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The Athletic’s Live Event Strategy Includes Deeper Discussions and More Star Power

Known for content that goes beyond the average game recap, The Athletic is hoping it can recreate that experience with events.

Adam White

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The Athletic isn’t a secret anymore.

What started out as a one-city publication that promised to provide in-depth reporting with no advertisements and a user experience focused on doing what was best for the subscriber versus what was best for the advertiser, the company has exploded in sheer headcount and market size thanks, in part, to $30 million in venture capital.

As the publication has grown, so has its offerings for subscribers — the latest addition being intimate subscriber-only events that have been able to provide those who pay between $3.99-$9.99 a month the chance to get up close and personal to their favorite writers.

After all, sports are built around community, and The Athletic believes it can not only provide that through content but in person as well.

“Since they started the company three years ago, there has been a number of informal events that have happened,” said Taylor Patterson, communications director for The Athletic and the person who is overseeing the expansion of their events. “It wasn’t till January or February of this year where we got into more formal, put-together subscriber events.”

While they are just getting started when it comes to formal events, Patterson sees an opportunity for the company to dive deeper with their writers, while also engaging athletes and executives from the teams the writers are covering.

“We did an event in Chicago with Ken Rosenthal and Peter Gammons that allowed them to really take people inside their world. Eventually, we’d like to get to a place where we can bring in executives, front office personnel, and even athletes.”

READ MORE: University of Florida Looks to Drive Engagement With On-Court Projection

Having already done close to 20 events already this year, the company is now going “on tour.” Thanks to a partnership with Homestand Sports, The Athletic began a seven-city Canadian tour earlier this week. Each stop of the tour features local writers as well as appearances from the likes of James Mirtle, Pierre LeBrun, and Eric Duhatschek.

Why Canada? Thanks to the publication’s coverage of hockey, a vastly underrepresented sport on other major publications, Canada has been one of The Athletic’s strongest markets. Because of the role the country and its cities have played in the overall success of the startup, Patterson and other members of The Athletic’s leadership team wanted to make sure they were giving back.

“Typically, we haven’t gone into some of our smaller markets because we just haven’t gotten there, but with Canada, we knew we had to go to all the cities that have signed up to make sure we were live and in person.”

READ MORE: Bucs Beach Showcases the Importance of Instagram

The tour, being led by Kevin Kennedy at Homestand Sports got started on Sept. 22 and will run through the 28th.

Now in their fourth year, Kennedy and Homestand Sports see themselves as a way to take what The Athletic has created online and deliver it offline.

“Our events are a direct link to their fan base. We allow them to get a lot closer to their fans. We sort of take their online community and bring it offline. That is my role in this partnership and it has proven pretty successful for both parties.”

Both part of their subscriber funnel as well as their subscriber retention plan, events will play a large role in the success of the publication going forward, according to Patterson.

“When it comes to events, we encourage our subscribers to bring their friends who may not be subscribed. While they are great ways for us to introduce potential new users to the site, the events are really meant to give back to our current subscribers as not only a value-add to their subscription, but as a thank you for their support. We would be nothing without them.”

Adam is the Founder and CEO of Front Office Sports. A University of Miami Alum, Adam has worked for opendorse, the Fiesta Bowl, and the University of Miami Athletic Department. He can be reached at adam@frntofficesport.com.

Innovation

Big3 Brand Comes With Diversity, Inclusion, Mental Health Awareness

The Big3 enters Season 3 with a new TV deal, new sponsors and a desire to go international.

Jeff Eisenband

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Photo Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The Big3 will open Season 3 on June 22 in Detroit. For those pessimists out there who were rooting for Ice Cube and Jeff Kwatinetz’s league of former professional basketball players to fail, sorry. It’s here and expanding.

The league will go from eight to 12 teams this summer. Year 3 includes a nine-week regular season, with seven weeks featuring two different locations. Along with the playoffs and finals, this means the Big3 will make 18 stops – the league hit 10 stops in both Season 1 and Season 2.

Another big move comes on the business side. Earlier this month, the Big3 introduced new CEO Amit Bajaj, a former partner at investment banking and private equity investment firm Centerview Partners.

“It was measured grow at first,” Bajaj says of the Big3’s business success before his arrival. “They made sure they had some national exposure through Fox. They built the brand with players who the fan base was actually familiar with. These basketball players are elite level talents, they have global followings, they engage with fans and people want to come out and see them in person and view them on TV.”

That was the initial business plan. With Ice Cube at the forefront and names like Julius Erving, Clyde Drexler and Allen Iverson on the payroll, the Big3 had a personality to build on.

READ MORE: 3X3U National Championship Puts a College Spin on Three-on-Three

Last season, after Drexler moved from head coach of Power to league commissioner, the Big3 filled his void with Nancy Lieberman, making her the league’s first female head coach. She led Power to a 7-1 regular season record and a Big3 Championship. In Season 3, she will be joined by Lisa Leslie, who is head coach of expansion team Triplets.

“Look, I’ve had a really great life and career,” Lieberman says. “For me to say this is one of the most magical things that’s ever happened to me, it really is because of the people, the opportunity, the players, everybody who’s embraced the thought of being different. Most of these guys, by the way, have daughters and nieces and sisters. They get it.”

Diversity and inclusion are themes that have materialized within the Big3. Mental health and CBD acceptance are two other topics the Big3 is hitting head-on. Royce White, the No. 16 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft dealt with mental issues during his short tenure in the Association – he only played three games for the Sacramento Kings, his third of four NBA organizations. White felt NBA executives, especially with the Rockets, failed to understand the struggles he experienced with mental health.

But White, 28, who played in Canada from 2016-2018, was the No. 1 pick in this year’s Big3 Draft by Enemies, an expansion team coached by Rick Mahorn. Lamar Odom will also serve as a co-captain for the team. Larry Sanders, 30, who battled his own mental health issues, exiting the NBA with skill and money still on the table, was the No. 3 pick in this year’s Big3 Draft by 3 Headed Monsters, coached by Gary Payton.

“We are all cheering for them,” says Amy Trask, Big3 Chairman of the Board, who previously served as league CEO. Her and Bajaj also note the storylines of these players, which will be a focus on the content side of Season 3. Trask has been at the forefront of progressivism in sports for decades now. In 1997, she was hired as CEO of the Oakland Raiders by Al Davis and held that position until her resignation in 2013, earning the nickname, “Princess of Darkness.”

“To work with men like Cube, like Jeff and Clyde and Amit and our coaches and our players who evaluate everyone on merit and without regard to race, gender, ethnicity or religion for business, should work,” Trask says. If there’s such a thing as ‘Business Darwinism,’ businesses that don’t operate that way should fail because by definition, a business that operates in the other manner is excluding that swath of qualified people. Sorry about the soap box, but it’s just exciting to me and I realized my great fortune.”

While most sports leagues are navigating away from CBD and marijuana, the Big3 is leaning in. In April, the league announced an official partnership with cbdMD, making the brand the official jersey sponsor of all 12 teams.

This progressivism is the identify the Big3 has created. That builds a narrative for business discussions. In terms of actual deals being made, Bajaj, Trask and their team are bringing some down the pipeline. Toyota is the new sponsor of the league’s four-point shot, branded this season as the “RAV4-Point-Circle.” Toyota will also be involved with giveaways, hospitality suites and other activations.

Perhaps the most-high profile business move of the Big3’s offseason came with the announcement the TV broadcast will shift from Fox Sports, the partner for Seasons 1 and 2, to CBS Sports for Season 3.

With the CBS move, Bajaj does not expect the style of coverage to change, but the exposure will.

“Fox is obviously a great network,” he says. “They were viewed as a great partner, but now on CBS, we have a substantial number of hours on the main network. CBS is the number one broadcast network in the country and they’ve been so for a long time and they have the best brands in sports by far.”

READ MORE: Nike Aims to Better Support Women’s Basketball with Apparel, Action

With Fox, the Big3 was able to reach into 48 different countries – according to Trask – and Bajaj says part of his job is to keep expanding on that. The league went to Toronto in Season 2, and although the tour will not leave North America in Season 3, Bajaj says going to international cities was “absolutely debated” this year.

“We view there to be enormous potential for this product internationally and you’ll see us announce some efforts related to exploiting the league, the brand and the players,” Bajaj says. “There’s a global thirst for the product in other geographies.”

Bookmark that. In Big3 Season 4, maybe a stop in Beijing, Barcelona or Rio de Janeiro will be in the works?

Those international markets definitely have the basketball desire, but the Big3 is clearly about more than what happens on the court. So they better be ready for that too.

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Innovation

St. Louis Blues Gamify Western Conference Finals with ‘Enter the Zone’

Enter the Zone represents an early test case for how gamification might play out on a larger level amongst St. Louis’ fanbase.

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Photo Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Blues are gamifying the Stanley Cup Playoffs’ Western Conference Final.

Prior to taking to the ice Saturday night for Game 1 against the San Jose Sharks, the Blues launched Enter the Zone, a real-time prediction game for fans, with 2019-20 season tickets on the line. The fan with the best cumulative score over the course of the series will score two full regular-season tickets. Enter the Zone was developed with Tally, the predictive technology company founded by Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

With plenty of future potential for technologies like predictive gaming in sports, Blues Vice President of Digital Strategy and Emerging Technology Matt Gardner said the conference finals are a good time to try something new as the fan base is likely more engaged than usual.

READ MORE: Cleveland Cavaliers and Aramark Launch In-Seat Ordering

“We’re always very forward-thinking as an organization and finding new and fun ways to bring our fanbase together,” Gardner said. “The cool thing about this game and what attracted us to it is the fact we could pull something together quickly and utilized not at the crucial moments of the game.”

Enter the Zone provides fans with the opportunity to predict potential outcomes of the game, either prior to or during intermissions. Sample situations include whether Blues forward Ryan O’Reilly or Sharks forward Tomas Hertl will have a higher first-period face-off percentage, or which team will have three shots on goal first.

“We want to make sure fans are locked into action and glued to their TV or at the arena,” Gardner said, adding the game is meant to enhance the action and potentially take off some of the stress off the game for anxious fans.

The cumulative series grand prize isn’t all that’s up for grabs, as each game will also feature prizes for the winners. For instance, the winner of Game 1’s game received two tickets to Game 3, when the series shifts to St. Louis. Other prizes include individual tickets for next season as well as game-used and autographed items. 

“We wanted to make the stakes high for them,” he said. “We want them to know we’d come to the table and give them a big incentive to dive in and play the game.”

Tally CEO Jason LeeKeenan said they want their technology to be user-friendly and free to play for partners, whether those are teams, venues or broadcasts. The deal with the Blues builds off the company’s first partnership with the Portland Trail Blazers for this year’s NBA playoffs.

“It’s great because there’s added excitement to the games,” LeeKeenan said. “We’ve been fortunate to work with teams excited work in the space and kudos to them for rolling it out in the playoffs.”

The Blues will be proactive on their digital channels in reminding fans to play the game, and Gardner said the staff will use a lot of trial and error to determine best practices, even if that means adjusting on the fly. More than anything, though, the series will provide the team with plenty of research. Depending on how the series goes, engagement with Enter the Zone could influence future rollouts of the game or other similar actions, as well how the sponsorship is integrated.

“This is a good opportunity for us to gauge how our fans interact with predictive gaming,” Gardner said. “Sports betting is on the horizon, and this is a good opportunity to see the level of interest our fans have in getting to the predictive-style of gaming.”

The gamification of the series by the Blues is a play toward a trend the industry has heard a lot about in the past year. Between the integration of 5G and the proliferation of sports betting, many prognosticators had long anticipated the arrival of games like Enter the Zone. 

READ MORE: Winnipeg Jets Put Customer Service in the Palms of Fans

LeeKeenan said Tally is meant to be a way for all sporting events to build fan engagement similar to how the Super Bowl does. He and Wilson believe predictive gaming will be integrated into every sporting event within the next 10 years, both live and broadcast.

“We’re here to change the game, and we know these types of predictive experiences will dramatically impact engagement around live sporting events over the next decade,” Wilson said in a release.

Launching in a conference final is a pretty significant endeavor for the Blues. It also provides an exciting opportunity to demonstrate proof of concept. 

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Innovation

Topgolf Lounge Opens New World of Possibilities For Golf

The future of Topgolf is virtual, thanks to the Topgolf Lounges. But could Topgolf also help determine the future of the sport itself?

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Photo Credit: Topgolf

Topgolf has exploded in popularity over the past decade, but the original concept’s physical footprint is a limiting factor of where the golf game can expand. Topgolf believes that limitation will soon be lifted through the introduction of the Topgolf Lounge.

Topgolf Lounges will distill the multi-tier interactive golf game into an indoor experience using the company’s virtual Swing Suite technology and incorporate the entertainment aspects like food and beverage programs into densely packed urban areas and smaller communities. The first location is set to open in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland this fall. The 7,761 square-foot location will have four public Swing Suite bays and a private VIP bay.

“The outdoor experiences have taken communities by storm, and we’re really trying to serve and make golf as accessible as possible,” said Ron Powers, Topgolf Lounge and Swing Suite president. “We know the technology works and the engagement works. Now we need to figure out the balance and an indoor we can extend to highly dense populations.”

READ MORE: Executives Believe Golf’s ‘First-and-10 Line’ Can Help Build the Sport

The Topgolf Swing Suite was developed to offer virtual golf games in compact settings, and the company currently has approximately 130 Swing Suite bays across 50 locations ranging from bars to casinos. Currently, Topgolf licenses out the bays and lets the facility control the pricing and setting.

Within Topgolf Lounges, however, the company controls the whole experience — including pricing, service and food and beverage — and wants to further penetrate markets with their models. Powers called the lounges an “elevated, more intimate” Topgolf experience.

While Powers wouldn’t divulge specific growth plans for Topgolf Lounges beyond the Kirkland debut, he said the company believes the lounge concept is viable in markets across the U.S., specifically two ideal settings. The first is high-density, inner-urban locations — largely on the East Coast in cities like New York, where property isn’t available for the large footprint original concept. For now, the closest access to Topgolf in some regions is 12-to-15 miles on the periphery of a city center, Powers said.

“Now we can bring Topgolf into the core and complement the large facilities,” he said. “It’s thinking about what can we do with the different services to entertain the guests.”

The second is in smaller communities where a full venue might not be justifiable, he said.

“We’re an entertainment platform, but the fact we can mean so much to so many communities and contribute to the game of golf — as an athlete and business guy, I can’t think of a better place to be,” he said. “We have a voracious appetite for growth, and we’re looking to serve communities we’re welcomed in. You’ll see growth, I can guarantee that.”

Powers believes Topgolf can have a place in helping grow the game of golf as well as be an entertainment provider for large swaths of the population. A United States Golf Foundation study found that, of new golfers who’ve played less than three years, 23 percent started at Topgolf. That makes for a considerable opportunity considering that the company welcomes 17 million guests annually between its 53 domestic and four international venues.

In a February article in Golf Digest, World Golf Foundation CEO Steve Mona discussed the role Topgolf plays in growing the sport. He said there isn’t yet a straight line of conversion to golf from the entertainment category, but it’s doing some good.  

“The piece we think is encouraging, particularly when you look at the golf entertainment models, so Topgolf, Driveshack and, in most cases simulator facilities with social components, that’s introducing people to the game in a fun, relaxed, social and non-intimidating environment,” Mona said. “And these things help to overcome some of the perceptions of golf as being not welcoming and too traditional. So to get people into it in an environment like that, it brings people into golf in a way they associate with it being fun and relaxing, and doing things with friends and the things we think will ultimately cause them into the on-course experience.”

READ MORE: GolfPass Could Set Standard in 21st-Century Sports Media

Now, beyond the original Topgolf experience, the company will look toward the future it has in the virtual space to continue its growth as a business and potential entry point into golf.

Powers joined Topgolf in 2015 coming from the game software space, with the idea to grow Topgolf through technology. Following his arrival, the company soon made an investment in Full Swing Golf, which Powers called the “largest and most progressive golf simulator company in North America.” From there, the company partnered with game developers to rewrite the golf simulator software to replicate the Topgolf experience. Now it’s expanding the offerings with games like zombie dodgeball and hockey and baseball experiences.

Topgolf clearly has ambitious plans moving forward, all in the name of greater entertainment. They may just grow the sport of golf while they’re at it.

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