Austin, TX- South By Southwest unveiled an entire new track this year called SXSports. The track sits at a crossroads between sports, technology, music and film and it’s perfectly well positioned as part of the South By Southwest experience.
On Friday morning we attended a panel called “The In Stadium Experience In MLS”. Major League Soccer is the fastest growing professional sport in the United States. We learned some startling facts about soccer from another startup at the Capital Factory, like the fact that on a global scale the number of soccer fans outranks American Football Fans by tens of millions. Let that sink in for a bit.
With all that in mind though in the United States we treat soccer like a third class citizen. It gets barely any coverage and definitely doesn’t rank in the big four major professional sports, even though again, it outranks them all in fans (put together). That means the owners of Major League Soccer teams are climbing an uphill battle to fill the seats. But that’s what they’re doing.
I remember personally sitting and talking with Jason Levien at the beginning of his short lived reign with the Memphis Grizzlies, and talking about how more people packed in to see a DC United game than a Grizzlies game in 2012.
The sports track at SXSW drew some top level speakers and the MLS panel was no different. Moderated by ESPN’s Max Bretos, MLS team owners; Adrian Hanauer of the Seattle Sounders, Merritt Paulson of the Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City owner Robb Heineman were all panelists talking about the in-game experience, many talked about technologies role in that experience.
Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer said that the key to bringing the fans into a game for them is attracting the cool kids. “get the cool kids in the stadium first and the families will come, if the families with the screaming kids come first, the cool kids won’t come”. Naturally with the cool kids being millennials technology and social media play a major role in fan experience.
Hannauer also talked about using technology to eliminate paper wherever they could. They are using digital ticketing when they can and he also believes that the paper program days are numbered. Hannauer knows that his sponsors want to connect with their fans digitally, it is the fastest way to connect with a consumer. But the Sounders aren’t going to use technology just for the sake of using technology.
Merritt Paulson, owner of the Timbers said that wifi and mobile isn’t a big part of their in game strategy but he knows the importance of social media. An article published last year in Fast Company magazine highlighted Paulson’s 2011 social media campaign to launch the team. He ran and his marketing guy ran a risky social and ad campaign that made no mention of soccer or the Timbers it just featured the Timbers core fan demographic with iconic references to what the team would ultimately be. It’s even riskier considering Paulson is the son of one of the most famous and notorious bankers in the world, Hank Paulson.
When it’s game time and fans are in the stands though, Paulson wants all eyes on the field and on the game. That’s why they don’t have a robust wifi system at their stadium, but he did mention that their wireless signals have been boosted to appeal to the fans in the stands. Paulson admitted though that he isn’t afraid to use technology to keep fans in the stands. He’s looking at ways to incorporate in seat ordering to reduce the strain on the concession stands during half time. The Timbers are also big into rewards and loyalty, having programs that encourage fans to get to the stadium early and settle down with concessions as soon as they get there.
It’s quite the opposite in Kansas City a city that one of the four largest wireless carriers in America calls home (Sprint). It’s also the first city to get Google Fiber (but not fiber that was Chattanooga).
For Sporting Kansas City the in game experience definitely involves technology. Heineman said that they have invested in a solid wifi system so that their fans could interactively experience the game. He brought up the fact that one of the best ways to watch a sporting event when you’re not at the event or in front of a tv is via Twitter.
Heineman estimates that a terabyte of data is transmitted across the stadiums wifi system during every game. He wants to take that information, that data that his fans are producing, and find out as much about them as possible so that they can better cater to the fans.
ESPN’s Bretos encouraged anyone who hasn’t been to an MLS game to go to one because all of the teams in the league engage fans in ways that are only comparable to tailgating and the hype before big college football games.