Why Sports is the Next Digital Innovation Hub

swiping a digital screen in a stadium
Ten years ago, few people would have predicted that sports executives would be having conversations about virtual reality, live streaming, and social media as part of their fan engagement strategies. But today is a different ball game.

Yesterday at Advertising Week in New York City, MLB, NBA, and NFL executives shared their thoughts on the evolution of customer engagement in major league sports and why they’re experimenting with new technologies from live video to virtual reality.

“Kids learn about sports differently today,” commented Dawn Hudson, CMO of the NFL. “They’re always on a screen, in fact we call Generation Z the 5-screen generation.”

In 2015, 86 percent of U.S. adults between the ages of 18 and 29 owned a smartphone, and 50 percent owned a tablet, according to the Pew Research Center. Furthermore, smartphone and tablet activity account for 62 percent of time spent on digital media and apps alone represent the majority of digital media time at 54 percent, reports comScore.

The panelists agreed that they have no choice but to leverage digital platforms if they’re to reach their target audiences, particularly younger generations. Social media is another important channel. In the span of one year, the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL all struck deals to live stream or create new content on Twitter. “It’s all about access,” noted MLB Executive Vice President Noah Garden. “Twitter provides live access [to news and events] and feels very natural to us.”

Another reason digital experiences are critical to the sports world is because only a small percentage of fans buy tickets to games. “99 percent of our fans never go to an arena,” NBA CMO Pamela El said. And when fans do attend games, they’re looking for an experience that they can share with their friends online, Hudson pointed out. “We’re in the experience business,” she said. “But if no one is throwing a tee-shirt at them in the stands and they’re not having a great experience, guess what, they’re not going to share that.”

Video and virtual reality promise to give customers the best of both worlds—the feeling that you’re experiencing the game courtside even on the other side of the world. "When the day comes that 100 million or a billion people from mainland China can feel like they're attending a Houston Rockets game courtside, that's the dream. That's the holy grail," Jeff Marsilio, the NBA’s associate vice president of global media distribution, told Fast Company. "That's what we're working toward."

In a partnership with virtual reality company Oculus, the NBA developed a 25-minute video about the 2016 NBA Finals called “Follow My Lead.” The video, which works on the Samsung Gear VR, is available for free in the Oculus Store, and as a 360-degree Facebook video.  

The NBA is still experimenting with the best ways to use virtual reality, but it’s already clear that “the fun of sports is perfect for VR,” El maintained.

Although virtual reality and live streaming are still considered experimental, it’s not difficult to imagine these technologies becoming an integral part of the fan experience.