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How Access Has Changed The Conversation Around Digital Storytelling

Athletes share more of their lives than ever before, leaving content creators to grapple with how to deepen the message in the stories they tell.

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Photo Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Athletes are sharing more of themselves than ever before, putting the onus on sports content producers to develop thoughtful stories to better connect with audiences. A South by Southwest panel on storytelling in sports discussed how to cut through the noise as a documentary filmmaker and sports storyteller.

“Athletes now have their own crews, cameras constantly around documenting their own lives,” said Gotham Chopra, co-founder and chief creative officer of Religion of Sports, who is currently finishing up a documentary on Stephen Curry entitled “Stephen vs. the Game. “For us, we try to cut through the clutter. It’s not about the access, not just a commodity, but what am I trying to say? Why are we doing this? Unless there’s clarity around that, I don’t think it’s worth doing.”

When linear television networks ruled the roost, almost any sort of athlete-related access motivated viewers to tune in to see a slice of an unknowable world. Social media opened the floodgates, however. Now that visibility has exploded, and fans can connect directly with athletes, there’s a need to tell bigger, bolder stories.

READ MORE: ‘We Are LAFC’ Shows Off Exclusive Content Opportunity for MLS, ESPN

“There’s a lot of stuff out there, a lot of access,” said Libby Geist, vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films & Original Content. “That’s just not enough anymore. There has to be stakes. The bar has to get higher and higher. We need to stay in our lane and not get stars in our eyes. A big name isn’t enough anymore.”

For ESPN, one of the biggest answers has come by way of longform documentaries, most notably its 30 for 30 series. Today, it ranks as one of the network’s most critically acclaimed imprints. But Geist remembers a time, not too long ago, when stakeholders were wary of viewers making time to watch hour-plus-long programming that sometimes strays off the beaten path.

“It was a risk to commission 30, hour-long docs,” she said. “Now we know they can sit for a long time. Not just for sports stories, but director-driven. Not just moments in time, not just a Super Bowl or big game, but much more layered cultural stories.”

The culmination of those efforts came in 2016 with ESPN’s Academy Award-winning, five-part miniseries on O.J. Simpson, “O.J.: Made In America.”

“The conversation around that was a ‘step back moment,’” Geist said. “People were not just talking about sports, the buzz around the level of discussion.”

That buoyed a new wave of production. Not only does ESPN have 15 to 20 new 30 for 30 projects in the works, according to Geist, but many of them are “big tentpole films,” like an upcoming 10-hour Michael Jordan project.

In addition, Geist and ESPN also have another platform to work through and deploy new content on thanks to the introduction of ESPN+. Though still less than a year old, ESPN+ is already paying dividends by providing new avenues to tell stories. Geist used the example of the docuseries, a medium she was once loath to push due to the headache of scheduling against billion-dollar live sports rights on ESPN. Now, though, they can be uploaded and binged at a viewer’s leisure.

The number of media platforms like ESPN+ and the plethora of other streaming services have posed the question to independent filmmakers like Chopra of how to make compelling content and draw in viewers. He said he’d prefer a small audience deeply engaged in the message of the project rather than a larger, passive one.

“The new platforms have really raised the game of accountability,” he said. “How do I invest? Whether [in subscriptions] or time, you have to earn that. It’s pushed us as creators.”

Ultimately, however, access does matter in the sense of finding subjects willing to offer up more substantial parts of themselves. Dexton Deboree, co-founder of Los York Entertainment, credits the NBA, in particular, for being a forerunner among organizations within sports that push a coherent message and let players tell meaningful stories. That encourages storytellers like Deboree to embrace athletes’ narratives as a microcosm of humanity to spur serious discussions and connect with like-minded people. Last year, Deboree released “Unbanned: The Story of AJ1,” which tracked the cultural influence of Air Jordan shoes.

READ MORE: Here to Stay: Generation Z’s Impact On Sports Content Strategy

“If I’m not into basketball, but I realize there’s a connection, suddenly, there might be something to that community,” Deboree said of how a personal story can create new fans. “I don’t know that we’re changing minds. We just strive to stir the pot and get people to talk about stuff [that] maybe they weren’t.”

From Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell to today’s athletes like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James, athletes have always had the power to spark social dialogue. Chopra recently finished “Shut Up and Dribble” with James, the title taken from a Tweet James received from Fox News personality Laura Ingraham.

“What an amazing time to be alive in this political climate,” Chopra said. “It was conceived from the most popular player in the world literally getting into a social media war with the president of the United States. We went back to the 1950s, and this isn’t new.”

Pat Evans is a writer based in Las Vegas, focusing on sports business, food, and beverage. He graduated from Michigan State University in 2012. He's written two books: Grand Rapids Beer and Nevada Beer. Evans can be reached at pat@frntofficesport.com.

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NBA, Instagram and New Era Deliver Shoppable Championship Moment

As Instagram expands into e-commerce, it’s teaming up with the NBA and New Era to offer fans the opportunity to buy officially licensed championship gear.

Michael McCarthy

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Photo Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Sports fans are most likely to open their wallets and make an impulse purchase after their team wins a championship. As Instagram expands into e-commerce, it’s teaming up with the NBA and New Era to offer either Golden State Warriors or Toronto Raptors fans the opportunity to buy officially licensed championship gear as they’re popping champagne.

Here’s how the digital “tap to shop” promotion will work: The minute the buzzer sounds ending the 2019 NBA Finals, Instagram will instantly offer a $50 cap/t-shirt bundle for the winning team via New Era. The combo will be exclusively available on Instagram for 24 hours after the game’s conclusion. After that, the gear may go on sale at NewEraCap.com.

The 37.7 million followers of Instagram’s NBA account just have to tap on the post for details, then tap again to buy. Instead of being sent elsewhere they can handle the entire purchase within the app.

As the “authentic cap” of the NBA, New Era is currently selling Warriors/Raptors hats emblazoned with the gold “2019 NBA Finals” logo. The NBA, Instagram and Fanatics offered a similar “shoppable moment” after the Warriors won the Western Conference Finals.

“As the Authentic Cap of the NBA, we’re excited to honor the championship team with the official New Era Authentics: Championship Series Cap and Team Celebratory Tee Bundle exclusively available through the NBA’s Instagram,” says John Connors, New Era’s director of basketball. “This partnership gives us an opportunity to reach fans and provide them with product that helps them celebrate their team’s NBA championship.”

Paige Cohen, a spokeswoman for Instagram’s tech communications, notes fans “want to be part of” the winning team’s celebration. “They shop the gear, they get all decked out,” Cohen says. 

Cohen has a point, according to sports retail expert Mike May. Capitalizing on the thrill of victory can create a “financial windfall for those who have the right product at the right time.”

It can even inspire couch potatoes to put down the clicker and play the sport they’re watching on TV.

“When (fans) emotions are high there’s often a disconnect between common sense and spending — and spending just takes over,” says May, who consults for PHIT America. “It’s an interesting day and age that we live in. It gets faster. The immediacy of Instagram just adds to the festivities — and the spending.”

READ MORE: Canadian Craze Carrying NBA Finals Viewership

Instagram and New Era previously partnered with the NFL to offer a digital shopping experience during the 2019 Draft in Nashville.

The ceremonial act of young college football stars putting on the cap of their new NFL teams has become part of the NFL Draft day ritual. A photographer shot photos of the players in their New Era caps. The photos were shared to the NFL’s Instagram account, complete with shopping tags, driving fans to NFLShop.com. The caps sold for $30 to $38.

The NBA can tap into a huge pool of hoops fans on social media. The NBA’s Instagram account boasts the most followers of any pro league account. The account has drawn 11.8 billion views, and 1.3 billion engagements, this season alone. And Instagram’s new role as a digital mall keeps growing.

In March, the social media giant launched a “Checkout on Instagram” button that enables users to shop and buy products without leaving the app. Users enter their name, email, billing information and shipping address.

Over 1 billion people use Instagram every month, according to Hootsuite, with 500 million on the platform every day. Roughly 60% utilize Instagram to discover new products.

READ MORE: NBA and Twitter Team Up to Bring “Virtual Sports Bar” to Life

Sam Farber, the NBA’s vice president of digital media, said the Finals offer the league an opportunity to “test innovative initiatives” during its biggest event of the year.

With the Raptors leading the Warriors 3-2 in the NBA Finals, the series returns to Oakland for Game 6 Thursday night. If the Warriors survive, the Finals moves to Toronto for Game 7 Sunday night.

“We’re excited to partner with both Instagram and New Era to bring exclusive merchandise to fans in a new way.”

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Stanley Pup Correspondent Fetches New Fans for NBC Sports & NHL

According to NBC Sports, the Stanley Pup campaign has had more than 18 million impressions this postseason.

Ian Thomas

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Photo Credit: NHL

The multiple-month grueling road to the Stanley Cup Final annually catches the attention of the sports world. This year, one of the most dogged chroniclers of that journey has helped the league gain even more traction – Sunny, the Stanley Pup correspondent.

The idea for a Stanley Pup correspondent was the brainchild of Matt Ziance, manager of consumer engagement at NBC Sports. After seeing the way that Sunny, a labrador and guide dog in training, had captivated audiences as the official Today Show puppy, the idea of having a dog being a continued part of the network’s coverage of the NHL playoffs was spawned.

“Each year during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, we’re always searching for new, organic ways to stand out in our overall marketing messaging,” Ziance said. “While looking at successful campaigns across our properties, we saw a strong connection between our fan base and utilizing puppies in our campaigns.”

That led NBC Sports to incorporate the Stanley Pup across its broadcasts and social posts on a weekly basis. Across the playoffs, Sunny traveled more than 10,000 miles across the country while attending games in Boston, Denver, San Jose and St. Louis, as well as appearing at the network’s studios in Stamford, Connecticut – creating unique content while also finalizing his guide dog training by working in high-volume areas and new surroundings.

That content has been a boon for NBC Sports, the NHL and the reach of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. According to NBC Sports, the Stanley Pup campaign has had more than 18 million impressions this postseason across collaborations with The TODAY Show, the NHL, the We Rate Dogs Twitter account and the Guide Dog Foundation – an audience that includes many who are connecting to the Stanley Cup and the NHL in a new way.

Dan Palla, director of consumer engagement marketing at NBC Sports, said the network spends significant time in the build up to the launch of the playoffs each year thinking of “every single way we can make the Stanley Cup Playoffs bigger than it has been before.”

“The tagline we use is ‘there is nothing like playoff hockey’ – there is an inherent truth to that and every hockey fan knows that,” Palla said. “It’s also about growing the game and making the Stanley Cup Playoffs resonate off the ice, and thinking of new ways to draw people into the compelling games and the culture.”

Palla said when he first heard of the idea of bringing Sunny onto the hockey team, he said “it’s hard not to smile when you think of a Stanley Pup correspondent – we knew it was an opportunity to bring hockey to audiences in a different way that felt like a shot worth taking.”

The NBC Sports team worked with the Today Show staff to understand what worked well with Sunny in terms of content, as well as with the Guide Dog Foundation to ensure that the experience would also be beneficial to Sunny’s training.

READ MORE: Like Novak Djokovic’s Outfit? NBCUniversal Wants To Help You Buy It

The ability to capture hockey-related content with Sunny has allowed the two NBCUniversal programs to have cross-company promotion on-air as well as on social media, while also having hockey content reach new audiences. For example, the Stanley Pup correspondent was featured on the popular We Rate Dogs Twitter account, which has more than eight million followers. That also helped spark user-generated content coming from hockey fans and dog lovers alike on how their own ‘Stanley Pups’ were enjoying the playoffs.

Palla said NBC Sports has made it “mission critical” to help raise awareness of the sport and the NHL outside of the traditional ways of marketing hockey, something that he thinks has helped viewership. The NHL 2018-2019 regular season averaged 424,000 viewers across NBC Sports’ TV and digital platforms, up 2% from the previous year.

Both Palla and Ziance said the network has been thrilled with Sunny’s contribution to this year’s playoffs. While Sunny is now leaving the NBCUniversal family to become a full-time guide dog, Ziance said the idea of another future Stanley Pup Correspondent is something the network will consider not only for the 2020 playoffs, but potentially for the regular season as well.

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Twitter Doesn’t Want Sports Rights

Front Office Sports

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*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else.

You can count out at least one social media company from the TV sports rights game. 

According to Max Mason of The Australian Financial Review, the company is not interested in battling for major sports rights, but wants to partner with rights holders, such as TV broadcasters, to extend their audiences and bring in more money.

Friend, not foe…

While Twitter does have deals to broadcast games on its platform with leagues like the WNBA, NWHL and more, the goal for the platform is not to be a linear TV broadcaster.

“The way that we’re approaching our business and our partnerships in the space is not to compete with rights holders. I don’t want to be a linear television broadcaster.” – Kay Madati, Twitter’s vice-president and global head of content partnerships

Bigger together…

Instead of competing with one another, Madati and Twitter want to serve as a way for traditional linear broadcasters to be able to amplify their content and drive new revenue.

“We’re here to make those events bigger by marrying the conversation that happens on our platform around those things. We’re here to actually come to them and say ‘we can make your event, your investment in this property that much bigger and that much better’.” – Kay Madati

More video is good for Twitter…

According to Mason, video has become the dominant source of revenue for Twitter, comprising 50% of money coming in.

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