Future of Sports
Chatting Sports Tech

Edition #7 – Five On Fan Engagement

Five Thoughts on Fan Engagement Tech – Part 1

Last edition went in deep on gamification, which sets us up perfectly to transition to today’s topic: fan engagement. 

One quick housekeeping item: For newsletter subscribers only, I’ll be writing a brief roundup on new investments in sports tech dropping weekly on Fridays. Subscribe at the top of this page if that’s up your alley. I WILL NOT be posting those round-ups to this Chatting Sports Tech website.

Back to fan engagement. The Enterprise Solutions team has spent significant time thinking about the future of fan engagement technology given EngageMint’s core offerings around customer experience. Over the past two months, we’ve spoken with over 40 companies with fan engagement platforms or products. The below are some of my thoughts from those conversations.

Let’s dive in…

1) Collectively We Need To Be Smarter About How We Talk About Engagement

Oftentimes, vanity metrics such as followers, likes, comments, views, etc. are used as placeholders for value when it comes to engagement. Since these metrics are widely available and easy to track, much of the sports industry defaults to this data. The problem is these measures don’t always tell the whole story.

Put differently, not all likes or not all followers are created equal. If you’re running a marketing campaign, would you rather have 10K shares on social and generate $10K of revenue or 1K shares on social and generate $100K of revenue? 

As a rule of thumb, the larger the reach the more valuable. However, when you factor in the effectiveness of reaching your target demographic and alignment with organizational goals (for example, direct sales > awareness), going viral should not always be the goal.

The good news? Digital tools have become more robust, given the emergence of artificial intelligence and machine learning. The fan engagement companies that provide the most value will continuously adapt how they measure engagement and not simply rely on those early generation internet metrics (likes, views, etc.). 

2) Is There a Fan Engagement Bubble? 

Lately when I haven’t been scouring Twitter for the latest sports news, I’ve been reading the book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street. One chapter goes in depth on the largest speculative asset bubbles in history, including the internet bubble. Leading up to this bubble, non-digital businesses were changing their names to include web-oriented designations like dot.com or dotnet to take advantage of higher valuation multiples. And the strategy worked for awhile….until the bubble burst.

Why do I bring the internet bubble up? Well, it seems like every company is slapping “fan engagement platform” to describe itself even if that terminology doesn’t adequately describe its products or services. A quick search through our growing Enterprise Solutions database of sports tech companies yields nearly 100 companies having a description including one of ‘fan engagement,’ ‘fan experience’ or ‘engagement platform.’ 

For example, we’ve looked into some companies that provide in-venue digital displays. How do they label themselves? Fan Engagement Platforms. Technically not untrue since fans engage with digital displays but if I’m in marketing at a college athletic department evaluating fan engagement strategies, I probably don’t have the authority to recommend a new in-stadium digital display.

So are we in a full-on fan engagement bubble? Probably not the appropriate terminology. But I would say the uptick in companies focused on “fan engagement” is real and sadly unsustainable. 

3) The Business Model For Fan Engagement Companies Is Overly Reliant on Sponsors 

Obviously there’s a cost for any sports property to plug in a new fan engagement technology. But when we talk with fan engagement companies, they argue a sponsor will easily cover the cost. That’s logical; however, it doesn’t make for an easy sales process.

What do I mean? Let’s say I was the decision maker in an athletic department and Start-up X pitched me a free-to-play game costing $20K that will not only double in-app engagement but also create $50K of sponsorable inventory. Even if I take the doubling of engagement as fact with a tangible benefit to my fans, I can’t take the $50K of sponsorship revenue for granted without having to jump through some hoops. 

To realize that revenue, I would have to revisit my current sponsor portfolio and gauge interest in the new asset. If no existing sponsor is willing to spend more for an unproven asset, I may then need to find a new sponsor and they don’t grow on trees. Given sponsor relationships would be managed by a different department or a third party rights-holder, there are now four parties required to reach a successful outcome (Gaming Start-up, Me in Marketing, Sponsorships Sales, Brand / Sponsor). The complexity to reach a deal compounds as the number of parties increases. 

If I agree in principle with the free-to-play game but can’t get a new sponsor and my sponsorship team on board, I’ve simply created a cost center with no clear path to ROI.

4) Fan Engagement Is Worthless Without Data Collection and Data Analysis

If you are not collecting information on your fans while engaging them, your organization is missing out. This includes an inability to understand if adjustments to features are required (i.e., something causing bounce rate) and inability to monetize active fans down the road. 

Now, most fan engagement companies I’ve spoken with understand the value of capturing data and providing back-end analytics to their clients. The problem though is knowing how to act on that data to drive operations. Too much data can result in paralysis.  

There’s also the privacy issue from data collection, clearly a regulatory priority between GDPR in Europe and the California Consumer Protection Law. However, recent research shows people are willing to provide non-essential personal information if it leads to more desirable personalized experiences. Thus, the ultimate winners creating fan engagement technology will leverage the data collected to provide the most personalization. 

5) Give Me A Company That Stands Out

Sure. Let’s talk about CUE Audio, which is not only fascinating from a technology perspective but also has a smart business model.

First the technology. CUE patented technology that collects data through sound and turns phone speakers into audio beacons. For in-person events, CUE will create an inaudible audio file to play over a team’s speaker. Phones recognize the trigger and give CUE access to play video or content through the phone. No wifi, cell service or bluetooth is required, important for older venues with poor connectivity. 

Additionally, when the pandemic kept fans from attending events live, CUE innovated, building a new sync feature which allows videos or content to be pushed to fans anywhere across the globe (though requiring a connection). 

You may be asking where does the fan engagement component fit in? Well, CUE’s most popular product is an experiential light show that has been activated at hundreds of sporting events across the pro and college ranks. It’s a cool, immersive experience where fans become part of the show by using their phones. Memorable and unique? Check and check. 

The company does much more than light shows but since I want to keep this short, check out the company website for more use cases. 

Besides their game changing technology, CUE separates itself from other fan engagement technologies on the business side for multiple reasons: 

  • Whereas I mentioned an industry over reliance on sponsors above, CUE often goes to market with a sponsor, having partnered with the major soft drink partners when pitching several teams. 
  • Standard contracts usually span the length of a season, not an annual period, showing a willingness to work around the client’s schedule. 
  • The technology can integrate directly into an existing mobile app and become a traffic driver (downloads of team apps for attendees spike before an event). Relying on a separate CUE audio app would create an unnecessary friction to adoption.
  • CUE continues adding features, providing upsell opportunities for them and new experiences for fans. During the pandemic, a couple universities used CUE’s trivia module to engage fans from home during the week. (Yes I know I bashed trivia as stale and undifferentiated in the gamification edition but with CUE you can upload corresponding videos, making it more of an interactive experience).

That’s all for now. Until next time,

– Charles

The next newsletter topic will be The Gen Z Problem

Do you disagree with these takes? Let me know via email (charles@engagemintpartners.com). And if you’re in the process of evaluating fan engagement technologies, shoot me a note. The EngageMint Partners team would love to hear your thought process.

If you enjoyed this edition, tell your friends or colleagues about Chatting Sports Tech. Add me on LinkedIn and follow me on Twitter @ccampisi_EES.

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Future of Sports
Chatting Sports Tech

Edition #6 – Gamification

Why Gamification Must Be Part Of Your Digital Strategy

After last edition shared thoughts on ticketing trends, let’s pivot to a more fun topic. Gamification. Who doesn’t love a good game? 

Gamification is nothing new. But whereas gaming used to be a way to pass the time, gamification must be a part of any sports organization’s digital strategy for engaging fans.

In this edition, I’m going to:

  • Define Gamification
  • Talk about how the world’s biggest companies embrace gamification
  • Discuss the importance to the sports industry
  • Touch on some of the sports tech companies in the space
  • Give some predictions for the future

Let’s dive in…

So what do you mean when you say Gamification?

The term gamification traces its roots to 2002 but didn’t hit the mainstream until 2011. This article describes the history and basics but here are the most salient points: 

  • Definition: Applying fun and addictive elements of games to real-world activities to encourage engagement
  • Gamification relies on principles of psychology to drive behavior. The article lists three main components: 1) Motivation, 2) Mastery and 3) Triggers
  • Motivation = Reason someone participates in the game; the best games use intrinsic goals
  • Mastery = Set of rules or skill needed to compete at the game; should be fair and skill-based; not determined solely by luck
  • Triggers = Actions that create a positive feedback mechanism
  • Some other popular gamification aspects include loyalty programs, leaderboards and status bars

Gamification is critical because it helps solve a key challenge every business faces – user retention. 

Before we proceed, gamification is not an entirely new concept. Sweepstakes, contests, leaderboards, loyalty programs, etc. have been around for decades. But it’s the explicit intentionality when designing digital features that has made gamification a recent hot topic. 

That’s some helpful context. Where can you find gamification in the world? 

Short answer: Everywhere. It’s difficult to find a successful consumer facing technology company not built with gamification principles. Some examples across various industries: 

  • Social Networks -> Facebook, Twitter, Tik Tok, Instagram all have feedback loops with likes / follow features 
  • Fitness Apps -> Peloton uses leaderboards and tracks progress throughout a workout
  • Financial Services -> Robinhood uses push notifications and rains confetti when you make a trade 

Here’s a great twitter thread from an Andreesen Horowitz partner exploring gamification examples 

But gamification does not need to only be used for customer engagement. The applications can be much broader. Here’s a case study how Amazon is expanding its gamification program for warehouse employees to improve performance on monotonous tasks.  

Interesting. Bring it back to the world of sports. 

Sports teams are no different from other consumer facing businesses. Fans are consumers and teams are in a constant battle to capture more fan attention. Your fans already tune in to watch your matches but how are they spending their time before and after? They might be reading recaps or checking injury updates already but what else can you do to drive engagement? Enter gamification. 

“Fan engagement platform” has become the trendy way to label a digital platform that includes some level of gamification. We mentioned in edition 2 how professional sports organizations have wisened up and are using team mobile apps as the new fan hub. Most of these mobile app platforms have built-in trivia, loyalty programs and / or other free-to-play games or at least integrations with a third party provider for those features. 

The benefits to a team are obvious. Some examples: 

  • Games drive certain fan behaviors. Many colleges establish rewards programs to get students to attend non-revenue generating sports (i.e., geofence the area for check-in). Students are intrinsically motivated to show they are the most loyal fan and reach the top of the leaderboard.
  • Games drive traffic to a mobile app or website resulting in greater sponsor exposure which can be leveraged for more revenue. A weekly trivia contest creates a sponsorable asset (“brought to you by XX”) plus gets fans in a rhythm of visiting your mobile app and puts more eyeballs on sponsor activations.
  • Games improve fan profiles. If certain fans always enter contests to win an autographed team jersey or unique gameday experience, they can be retargeted with a new merchandise drop or ticket sale link with a higher probability of conversion. 

Final point and it’s a big one: Gambling. Everyone and their mothers are bullish about the impact of legalized gambling to grow the entire sports industry since every research study conducted shows having money on a certain outcome results in higher levels of engagement. We could spend all day on this topic so let’s just focus on one angle: Gambling Properties are in a land grab to acquire customers and in the process, sponsoring sports teams everywhere. 

The playbook usually looks like this. A gambling company enters into a partnership with a team. As part of the deal, especially in states that haven’t legalized mobile gambling, the team introduces a free-to-play game sponsored by the gambling company. Often these are prediction games which involve a series of ‘bets’ without money tied to them. The gambling company gains access to customer information, which can be used to find higher prospect future customers (i.e., fans who are bad at making predictions). Recently, the Warriors, Cavs, LA Kings, Clippers and Bulls all announced partnerships with Betway that appear to be following this playbook. 

I’m not going to comment on the ethical implications of encouraging gambling. Plus what gambling apps know about you is scary. But if you assume gambling being adopted across the entire US is inevitable, teams might as well use this opportunity to create new assets and revenue streams. 

Who are some of the interesting companies in this space?

Most sports organizations don’t have the capabilities or employee expertise to internally create a mobile app with gamification features or design the technology for free-to-play games. Thus A LOT of companies have emerged looking to capitalize. Here’s just a handful of the companies we’ve looked into for Enterprise Solutions:

Companies building games for properties as their core offering:

  • FanBeat – Mobile sports application helps increase fan engagement through gamified live-action and curated content
  • FanneX – Mobile application designed to provide interactive entertainment for sports and entertainment event production
  • Tally – Free-to-play sports prediction platform dedicated to powering immersive, real-time predictive experiences
  • Partake – Mobile fan-engagement platform enhances the experience and connects the fan to the venue
  • Boom Sports – Builds mobile gaming products in conjunction with sports properties
  • GTG Network – Powers arcade-style games for organizations

Companies offering gamification features as part of broader services and products:

  • PICO – SaaS fan management platform to help sports teams, live events and brands build relationships with fans
  • Jebbit – Marketing platform designed to collect & activate relevant consumer data through innovative mobile experiences
  • Cue Audio – Utilize proprietary audio technology for real-time mobile trivia game; also building out 50/50 raffle capabilities
  • SportBuff – Developer of a live-streaming solution platform designed to create a live social game around the video content
  • LiveLike – Audience engagement platform allows broadcasters to transform streaming into fan-driven interactive experiences
  • Rebus – Platform designed to help events achieve profitability by giving event attendees an easy way to tailor their experience; donations, auctions, sweepstakes, raffles, trivias, gamification, etc.

Mobile app providers with gamification features:

  • FromNowOn – One-stop-shop mobile fan experience helping colleges, teams, leagues and venues transform the fan experience on gameday; includes loyalty program and trivia platform
  • InCrowd – Mobile fan engagement & sports marketing platform intended to enhance the fan experience; gamification digital experience tools
  • Fanisko – Fan engagement platform connecting sports teams with their fans and help them engage in mixed reality experiences; AR gaming includes Treasure Hunt type game a la Pokemon GO
  • Venuetize – Mobile engagement platform intended to improve and innovate the guest experience; In-app gamification
  • FanMaker – Athletic team loyalty programs intended to track and reward ticket purchases and other fan engagements; gamification through trivia and polls
  • Bleachr – Fan engagement features to test fans’ knowledge with Trivia and create buzz with challenges

Give me your predictions. What does the future hold?

I’m going to use a winner / loser format to address how the future will play out for the major stakeholders.

Winner: Fans 

We didn’t touch on it above but games are fun! Check out the Cavs partnership with GTG for some arcade style games. I could waste some serious time with that Hoops Daddy game.

With gamification features an essential part of the team app, content lives in a single place and fans have more entertainment options without leaving the team ecosystem. When you factor in many of these gamification features have prizes without any cost to enter, fans are winners. 

Additionally, fan expectations for gamified content will only rise. Competition exists from all forms of entertainment which means in order to compete with video games and social media, the gaming experience has to be interesting to keep fans coming back. 

Loser: Gamification Companies

Did you see how many companies I listed above? And that’s only a fraction of them. 

Products like trivia, free-to-play predictions, rewards platforms, etc. are all commodity-like. There’s no proprietary technology behind the design. Plus most of these companies are beholden to the platforms where users are gathering since these games rely on the team’s underlying audience. This isn’t analogous to creating a stand-alone mobile game because for every hit like candy crush, there’s hundreds of failures that never got off the ground.

So what’s going to happen? 

Those commodity-like gamification features (trivia, rewards) are becoming table stakes for mobile app providers instead of a revenue generating additive feature. Thus, these providers will need to build out their own capabilities or acquire stand-alone gaming companies to even get a seat at the table. 

Meanwhile, stand-alone gaming companies who don’t provide differentiated products or don’t handle actual administration of contests will need to create new innovative products to stand out. The problem though is that even if you create a new unique game, it’s really easy for another company to replicate the features meaning it’s impossible to sustain a competitive advantage. Gamification can help solve for user retention, but building a successful game in the first place is not easy and is why we often see the same tried and true formula (trivia, predictions, arcade style games, etc). 

It’s too early to speculate who the specific winners and losers will be from the companies listed above but anytime products are commoditized, distribution ends up being a significant factor. I’d expect some attrition in the category (i.e., shuttered companies), some consolidation and partnerships and even some new entrants (more AR/VR games) over the next several years. 

Winner: Sports Properties

On the opposite side of the coin, sports properties are big winners. Why? Since there is a large supply of game providers, teams have negotiating leverage. They already have a captive audience of fans and existing brand equity that gamification companies want to leverage. Plus, while hiring a company to build a game costs money, this cost can be off-set through sponsorships of new digital assets created. If properly executed, gamification can be a profit center, not a cost center.

Winner: Brands / Sponsors

Above I mentioned free-to-play games creating a customer lead generation funnel for gambling properties. That’s an easy example of a high sponsor ROI on an activation. But the potential extends beyond gambling properties. New assets created through gamification allow sponsors to activate in a way that’s aligned with their mission or brand, providing much higher return versus old models (i.e., paying for in-stadium signage).   

Loser: Fans  

Wait? Aren’t fans winners? Why are they also losers?

It’s complicated. By labeling fans as both, I wanted to highlight the double-edged sword fans face. When it comes to gamification, you are the product, not unlike how advertisers flock to Facebook to target users. If fans recognize that and resist the upsell attempts for paid products, you can simply enjoy some gameplay. 

However, companies have improved their targeted advertising and resisting is not easy. Posting this again since it’s eye-opening but check out how much a gambling app knows about you. People who are consistent losers of prediction games will find it difficult to escape the barrage of offers from a sportsbook.  

That was a lot. Can you summarize real quick? 

Absolutely. Here’s the key takeaways: 

  • Gamification means applying fun and addictive elements of games to real-world activities to encourage engagement
  • Gamification is everywhere (social media, financial services, fitness). The sports industry is no different with gamification being a core pillar of fan engagement platforms. 
  • There is no shortage of sports tech companies with gamification solutions or relying on gamification features.
  • In my opinion, sponsors and sports properties will be the winners from the increased emphasis on gamification due to commoditized offerings while the tech companies themselves will be forced to consistently innovate and defend market share. 

That’s all for now. Next week’s edition will be a mini one with Five Thoughts on Fan Engagement Tech.

Until next time,

– Charles

Do you disagree on what the future of gamification will look like? Let me know via email (charles@engagemintpartners.com).

If you enjoyed this edition, tell your friends or colleagues about Chatting Sports Tech. Add me on LinkedIn and follow me on Twitter @ccampisi_EES

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