Beyond starting the National Football League season on time, how can the United States sports industry re-energize the casual sports fan during a time of marked uncertainty? Sports betting partners may hold the key.
You have to hand it to the many American professional sports league, team, and media organizations for producing meaningful, albeit shortened, seasons and playoff series, as well as the NFL on-schedule start during the Covid-19 pandemic. These are remarkable feats.
But it’s hard to argue that the overall sports fan experience hasn’t suffered.
The US live sports hiatus knocked people off their sports media routines as fans are now asked to re-engage and navigate new season schedules and playoff formats. Given the revised, crammed sports calendars, a natural pandemic-induced increase in streaming entertainment consumption, and the sometimes still visibly jarring empty arena environment with a weird exhibition game-type feel, it’s no surprise we are seeing a recent run of news about national TV sports ratings declines.
Throw in some potential social injustice pushback and it’s a testament to the strength of US professional sports brands that per game national viewership hasn’t slipped even more.
While hardcore fans have likely regained their sports calendar bearings, this unique time presents opportunities to understand the casual fan’s motivations and explore ways to re-invent paths to fandom in even more aggressive and experimental means than before the pause in March.
The infamous casual sports fan – the fan who doesn’t live and die for sports, but hopes of finding some connection from the shared experience of a meaningful game; and the one who experiences tv sports as an exciting entertainment production without all the hassle of studying every pre-game stat – how can we make it up to them?
Well, one way to make the event more exciting is to obviously put some proverbial skin in the game. Sports betting can make a non-event an event, and the long-term growth strategies of most American sports betting industry players seem to be well-aligned with core dynamics of attracting and serving the casual fan:
- Make the experience entertaining and fun
- Keep it super simple as to break into a routine
- Provide easy ways to connect and share in a friendly environment
Sports betting in its modern, increasingly accessible, and mobile-first form can provide all of these experience attributes to the casual sports fan.
Free-to-play offerings from an increasing number of providers are increasingly being leveraged among regional sports networks and by newer sports betting operators to introduce would-be casual bettors to what it feels like to have some pride or even a prize riding on a result. And they are a smart way to ramp up a database of prospects in the two-thirds of US states where legalized sports betting has yet to debut.
Innovation in daily fantasy sports is still happening in the form of tight focus and user experience, and the satisfying ease of entering a contest with a provider such as Monkey Knife Fight can make it feel like you’re playing some underground new platform even though it has multiple deals with a number of major pro teams.
Meanwhile, the recent blockbuster media deals across the industry should enable the entertainment leaders to partner with the operators to further demystify sports wagering at scale, and eventually leverage the return and transformation of the modern retail sportsbook experience.
The NFL has sought to assure team owners to not worry about lower ratings at this time, as viewership typically increases as the season wears on and the 2020 diversions brought on by competing league playoffs and the Presidential Election season wrap-up.
And I tend to agree, the year-on-year comparisons are not super meaningful and the ratings dip story will eventually pass. But as the recently jam-packed US sports calendar quickly slows down, the industry can certainly use a fan experience platform like sports betting and all it’s free-to-play and content flavors to help sports fans get back into the game and dependably follow their favorites.
Jim DeMarco is a consultant with sports industry advisory firm NextUp Partners LLC