi and online gambling certainly do.

Build deeper customer relationships

Technology is also giving teams and their sponsors powerful new tools to figure out who their fans really are, and to build more personal relationships with them.  Today, we can stay in touch not only during the game, but throughout the rest of the day, or the rest of the year.

To get there, we start by collecting and analyzing the data that most customers are willing to share in exchange for a better fan experience. This information has been available for years, but too many leagues and franchises have yet to capitalize on it. They’re not hearing what fans are trying to tell them.

And understanding how fans behave will only become more critical in the years ahead. One example: sports franchises are just beginning to explore over the top (OTT) media services, which deliver live games directly to fans via the internet, with no broadcast intermediary. That’s an opportunity to share personalized content and messaging with their closest fans. It is just too valuable not to get it right….and you better know your fans personally to reach them about your content.

And once again, while millennials may be at the vanguard of fans who cut the cord and abandon old delivery models, the key driver of change is new technology. People of any age ultimately benefit from better viewing options.

Dig in to the data

Technology and data bring endless possibilities. Imagine that a fan bought a LeBron James game jersey when he played for the Cleveland Cavaliers. But today, the fan is on his mobile phone watching the Los Angeles Lakers – LeBron’s new team. Should we send an offer for more Cavaliers gear, Lakers gear, or even a throwback jersey from LeBron’s earlier years playing in Miami? The data that’s available is granular enough to make a pretty good guess.

That includes deep demographic data, which can be analyzed more closely then ever. A study by Deloitte illustrates the many permutations of “fandom” by ranking the primary reasons for fan loyalty to a team: hometown (40%), current location (22%) and family history (14%) take the top three spots. So, while it’s clearly important to know where a fan lives, we might sell even more team gear if we can figure out where she grew up and what team her parents root for.

It can be risky to rely too heavily on age-based demographics. Today’s technology can help marketers make better assumptions about their target audiences. A 27-year-old is generally more tech savvy than a 50-yr old, but that doesn’t mean we should try to sell Skittles and Axe Body Wash to anyone watching a game on a mobile device. We can identify a 50-year-old who watches the same sports as most 27-year-olds, but still present more appropriate ads for an SUV or financial services.

Sports franchises and their sponsors can start building individualized customer relationships today, securing bigger revenue streams even in a fractured and competitive marketplace. It has nothing to do with age, and everything to do with technology.

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