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It’s a Whole New Ball Game

In the fight to grab customers’ time, attention and dollars, professional sports teams are changing the rules and even neglecting tradition. That’s a lesson for all kinds of businesses.

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BY Howard Tullman - 14 Aug 2018

It's a Whole New Ball Game

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

When our parents told us time and again to pay attention, we mostly thought it was a matter of courtesy and not of consequence. But, as it turns out today, attention has become a currency of its own, which we are each free to spend or squander. If you want me to pay attention to your message, you've got to find me at the right time and place and give me a compelling reason to listen. Show me quickly how you're going to make my life better (save or spare me something--time, money, work, bad decisions, etc.) or I'll quickly show you the virtual door and be long gone.

Billions of dollars are being spent every day by millions of marketers trying desperately and increasingly unsuccessfully -- amidst the growing noise and clutter -- to attract, engage and direct our attention to their clients' wares and wonders. And, if it wasn't challenging enough in its organic form, the task is made ever so much more difficult in the digital world by the abundance of hucksters, scammers, bots, viral shysters and every other manner of market manipulator selling phony video views, valueless virality, illegitimate likes, two-bit tweets and useless users.

Outbound and conquest marketing is just going to continue to get harder and harder and even less cost-effective, which is why more and more effort is being directed toward improving and deepening the connection and the experience of the customers that companies already have. These folks are the lowest hanging fruit, the easiest to reach, and the most inclined to pay attention as long as you're meeting their progressively rising expectations and especially their increasingly shorter attention span.

The game today isn't being played in weeks or days or even hours. It's a double-overtime, all-the-time, battle over seconds and -- as far as I can see -- no one is giving this more thought than the sports guys. Watching the changes we're seeing in sports broadcasting and the way sports are being presented to, and shared with, the fans offers a number of important lessons for the rest of us.

With the data now available and the mass of real-time metrics that mobile users supply, everyone has a far more accurate window on what works in every single second of these games. The smartest sports executives are using all this information to better manage user experiences and--at the same time -- to remake the games themselves to better suit both the core fans and to attract new populations to the pool.

MLB, the NBA, and the NFL continue to have a unique edge, being live, over so much other media that can be readily and easily time-shifted. But this hasn't blinded them to the growing need to get ahead of fidgety fans always looking for alternatives. Their small steps and the experiments have been fairly modest because, while the club owners are good businessmen, they're also very conservative people (apart from my friend Mark Cuban) and baseball, basketball and football are highly entrenched and sacrosanct parts of the culture and traditions of this country.

Still, the concerns they're starting to address are very relevant to the ways that every business will need to evaluate how they are interacting with consumers and prospects, and how the overall experiences they are creating and delivering to their customers can be improved. All the dimensions are in play -- how, when, where, what and to whom you are delivering your products and/or services.

Here are a few of the most important things to be looking out for:

(1) How Available Is It? (Access)

Everything is going global. Games will need to be played in the afternoon for European viewers and on weekend mornings for Asian audiences. Streaming games on Facebook (not contractually permitted in the U.S.) is already happening in India. How equipped is your business to sell to, service and support customers around the world? It's relatively easy to have your app downloaded in 100 countries. It's much harder to provide 24/7 customer support worldwide.

(2) How Long Is It? (Time)

Everything in business is now a function of time. No one wants to wait for anything. Games are being shortened with fewer time-outs and briefer halftimes, reducing coaches' trips to the mound, quicker pitching sequences, etc. because the average fan is only watching about half of any game. How quickly can you respond to your customers' inquiries, ship their goods, or dispatch service personnel to their sites when needed? The best businesses today respond to inbound customer calls in less than a minute.

(3) How Painless Is It? (Friction)

Sports customers want a quick, easy and friction-free solution. In this era of mass customization, the individual wants to create and share his or her personal experience on the fly. The teams continue to work aggressively to add increased functionality to the in-home and mobile experiences, including multiple selectable camera views, multi-lingual commentary choices, player, coach and referee microphones, fan cameras, etc. The goal is to supply everything you'd get in the stadium except the spilled beers and the screaming slob sitting next to you. In our own companies, the test is similar. How easy is it to do business with your business? How long does it take to reach the right person or department? How many layers and gatekeepers do I need to deal with to get my problem resolved? How readily is help available if I get stuck on the website? These are all quantifiable and relatively simple questions to answer. But the process starts when you start paying attention because, if you don't care about these critical outcomes, no one else in your company will either.

(4) How Do I Find Out What's Going On? (Awareness and Discovery)

We're all connected, and nothing is more immediate or interruptive than a text. FOMO is rampant, and teams are starting to use your phones and mobile messaging to let you know what's happening (or about to happen) and what you're gonna miss. Everyone wants to be in the room when it happens. This digital outreach has been especially effective in pulling in incidental and occasional fans and even newbies who don't want to miss the moment. How are you getting your messages out to the right audience at the right time and place so that they reach and resonant with both your current customers and new prospects as well?

(5) How Much of Me Do You Get? (Share of Attention/Stomach)

These days no one does anything important alone. Given everyone's limited time and the difficulties of reaching the most desirable targets, new distribution and channel partnerships are being developed in sports and the teams are willing to "share" access to critical audiences and mindshare as well with their advertisers and sponsors in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Split screens continue to display on-court or on-field action right alongside ads to avoid bathroom breaks and snack streaks during which the audience disappears entirely. In the same fashion, most new and smaller businesses today are absolutely going to have to ride on others' platforms and rails or have no chance of reaching sufficient numbers of end users.

None of this is simple except for the guy who doesn't have to make it all happen himself. But it's worth paying attention to, trying to get a little bit better all the time, and understanding that standing still is never an option. And, in the end, it all comes down to Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon's rule: "Try not to suck."


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