June 14

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Lessons from Leaders – Jason Fox, Founder of Earbuds

David Millay

June 14, 2021


As we recorded our podcast episode with former NFL-player turned sports tech founder, Jason Fox, my mind was racing. We jumped from one topic to the next, covering everything from cryptocurrency and social tokens, to the similarities between high-level athletics and the business world. As I reflected on the conversation, there were three core principles that stood out as relevant to all sports & entertainment organizations. 

But first, a little background on Jason. After playing in the NFL for 6 years, Jason got the itch to join the business side of the sports industry. His launchpad idea was around something that came natural to him as he took the field. What if fans could be inside his headset as he warmed up, listening to the same hype music together? As time went on, it became clear to Jason that fans wanted to get inside those headphones. Michael Phelps as he sat by himself, preparing to win a Gold medal. What was he listening to? I personally think of Dak Prescott and his warm-up that has now been memorialized in the proverbial meme hall of fame. What was he listening to? 

As athletes wearing headphones to warm up grew more common, the demand of fans wanting to know what their favorite athlete was listening to grew. So Jason created Earbuds, a social listening platform and sports tech startup, connecting fans to athletes, celebrities, and influencers in real-time. 

While there were tons of tactical ideas discussed, here were the overarching three principles I took away from our wide-ranging conversation. 

Exclusive experiences, feeling like “I’m an insider”

Geared towards current fans, this is about moving your fans up a level in fandom. Think of the fandom pyramid. (Inverted pyramid). Your goal should always be to move an individual fan from the outside circles to the next inner circle, one level at a time. The strategy of making fans feel like an insider is limited only by the number of tactics your team’s imagination can create. 

Think of the Experience app. The entire app was designed around this strategy. Have fans who can move up seats, mid-game, if the seats were available. Have the mascot come visit you in your seat. The list of tactics goes on. And whether you’re in collegiate athletics working with donors, or in professional sports working with corporate partners and premium suite holders, you’re constantly focused on going the extra inch to make a high-paying fan feel like they’re more than a regular fan. They get to see things other fans don’t, they get a backstage tour, they get their own entrance, they get field passes, etc. All of those are tactics to ultimately make the fan feel like an insider. 

Earbuds is built along the same strategy. By allowing the fan special access to hear the same music their favorite player is listening to, you’re giving them a peek behind the curtains. It’s the same concept behind why JuJu Smith Schuster is one of the top selling jerseys in the NFL, despite not even being a Top 10 player in his position. He makes his fans feel like insiders through his presence on social media, his ability to peel back the curtain and let fans in. By doing so, he creates deeper emotional connections which leads to economic outcomes.  

Tapping into secondary interests

Whether you consider Earbuds as more music tech than sports tech doesn’t matter. What matters is the technology’s ability to allow you to create deeper emotional connections with your tribe. In order to create deep emotional connections, you must understand more about your customer than their buying history and information deemed traditionally relevant. As technology to sync and store data on consumer profiles becomes more democratized, you can create more relevant and personal experiences for your customers if you know what else makes them tick. Companies that will succeed in the future understand customers better than the customers themselves, a la Netflix prioritizing categories they believe you’ll be likely to watch. Or Spotify with their year-end Wrapped campaigns and playlists. Or Disney serving personalized ads for merchandise based on your favorite characters. The more you can learn about your customers, the deeper you can embed yourself in their lives. 

Sports organizations, like music artists and fashion houses, are part of the small group of brands that people tie their identities to. Yet in too many conversations I’ve heard senior leaders say “well, we don’t want to overwhelm them with communication.” If you were the brand director for Clorox Bleach, I could understand that sentiment. But you have customers with tattoos of your logo on their arms! 

Listen to the full conversation with Jason here

Do you really think if you’re sending out relevant, value-adding communication, it’s going to be “too much”? The problem is your communication has a one-track mind. It’s about direct sales. Renew your tickets. Register for your parking pass. Here’s the game schedule. Check out the game recap. It’s all focused on you, and not focused on your customer. 

By understanding your customers secondary interests, such as the food they love; the music they listen to; the causes they care about; the movies they watch; you can find new, natural avenues to infuse yourself into your customer’s attention sphere. It’s what big brands do with your organization. Sponsors like Dr. Pepper align themselves with college football to get deeper into the college football fan demographic, or to expose their product to a new customer set. 

The same logic applies as you expand your brand. Let’s use this hypothetical. You’re trying to create deeper connections with Gen Z. You’ve got an aging fanbase, and you know you have to get younger to survive. Your star quarterback listens to Juice Wrld to get warmed up. (For context, Boomers aren’t listening to Juice, but he’s quite popular amongst Gen Z). By having your star quarterback stream his warm-up music, one of two things will happen.

1) A casual fan who also love Juice Wrld will deepen her connection with your brand, because “the QB is like me.” Human nature is to gravitate towards other humans who have shared interests. Hearing her favorite athletes listen to the same music as her validates both her passion as a fan, as well as her choice of music. And she’ll like your brand more for it.

2) People who aren’t fans at all can now stumble across specific playlists or sets on Earbuds. A fan may stumble across your starting center’s playlist, and decide to become a fan of the player purely because of her choice of music. As the fan follows your starting center’s journey, the fan will find himself rooting for your team sooner than later.    

Tapping into secondary interests can deepen emotional connections with current fans and creates loose ties with customers who weren’t fans at all.

Collaboration over competition

One of the keys to success for Earbuds has been having access to consumers across platforms. Meaning bitter rivals like Apple Music and Spotify have all come together to reach the end consumer effectively. It’s one of the many cases where adversaries realized that collaboration, in this specific instance, was a better business strategy than competition. 

The same goes for most sports & entertainment. On the field, be competitive. Disguise your plays, lock down your practices, compete to win. But off the field, you’re usually not competing from the same customer. A customer in Sacramento isn’t debating whether to buy Sacramento Kings tickets or New York Knicks tickets. So share, collaborate, and work to win over your ideal customer. Even within the same market, ideal customers usually aren’t the same. And with teams in the same market, usually a rising tide lifts all boats. The more you can lift your head up from your work and come together to share ideas, share thought starters, share failures and obstacles to avoid, the deeper emotional connections we’ll all create with our tribes. 

One way I’d love to see more collaboration is between traditional rivals. I’d love to see a Home and Home marketing strategy. Let’s pick two bitter rivals in the college athletics space, University of Florida vs. University of Florida State. They rotate home-field every year. In 2021, FSU is playing in Gainesville at UF. Why not have FSU’s marketing team and talent pair up with UF’s in 2021 to drive attendance and excitement around the game? Then the next year, UF’s team helps out FSU? All that matters is that you get the fan bases buzzing and talking about the brands, why not collaborate more instead of trying to go it alone? 

Hopefully, these three insights help you think differently about the way you serve your tribe. To hear all of the other ideas Jason and I batted around, check out the full conversation here

David Millay

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