Quick Hits from the 2022 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Part 2: NFTs, non-linear viewing, facial recognition, personalization, and trans athletes.

Look, sports business and tech people love NFTs. LOVE. Deloitte says there could be over $2 billion in sports-related NFT sales this year. Money is now, as described in this nice Vox piece, a hobby and dude-centric personality aid.

However, there’s a tinge (maybe more of a twinge) of skepticism of how this is all going to play out. There’s a whiff of dot.com boom hype here for all the tech veterans. Gary Vaynerchuck stated at the beginning of the conference, “98% of NFT projects in the market right now are going to go to 0 or close to it.”

But the leagues are pushing NFTs, big time, and are a little more bullish on NFTs as a utility, versus a straight-up art or nostalgia piece (though that’s part of it).

Player images are not often stored on the blockchain, and NFT buyers don’t own the IP they’re buying, just like if you purchase a limited-edition book you don’t own the rights to that book. If you take a photo of a Mickey Mantle rookie card, you don’t own that card. A Lebron jersey doesn’t give you rights to use it to sell your products.

NFT advocates propose that the tokenization behind the image you’re buying is the actual “thing.” And that thing represents more than just pixels. Can a team-related NFT get you into events or parties? Can it get you access to limited-run merchandise? Can it get you into a VIP parking lot or into the stadium early? Can you play games with it, or “play to earn” points for some grander purpose?

As ticketing moves towards the blockchain, will NFT purchase barriers lower a bit? Can a game moment get packaged with a virtual ticket stub and a picture of you and the family at a game, then function as living NFT art on display? ……..Yes, I guess? That’s what we want, right?

This has been the case for a while, but the COVID era has accelerated a plain fact: people don’t consume sports in a linear fashion. I heard it verbalized at the conference more than in years past. 47% of people who watch sports on TV also watch other live content, which is way higher than the general population (33%).

What you rarely hear, though, is how Gen Z, millennials, and younger age groups don’t hold the monopoly on non-linear viewing. Are they driving the conversation because they represent long-term sustainability? Sure. But my father toggles between 2–3 screens while watching any and all sports-related content. Smartphone usage for people 75 and older is 60%, and that number is rising monthly.

So, let’s get rid of the attention-centric biases focusing on 14-year olds, and embrace the idea that ALL generations can be bored and restless.

The Columbus Crew (soccer) recently deployed facial recognition as an option for entering Lower.com Field using Wicket, a platform that the New York Mets and Cleveland Browns are adopting too. You upload your image and barcode number, then show up to the stadium, get scanned, and walk through the gate. The cameras can scan masked faces as well, and measure crowd density on the grounds.

The value proposition for fans is removal of friction. No phone, no paper, no hassle. I wonder, does a fan in attendance just figure, “Look, they already are tracking everything about me. This is like an airport experience, so I might as well make my entry as easy as possible.” For the venues it absolutely makes sense: more data, more security, more verification, less paper, less chance for human error. Welcome, robot face police!

Small Planet works a lot with online retailers, and personalization and customization have become essential to a customer experience. In the Marketing of the Metaverse session, the data showed the way: 89% of digital businesses are investing in some form of personalization, and 83% of customers would hand over personal data to have a more personalized experience.

That ethos is heard loud and clear for sports venues, and the technology push across the board, for every team in every league, is geared towards making your experience in the arena unique from that of someone sitting across the aisle. Of course, one of the compelling arguments for in-person sporting events is that they bond us in a singular, collective experience, but I digress…

What they really are going for is making your connection with their brand way more personal. No more blanket emails, no more generic marketing campaigns. Custom messaging, custom benefits and merchandise, custom food and beverage ads, custom experiences in the stands. The Miami Dolphins rethought the way they offer seat upgrades to season ticket holders, amassing a tremendous amount of data on which ones hang out with each other and then deploying targeted upgrade language to get them all to upgrade together and be in the same stadium seating block. Clever.

This Malcolm Gladwell-led session was just getting good before they had to call time. The topics ranged from the science-heavy to the existential, and everybody agreed more data is needed to determine how sports can accommodate and change. But the real standout on the panel was ESPN writer Katie Barnes.

They brought up great points about how much trans athletes are affected at the youth level by a striking level of government involvement, how identity and fluidity have been part of sports forever, and how women’s sports constantly confront scarcity (for space, for money, for attention). Read this story on states’ debates, this story on swimmer Lia Thomas, and follow @katie_barnes3.

Learning about the very active rebranding of the Harlem Globetrotters, it made my brain process how massive that task is, especially for a 96-year-old company challenged by covid-era venue restrictions. They typically do around 250 shows in 205 U.S. cities, so the last two years demanded a pivot.

In the ’70s, they were almost superheroic in nature, showing up and being generally amazing in everything from Scooby Doo to Gilligan’s Island to The Love Boat. Their style of play, widely-known personalities, pioneering approach to brand marketing, and broad, global reach were absolutely co-opted by the NBA (and just about every other sport).

What to do then, when you’re competing against your brand children? Go all out:

  • Create a new (coed) show
  • Get dynamic with licensing deals (Lids, Fila, Funko, Fathead, Champion, etc.)
  • Link up with brand ambassadors like Snoop Dogg
  • Get creative with the iconic logoed merchandise and exclusive apparel
  • Gear up an all-new digital drive (55 million monthly media impressions)
  • Invest time and effort into building new, recognizable personalities.

See? Soooo easy!

  • 50% of Seattle Mariners’ season ticket holders are part of their Flex Membership program, which reframes season tickets in really interesting ways (not locked into specific seats or specific games).
  • Blockchain-based tickets in sports allow for an increased level of tracking. Ticketmaster can get way more data on who/how/when tickets are sold on the secondary market (and perhaps get a percentage of those sales).
  • 4 million TikTok followers, $80 million in funding, big-time partners, 21 million (Twitter) championship viewers … so, Drone Racing League is a thing, right?
  • Sailing is trying to get some of that sweet F1 attention and money, so a couple of years ago came up with SailGP, in which the VR stuff admittedly looks cool.
  • Favorite random line: a student was talking about a baseball analytics session he just came from which had on the panel “some guy who worked for the Red Sox 20 years ago.” The guy is stats legend and historian Bill James, godfather of fantasy leagues and Moneyball, and for whom one of the conference ballrooms is permanently named.
  • More irony: When Bill James was working for the Red Sox, company policy was that no employee could be in a fantasy baseball league.



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