Since the days of the gladiators, sports fans have had an irrational bond with their favorite athletes and teams. Feats of athleticism evoke eruptions of euphoria or a tidal wave of tears as a game’s final play unfolds.These strong emotions create an indelible brand loyalty that remains long after the season ends.
Marketers are learning to exploit these relationships in new ways by expanding the scintillating sights and sounds of sports beyond television highlights to broad online distribution. By enabling fans to personalize their interactions with multimedia content and by bringing the game to their favorite arena – be it a social website or a personalized Web page – sports leagues are creating new online marketing opportunities that are increasing revenue. Typically, online merchandising of memorabilia and apparel is not handled by sports leagues’ online properties and is therefore not addressed in this article.
Sports leagues and their broadcast partners have historically been conservative in granting permission to use video and audio from games online. This idea was based on the belief that making highlights or live broadcasts available dilutes the value of live games and would reduce advertising revenue and attendance. For example, in the late 1990s, local radio affiliates streamed broadcasts of baseball games online for free. But within two years, Major League Baseball ended the process, allowing audio webcasts to be streamed only through the MLB.com website through paid subscription services.
Baseball continues its policy of charging to listen togames online today. Dinn Mann executive vice president of content for major league baseball, says the league listened to fans and for the 2008 season reduced the price of a season audio subscription by $5 to the former price of $14.95. “We tipped our cap to fans who complained,” he says.
Requiring customers to pay for live audio provides an alternative revenue stream, according to Mann. “Having a subscriber base and not relying entirely on advertising is of strategic importance,” says Mann. Subscriptions,which require submitting an email and physical address, provide an avenue for MLB to pursue online and offline direct marketing.
Major League Baseball also charges for video streaming of live games and restricts viewing to any games that are “out of market” from where the customer lives. This protects the lucrative contracts with cable companies and local TV stations that are the bread and butter of their revenue. Baseball game viewing- despite the lengthy 162 game schedule – remains largely a pay-per-view world, Mann says, because “some things are still worth paying for.”
This year is the first time that baseball fans can watch archived broadcasts of full games for free, something that MLB is”experimenting with,” according to Mann. The archived games do not feature advertising, but MLB is “exploring the right relationship,”Mann says.
Growing the Audience
Sports leagues are now taking a page from online marketers’ playbooks by encouraging consumers to personalize their experience in interacting with content. Instead of going the affiliate marketing route, the digital sports media companies are focused on partnering with social networking sites and other media companies that have established audiences of fans. The strategy is to encourage consumers to link to and save content on the sites where they visit on a daily basis, enabling fans to mash-up multimedia content to create something new from existing content. Marketers who join the roster of their online partners will gain a share of the spoils in growing their audience and reaching a new generation of fans.
At the start of the 2008 season, MLB.com announced a partnership allowing Yahoo.com to stream games and highlights.Yahoo will also sell ads against both pay and free content, although thus far the video has been distributed largely without ads. Through this agreement, MLB.com gets access to Yahoo’s large audience and the two companies share revenue from any transactions facilitated through Yahoo.
Professional and collegiate sports leagues have learned that embracing younger audiences on their home turf is the quickest path to rapidly growing an audience. The NCAA, in partnership with CBSSports.com, opened the video streams of its college basketball championship tournament to a wide variety of publishing partners with great success. This enables fans to see the content where they want it delivered.
Just a few years ago, video streams of March Madness games were protected from the majority of the population as if they were enriched uranium. The subscription service generated just $250,000 in revenue annually. But over time online distribution was proven not to be hazardous to the health of television advertising revenue. Subscription fees were replaced with free streams, and then the NCAA/CBSsports.com embraced social networking (See sidebar).
Free live game webcasts have paid huge returns, according to Jason Kint, senior vice president and general manager of CBSSports.com, which manages the online video distribution of the NCAA tourney. CBS Sports created an embeddable media player that contained multiple advertising locations, in-stream ads, and fixed positions sold to sponsors.
Online “consumption is additive and not cannibalistic”of the TV audience of live college basketball, Kint says.The streams were primarily delivered to people who didn’t have access to TV, including office workers. The media player’s “Boss Button,” which instantly hides daytime viewing at the office, was clicked more than 2.5 million times, according to Kint.
People will continue to watch games on TV if they can,he says, as the final championship game was the most watched game on TV and had the smallest proportional share of online viewers. Industry watchers speculate this type of arrangement may lead to new relationships between those who promote other events, such as concerts or entertainment awards shows and affiliates who can deliver a targeted audience.
Content owners looking to maximize their audience for ad-supported content should also spread it far and wide, Kint says. “Don’t expect users to come to a URL – bring the content to them.”
Like its collegiate counterpart, pro basketball also recognizes that working with existing online communities enhances rather than endangers its own digital efforts. For the past two years the NBA has “embraced the idea of distributing content beyond NBA.com” and is partnering with video sharing and social networking sites, according to NBA’s Vice President of Interactive Services, SteveGrimes.
Grimes says working with video sites such as YouTube, Joost and Hulu and social networking sites such as Facebook, Beebo and MySpace has increased fan engagement. The NBA makes highlight videos available to publishers such as Hulu and Joost to strengthen its brand awareness among younger audiences who are consuming a greater majority of their video online.
The NBA is encouraging fans to create their own highlight reels by mashing up content available only on NBA.com and embedding it on their social networking sites. “Fans that love the NBA will come to NBA.com, but those who like it will visit other sites,” Grimes says.Widgets that enable sharing of content are delivering interactivity to sports media. NBA’s widget page (www.nba.com/widgets/) contains embeddable code for showing highlights, up-to-date-scores and photos. The NBA has sponsorship deals with companies including Lenovo and TMobile for some of its widgets to gain revenue from content that sits on other sites, Grimes says. The league has also launched a fan application on Beebo to reach its audience.
“(Sports) sites are starting to realize the power of how content can be aggregated across the Web (using widgets),” says Tad Greenleaf, the media team lead, for Omniture Consulting. Greenleaf, whose company has measured fan engagement for the websites of all of the professional leagues, says that while some leagues have hesitated on widgets and distributing content to other sites, they will do so as long as they can maintain some control.
By contrast, MLB has not released any widgets as yet because “we haven’t reached the point that the content needs to reside on their (fans) pages,” says MLB.com’s Mann. “… We have taken a long term view and not just rushing to the tool of the day.”
Most of the sports leagues are more concerned about building traffic and fan engagement than selling tickets or jerseys through their partnerships with publishers, according to Ominture’s Greenleaf. His company built a social networking website for the Indianapolis Colts (www.mycolts.net) that greatly increased traffic to the NFL’s Colts site by enabling fans to comment, share content and create their own blogs. The leagues want to measure views of videos to see how they can be used to retain consumers, Greenleaf says. “How much can a piece of content drive people into the site, or are they hitting and leaving?” He says sites want to see if the relationships have “velocity” and are encouraging users to “dive deep” into the sites.
Greenleaf says another strategic play is for leagues to buy keywords about teams, players or about timely topics in the news because the leagues “don’t want them going to other places on the Web.”
“The key thing is that you need to control [the environment] if you are the owner of the content,” says Robert Tuchman, the President of TSE Sports and Entertainment, which develops corporate marketing programs around sports. Tuchman says those who market sports leagues have yet to capitalize on the legion of diehard fans that follow their sport. “They have to get behind their existing market or other organizations will control their inventory.”
Tuchman says while social networking around video highlights is the hot topic today, it should be part of a larger strategy that integrates all media. “Social networking is just one aspect. You need to sell combined media packages” that include TV, print and outdoor, according to Tuchman.
Scoring With Mobile
The days of learning how your team fared by reading the morning paper are long gone. Now fans want to know about scores, injuries and trades immediately, and the league sites are marketing to this perceived need. Through mobile-device enabled websites (WAP) and SMS and text-messaging services, sports leagues including the NHL, NBA and MLB are generating revenue from on-the-go consumers.
For the 2008 season, MLB.com added video alerts to its text alerts subscription service. The alerts highlight great catches or home runs from a fan’s favorite team that will be sent to handsets within three minutes after a play happens. The NBA’s “mobile to go” service offers team and player text alerts as well as a service customized for fantasy league fans.
Quattro Wireless launched the mobile version of the NFL Draft site for the annual draft, which took place in April. The site, which included photo galleries,articles, draft prospect pages, player analysis, and the full draft order, was updated in real-time as the college players were selected by NFL teams.
“The NFL is trying to continue to give their fans more coverage wherever their fans may be,” Lars Albright, vice president of business development for Quattrosays. “The NFL found that the draft is turning into something of an event … It’s becoming a marketable event.”
Sports leagues and news services originally charged subscriptions for notifications to mobile phones and handhelds, but they are starting to shift to ad-supported services, says Eric Eller, senior vice president of products and marketing for Millennial Media. Eller, whose company operates two mobile advertising networks (CPM and CPC) that aggregates demand, says one of the big trends is in-game mobile marketing.
For example, during a game, fans in attendance can be shown messages on their mobile phones that are linked to messages being shown on the big screens that sit high atop the stadiums, Eller says. Mobile phones “will play an important part of sports marketing around events,” he says.
Sports leagues have learned that by making highlights more widely available and engaging on their favorite online destinations, they can grow both their television audience and put more fans in the seats.