Dispatches from Sloan – Eyes up, eyes down


The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference is as much about the business of sports as it is the playing of sports. For every panel expounding the newest statistics or and spatial analyses, there are two covering how companies, franchises, and leagues can make more money. For the four major sports leagues, the primary business focus right now is fan engagement. In the digital age, fan engagement means far more than putting an entertaining product on the floor. It means social media interaction. It means tailored, unique fan experiences. It means smart phones.

That last one may be the most important piece of the puzzle. Increasingly, fans have their eyes on their phones just as much as on the court. They’re tweeting, texting, and checking e-mail. They’re monitoring fantasy scores and watching highlights. Even though these fans have potentially paid several hundred dollars for the seat they’re sitting in, the game action doesn’t command their full attention. This is the undeniable reality of modern sports.

Whether this behavior seems completely normal or totally sacrilegious is for each person to decide for themselves. But in the end, any one person’s opinion on smart phones at ballgames is irrelevant. This is what the majority of people are doing, and thus teams and leagues have to adapt.

But not all professional sports are created equal. Football and baseball can more easily accommodate constant social connection and multi-tasking because of the relaxed rhythm of those games. Basketball, on the other hand, is a constant stream of action interrupted by unpredictable breaks. It doesn’t lend itself to smart phone co-engagement with the same ease.

Currently, Major League Baseball is leading the smart phone charge. The league is in the process of installing Wi-Fi in every one of their 30 stadiums. By opening day, they’ll have full Wi-Fi coverage in six stadiums, and they hope to have this initiative fully completed by 2014. This is no small investment. The average cost to “Wi-Fi” a Major League stadium is $8 million. Multiply that by thirty teams and the MLB is spending nearly a quarter of a billion so its fans can surf the web and stay connected at the ballpark. That’s a serious commitment.

On top of that, baseball is taking things further with their At Bat and At the Ballpark apps. These apps actively encourage fans to be on their smart phones while at the game. Baseball is a slow game in a fast-paced world. The MLB knows it has to compete against the 60-inch plasma TV’s and comfy couches that fans have at home. So they’re making the in-game experience as enjoyable as possible for the fans buying tickets. This move is critical to baseball’s survival.

In much the same way, the NFL is trying to engage its fans through their smart phones. Nearly half of the League’s stadiums have Wi-Fi capability, but the challenge to provide flawless access in an NFL stadium is much more daunting considering the size of the facility and the number of fans. But no matter the cost, Wi-Fi is something the NFL knows they have to do. The competition from fans staying home to watch football on Sundays is much greater than in any other sport. All NFL games are played on the same day, so fans buying a ticket to a game are essentially forced to miss out on the rest of the action. Plus, since no one is going to bring a laptop or a tablet to an NFL stadium to watch their fantasy matchup in real time, ticket holders are missing out on that enjoyment as well. The reality is the modern football fan is asked to make a ton of sacrifices when they buy a ticket. It’s evident from all I heard at Sloan that the NFL is aware of this conundrum, and they are actively trying to mitigate it.

As Wi-Fi becomes more and more available in NFL stadiums, the League will also roll out new fantasy and in-game highlight apps which only fans attending the game will have access to. The idea is that with these apps, the gap between the in-stadium and at-home experience will be narrowed, and the League will slow falling attendance numbers and ticket prices.

So that’s how the NFL and MLB are handling the rise of the sports fan smart phone. But what is the NBA going to do? Not surprisingly, Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban has a very strong opinion about this. Shocker: he doesn’t like it. He wants his fans’ eyes glued to the court as much as possible. He believes having a smart phone split a ticket holder’s attention actually detracts from their experience. I think he has a point. The best part of attending an NBA game is being a part of a crowd that’s living and dying with every bucket. My favorite memories from NBA games aren’t the earth-shattering dunks or buzzer-beating shots, but the energy of the crowd and the shared euphoria after those plays. That part of the experience is undeniably diminished when people are on their phones tweeting or checking e-mail.

So as I see it, the NBA has two options. The first is to follow the leads of baseball and football. Invest in Wi-Fi, build proprietary apps, and use those apps to drive people’s social engagement back to the game. This is definitely an “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach, but basketball may not have a choice. Rebelling against fans’ desire for constant engagement may be a futile effort.

The second option is to draw the eyes back to the court with changes to the rhythm of the game. Hockey doesn’t really have this smart phone issue. Sure fans are on their phones during intermission, but when play is live, their eyes are on the ice. Hockey is fast-paced and unpredictable. A huge hit, a breakaway, or a goal can come at any time. Fans looking away for even a split second could miss the best play of the game. The NBA is equally as exciting and fast as hockey. There are simply too many long breaks. If the NBA made a legitimate effort to reduce the number and length of breaks, then basketball might have an easier time holding fans’ attention.

The second option sounds great in theory. But those breaks sell ads. Ads sales and broadcast rights fuel the league financially just as much as ticket sales. That puts the NBA in quite a big-time quandary.

I’m not David Stern. I’m not Adam Silver or Mark Cuban either. I don’t have all the answers. But like it or not, the people who run the NBA have decisions to make. The behavior of their fans is changing. And basketball needs to change with it.

In case you missed it, here’s a link to the first Dispatch from Sloan.