For those of us who have covered the evolution of digital media since its roots, it comes as no surprise that both sports and video gaming content remain at the cutting edge of digital usage and even ad and media innovation. These are genres where we saw some of the most aggressive build-outs of major media sites, the earliest migrations of those audiences to mobile, to heavy use of video, social media and innovative ad units. And video gaming was a genre obviously skewed to both digital forms of content, as well as more tech-savvy and Web-focused users. In the case of sports, the key digital driver was always the sheer passion of fandom.
“Sports nuts” are well named. They are and have always been nuts for content, for banter, for data. The rise of the fantasy sports segment, still one of the most under-appreciated powerhouses in digital media, only exacerbated and focused this relentless hunger for content. Fans want and need more, more, more.
The sports fan has always been an early indicator of where mobile was headed. ESPN was among the first major media sites to see its share of weekend traffic tip to mobile as people watched games and used their own handsets to look up other scores, catch replays, or voice their passion on social media. And so it is not surprising that 436 self-identified “NFL football fans” in a Thinknear/Qualtrics survey are mobile-centric. They are spending 33% more time with their smartphones and tablets than typical mobile users, on average 1 hour and 42 minutes. The football fan is one of the juiciest mobile targets.
What do fans want? Scores, mostly. According to the panel survey, 72% are using devices to look up scores, while 62% are looking for schedules of upcoming games. A user's need to quickly check highly specific information is one of the reasons why this category is so obsessed with personalization. One of the challenges of any major sports site is the enormity of the possible news and data available that is probably irrelevant to many incoming users. Mobile has proven to be one of the best tools in that effort, because it allows for easier personalized push delivery of content.
Multitasking and second-screening is fundamental to this category. Again, this is a genre that has always been leading the way in emergent mobile behaviors. More than a third of fans (35%) use their phones to access even more sports information while watching football on TV. In many ways, the mobile phone is providing the interactive TV experience that so many fledgling companies pursued throughout the '90s.
Mobile screens essentially allow everyone in the room to share the common screen experience and personalize the interaction on their own displays. While many “second screen” apps tried to capture this energy, it has turned out that most people want greater freedom in choosing exactly how they want their devices to complement what they are watching on TV. It is interesting to drill into the tandem use of TV and device because it foreshadows the ways in which such dual-screening may evolve in other genres. For instance, the most common activity among those using their phones during televised games (86%) is to look up scores of other games, while 70% are looking at replays. In effect they are using the device as one might expect them to use interactive TV features.
At the same time, it is remarkable how personal and distracted mobile use is during game time. Almost half of these tandem screen users are actually playing mobile games while they watch football. More than two-thirds (71%) are social networking, or messaging with friends (68%). And any take-out food franchise that isn’t advertising heavily in football-related content, or targeting these fans in game and messaging apps during game day, is missing a big opportunity. An astonishing 72% of fans using their devices during the game are ordering food.
Interestingly, 21% of mobile fans are using the device in the live venue as well. This behavior has itself spawned a cottage industry in creating in-stadium networks using WiFi and beacons, synchronizing mobile content with jumbotrons, and even coordinating crowd responses.
We also can’t underestimate the power of fantasy sports in this space. More than a quarter of NFL fans say they are using devices to interact with their fantasy league. Those super-users are essentially data-holics. There is just never enough content for fantasy sports players. Virtually all of them (97%) say they are making at least weekly changes to their teams via devices.
Mobile sports content and the advertising attached to it continue to be a work in progress. In the last year I have seen relaunches of both SI.com and ESPN.com struggle with personalization and catering to at-a-glance user behavior. Balancing personalization against the need for media to maintain a curatorial function is an ongoing challenge.
For marketers, too, understanding how much local targeting helps you get to the right fan with the right message is difficult. But sports is one of those labs where techniques need to be tested to better understand how content and advertising need to adjust to the post-PC age of “me media.”