Why the US Leads the UK in Digital Innovation: Competition, Resource & Mindset
24 August 2023
I’m going to quickly ask you to jump into a time capsule and transport yourself to the 90’s.
Do you remember what it was like to be a sports fan then? Can you picture how you interacted with the team you supported? What did you see? What did you feel? Are the Spice Girls on in the background?
I still recall watching my Aussie Rules heroes on a Friday night, glued to the TV. I was no less of a die-hard than the young fans of today, but my engagement with the team was completely one way.
It’s crazy to think now, but in the 90s, you could count those fan interactions on one hand:
- Go to the game
- Buy merchandise
- Read about them in the newspaper
- Watch them on TV or listen on the radio
And that hadn’t changed since the first ever sports broadcast on TV in 1939, when Columbia edged Princeton in the baseball 2-1 at Baker Field. 400 people watched that, which was the maximum amount of TV’s that could pick up the broadcast signal.
Like a flywheel, the industry has generated endless momentum as it builds off the increasing connectivity of the world, rapid technology advancements and the general public’s insatiable appetite for content.
Now we’ve got it all. 24/7 news, apps, web, videos, VR, online stores – its utter chaos for the fan to keep up, let alone for the teams marketing departments. You can’t pull every lever, so deciding which ones to focus on is no easy task.
For sports brand and marketing teams charged with leading fan engagement activities for their organizations, their goals are all the same; sell more tickets, more merchandise and generate more revenue.
And this is true for both the UK and the US and something that they are a lot more aligned on compared to the game day experience I spoke about in part 1.
The amount of Premier League documentaries on our vast network of streaming platforms rival that of the big leagues in the US. They have similar approaches to content strategy that engages their fans and are great at telling the stories of their players and clubs’ history.
In social media land, British F1 teams’ joke around and have as much fun as their US counterparts, Premier League teams spend just as much time producing short form social content for jersey/kit reveals and many produce high level podcasts.
But there is a huge space where the US leaves the UK in its wake when it comes to fan engagement across digital and technology.
Whilst this is a broader cultural element at play between the UK and US as to why this is the case, let’s first compare a Premier League team and a Major League Baseball Team.
A Premier League team has 18 home games to sell out. The average venue capacity is 38,000. That’s 684,000 bums on seats across a season. They don’t have to try very hard to sell out these games and there isn’t much local competition to push them. Aston Villa aren’t losing fans to Birmingham any time soon.
Now let’s look at a typical US baseball team. They have 81 home games to pack out with an average stadium capacity of 42,000. I had to get the calculator out for this one, but that’s 3,402,000 seats. There’s a lot more work to do to maximize their revenue.
They are also competing with the local NFL and NBA teams for attention, so they are constantly being challenged at pace to generate new fans and maintain the interest of existing ones.
Digitally, they are competing with everyone for eyeballs, not just other teams. Our attention spans are now shorter than your average goldfish and we only have so many hours in the day to consume the endless pit of content on our devices and TV’s.
One of the major advantages US teams have are the budget and resource dedicated to advancing and driving digital innovation. They have separate Navy SEAL style small teams experimenting and trialing new technology to see if they have something that will move the needle just an inch.
All these elements create an innovation machine for US pro sports teams and venues.
That combined with an unmatched mindset allows them to transcend perceived limitations of engaging their fans digitally.
“We need to keep getting smarter about what our fans need from us and creating more customized and personalized experiences at scale”, said Becky Kimbro, SVP of Brand at the San Antonio Spurs.
“It may mean that the broadcast looks different for you than it would for me. It may mean that when I open my version of the app, I’m served a completely different experience than you are.”
Focusing on the fan as ‘an individual at scale’ almost sounds like a contradiction, but the US are obsessed with it, because they have to be. This fierce competition drives innovation, but it’s also an inherent part of American culture and business.
The ‘Silicon Valley effect’ permeates across the business landscape and the country’s psyche that gives them the permission to fail fast and iterate quickly.
“There’s also a whole host of fascinating technologies out there that we don’t yet have a grasp on yet and how those will impact our business”, added Kimbro.
“Web3 being one of those technologies as well as AI which we haven’t stopped hearing about in 2023.”
Teams and venues in the US are always hunting the next shiny new thing that could give them the edge, that’s why they are so tapped into these emerging technologies.
They also have a different attitude to the UK.
Scott Kegley, VP of Digital and Strategy for AMB Sports and Entertainment (ownership group for Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United) discussed this on our podcast earlier in the year.
“We aren’t doing brain surgery, we just innovate and have fun”, he said.
And perhaps that’s the biggest learning curve for the UK sports marketing and tech teams when it comes to engaging fans in the digital space – the innovation mindset.
Being overly cautious about these emerging technologies is a missed opportunity.
When you read about the latest sports-owned DAO, fan loyalty app built on the blockchain or a new teams metaverse experience, I can all but guarantee that it’s coming out of the US.
Even for those UK-based organizations that don’t have endless resources and stretched teams, a mindset that permeates from the top goes a long way. Senior leaders need to create spaces for their people to trial new things or release more budget to truly commit to development and innovations that engage fans using technology. The evidence would suggest that there is significant financial upside when you get it right.
Thinking bigger will galvanize these teams to push boundaries that unlock new avenues to connect with their fans. Social media, OTT platforms and CRM will continue to be the bedrock of digital fan engagement strategies, but what is beyond the horizon that they could pioneer? All in the name of connecting fans with their team like never before? It’s time to be brave and find out.
Got the mindset and plan to capture new fans and their valuable data? We can help with that. Get in touch