Brian Ring: How to Turn the Sports Economy Back On

(Image credit: Brian Ring)

Recently, Seton Hall released a timely and insightful update of their well-regarded sports poll. They’ve conducted these well-designed polls since 2006. 

Despite the no-math Twitter mobs that think surveys are evil, this one has important clues as to what needs to be done to bring our sports economy back. And spoiler-alert, it’s going to mean an additional investment in transformational fan engagement and second-screen activities.

But before we dive in, I need to defend my fellow market research nerds at Seton Hall. 

Yes, D2C surveys have become cheaper to do, but that doesn’t mean some aren’t better than others. This one is great. Surveys are facts. They tell us how certain people respond to certain questions. The interpretation and generalization of that data? Sure, there’s science and language arts to that. But whereas Seton Hall’s survey gives us some answers when we need them, I’ve seen more than a few dismissals of it on the basis of a “small sample.” 

Bollocks. The margin of error is 3.3%--quite sufficient, thank you very much. So what does the survey teach us? You can read the details here, but I’m going to write in general strokes:

First? It shows us that Americans care about each other’s health. No one wants sports to return unless it’s safe for everyone involved. Players, staff and in-venue fans alike.

Second? It shows us that people are scared to go back to games. Only a minority of Americans are ready to head back to games whilst there’s no vaccine for the coronavirus. We probably all have a gut feel for that fear, but it’s nice to see data that your gut isn’t alone. (Wait. That didn’t come out right.)

But I see great news in this poll as well. Despite the conventional sports TV wisdom that no one likes to see an empty stadium, the Seton Hall data suggests that three out of four Americans will have the exact same amount of interest in watching a TV broadcast of the game, even if the stands are empty. TV is what we need!

And even better: 

There are plenty of fans (10-30%, if I had to guess based on this data) that will attend -- and they’ll be able to make plenty of noise. In fact those superfans and their superphones are another clue to the path ahead. Because for all of us to gain confidence about going back to games, these super fans, and their less-super TV friends and families, are going to be a key audience to engage -- simultaneously together.

But the workload is heavy. We’ll start with an audience that’s open-minded about sports with empty seats, as per the Seton Hall data. However, a good portion of that audience has been watching things other than sports. (Video games on Twitch for example.) So if they’re watching a pre-COVID-style broadcast with empty seats? I’m not sure how long that works.

Teams, leagues, and networks will need to be much more courageous, creatively speaking, to leverage these superfans -- and their at-home friends and family members -- in a deeper and more encompassing fan relationship.

That means more social TV. New second-screen applications. Real-time sports betting. Real-time fake betting, aka free-to-play games. And yes, it also includes the latest craze: ZoomCasting. Bringing videocons into TV land, just like Michael Che and the Saturday Night Live crew did in their recent, and brilliant, at-home edition.

Now, I’m not suggesting everyone in the TV business should ditch their live sports production gear for the latest video conferencing tool. And I’m also not suggesting teams abandon the in-venue event altogether. Everyone knows there’s an energy to an in-person event that simply cannot be captured any other way. 

But I am saying that live sports production teams, who work for the networks--and team and stadium owner groups that sell tickets, hot dogs & videoboard sponsorships--these two groups are going to have a real opportunity and challenge ahead. By working together to incorporate real-time mixtures of in-venue and at-home viewing -- second-screen services that include video, chat, betting, voting, sending gifs and more -- they will be able to produce “good TV” with empty stands--and they might even stumble into the future of TV. 

Said another way, now more than ever, we are going to need to utilize mobile devices to bridge the IRL energy in-stadium right into the laps of fans at home that want to participate -- but probably shouldn’t be the first folks back. We’ll have to press the gas on sports’ return together. Think of it as IRL, at home. Strange times indeed!

Brian Ring is an experienced video technologist and market analyst. He’ll host a live demo of his innovative cloud graphics platform, IRLchat, on a ZoomCast on Thursday, April 16, at 11am PT. Register here: