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Innovation

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

Major League Soccer Seeks Digital Innovation Through Four-Pronged Approach

Digital is the future for Major League Soccer, and a multi-faceted strategy could one day take the league to new heights.

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Photo Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

For Major League Soccer, the pathway toward innovation begins on the pitch.

“Look in the stadiums, the fan experience is different than any other professional sport,” Schlosser said Chris Schlosser, MLS senior vice president and general manager of MLS Digital at a South by Southwest panel. “How do we lean into that and make it come alive? How do we translate that if you’re at home the couch?”

He expects the answer to come through digital thanks to partnerships with companies like Twitter and R/GA, a company helping connect MLS to emerging technology companies. In fact, Twitter Sports Partner Manager Will Exline believes social media could eventually lift MLS to unprecedented heights.

“If you look, you see how radio helped baseball, TV helped football and basketball,” Exline said. “MLS has lived in the digital world. As fast as platforms are evolving, MLS is just as quick to try new things.”

READ MORE: Simple Hashtags Elevated by Scarves Illuminate MLS Content Innovation

Schlosser said MLS Digital works with a four-pronged approach: Fan connection, on-field talent, stadium experience and media quality.

According to R/GA Global Chief Operating Officer Stephen Plumlee, there’s a current push to better connect fans to the teams and each other in order to better develop content ties. It isn’t that fan attention spans are necessarily shorter. Consumers just have so many options at their fingertips.

Consequently, Plumlee says, “The challenge is personalization. There has to be an authentic experience delivered to what the fan wants.”

Along the same lines, Exline said Twitter will continue to move towards individual user personalization to help the league and individual teams better target users and fan bases. He cited last years all-star voting process as one prominent example, which allowed users to tweet their vote, which returned a reply with a video of the player thanking a user.

That personalization also extends to viewership habits. Schlosser believes it’s important for MLS to provide fans the capacity to watch from any device. Within those device boundaries, they also hope to offer custom angles and other individual-choice options like advanced data and sports betting.

Schlosser also brought up the future, and current use, of artificial intelligence to generate user-specific highlight packages of specific content.

“I can give you a highlight of just your team’s play without having a human cut the highlight,” he said. “I can give the favorite player’s best goals. Maybe [the fan] misses a game and has four minutes and wants a recap, maybe 20 minutes.

“We’re starting to open those opportunities.”

Eventually, that could even feed into talent evaluation. Schlosser wondered aloud whether augmented reality could one day present skill challenges and judge a player through those ratings without ever scouting someone in person.

“That would allow a team to identify them and bring them into the academy to start the formal training process,” he said. “It could result in seeing thousands of more players than we could see today.”

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

MLS took plenty of lumps when it was starting for being different than the global game of soccer. Now, the league is embracing that differentiation and will keep building on it with digital, Schlosser said.

“One of the big shifts is this idea we have to be authentic to the global soccer community,” he said. “There were these crazy rules when MLS first started … we very quickly learned that’s not the right way. But we are also finding North American soccer is a different thing. Soccer here is a little American, European, South American, and that changes from city to city.

“We can lean into that and we don’t have to apologize. We have to celebrate the unique differences and let them come through the atmospheres in the stands.”

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Innovation

The Story Behind the Giants’ New $10 Million Scoreboard

Ahead of this year’s MLB season, the Giants are set to unveil a new scoreboard that at over 150 ft by 70ft, will be the third largest in the league.

Front Office Sports

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Image via the San Francisco Giants

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

With Spring Training underway, baseball is inching its way closer to the start of another season.

Although we don’t know if the Giants have the inside track to signing Bryce Harper, we were able to sit down with Senior Vice President & CIO Bill Schlough to take a look at their brand new scoreboard and why the team invested $10 million into the product.

$10 million is a lot to spend on a scoreboard. I’m assuming much of the cost will be recouped through increased advertising opportunities. Outside of fan experience, was that one of the other driving factors when it came to making this investment? 

“If you think $10 million is a lot to spend on a scoreboard, you should see how much it will cost to deliver 4K content to that board!  But I have to be honest, for the Giants, “increased advertising opportunities” was NEVER part of the discussion. This is all about the fan experience, 100%. Our board was the second oldest and fifth smallest in MLB, and after 12 seasons it was definitely due for a refresh.  Our fans deserve a first-class experience at Oracle Park, and we’re going to give it to them. And with our new 4K board, it’s not just baseball games that will be enhanced.”

“We’re confident that all events at Oracle Park will benefit from this new screen—from private screenings, to corporate event branding, to convention gatherings, to public event enhancements and beyond. So if there are increased revenue opportunities from our new Diamond Vision, I’d say they will come from increased attendance and incremental events more than advertising. We didn’t invest $10 million for a glorified billboard, this is all about enhancing the experience for our fans.”

How much did the impact of landing outside events play a role in going forward with this decision? Does having this open up new opportunities? 

“Events that are complementary to our baseball schedule – both in-season when the Giants are on the road and during the off-season – are a huge source of pride for our organization, not to mention a fantastic way to develop new partnerships and opportunities. Giants Enterprises, the entrepreneurial arm of the San Francisco Giants, hosts more than 250 events per year, including concerts, private corporate events, international sporting events like Rugby World Cup Sevens, unique activations such as Topgolf Crush and more.”

“The Giants Enterprises team does a phenomenal job filling our calendar with events on a year-round basis and by continuing to stay ahead of the curve in terms of technology and venue upgrades, we will undoubtedly be able to attract new business. Upgrading our scoreboard presents a multitude of opportunities for clients using our facility so it was absolutely a big consideration when moving forward with this project. We are currently exploring new innovative ideas that we can activate on for returning and annual events that will help take their experience here at Oracle Park to the next level. We look forward to pushing the boundaries and continuing to innovate in strategic ways to fully maximize the capabilities of our new scoreboard.”

When looking at comparable screens and different sporting venues, which ones did you look to for inspiration? What did you want to differently?

“We definitely did our homework and there are plenty of other venues that are worthy of emulation.  The Cowboys really started the “bigger is better” trend a decade ago with their record-setting massive DiamondVision display at AT&T Stadium. Vivek Ranadivé and the Sacramento Kings were also trendsetters, launching the first 4K video board in sports back in 2016.  In baseball, the Indians, Mariners and Angels are now the three biggest.”

“In our travels, we also visited the Rockies, Ravens and our longtime friend in Lincoln, the recently retired Godfather of HuskerVision, Shot Kleen at the University of Nebraska.  In the end, we figured that given that we won’t be doing this again anytime soon, we shouldn’t make any compromises.  So we went big (153’ x 71’, 3rd largest in MLB), high quality (1st 4K capable board in MLB) and chose to stick with DiamondVision from Mitsubishi Electric—who we consider to be the best video board manufacturer in the business.”

If you could play any video game on the screen, which would it be and why? 

“From a purely nostalgic standpoint, I would want to play Goldeneye 007 on N64. That said, the graphics and that game wouldn’t do our new scoreboard justice. A fun, competitive multi-player game would definitely be a joy to watch so perhaps a game like Fortnite. Above all else, playing MLB The Show 2019 and watching Buster Posey hit a homerun to centerfield while watching it on the centerfield scoreboard would be a total trip.”

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

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Innovation

Mesh Seats Help Showcase Innovation at New Las Vegas Ballpark

The Las Vegas Ballpark is set to open this year with brand new mesh seats that promise to keep fans cool and comfortable in the Las Vegas sun.

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Photo via Las Vegas Ballpark

When Las Vegas Ballpark opens on April 9, more than three decades of stadium advancements will be on display.

The old stadium, Cashman Field, opened in 1983 and was already out of date by 1993, said Don Logan, president and COO of the Las Vegas Aviators, the recently rebranded moniker of the AAA team. The team also signed a development agreement this fall with the Oakland Athletics, after its agreement with the New York Mets expired.

Despite stadiums quickly surpassing Cashman, it took another 25 years to break ground on a new venue.

“Cashman, I hate to bash it, but it just outgrew its usefulness,” Logan said. “The world changed and it didn’t.”

Enter the Howard Hughes Corporation, a major land developer in Las Vegas — specifically behind the Summerlin neighborhood. The company purchased the Las Vegas 51s in 2013. With more than 400 acres at its disposal for Downtown Summerlin — about half of which is developed — a space was reserved for the Las Vegas Ballpark, an approximately $150 million project right next door to the corporate headquarters and practice facility of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights.

READ MORE: Minor League Baseball Showcasing Deeper Partnership Connections With Hot Dogs

The two sports facilities are at the center of a master-planned community meant to provide an idealistic “live, work, play” environment in Las Vegas. More than 4,000 urban residential units can be built around the stadium in the near future.

“Even in 2011, I’m not sure we’d see iconic sports facilities in downtown Summerlin,” said Tom Warden, Howard Hughes Corporation senior vice president of community and government relations. “It’s a lot of opportunities for the team and also for Summerlin; we view this as an amenity for the Summerlin community.”

The new stadium has greatly improved amenities in all aspects, largely focused on player development and fan amenities, with a capacity for 10,000.

The centerpiece might be the video board, which Logan said is in the top 25-largest in all of organized baseball with 3,930 square feet of digital space. On off nights, movies might be played on screen for community residents.

A big consideration behind much of the Las Vegas Ballpark design was the high heat of Southern Nevada summers. The seats in the stadium are mesh, which greatly reduces the heat on spectator backsides. Logan said when a summer day reaches 110 degrees, plastic and metal seats can reach near 200 degrees. The mesh seats maintain temperatures below 100 degrees.

Likewise, there are giant fans from the company Big Ass Fans circulating air throughout the concourse. Fans can navigate the stadium 360 degrees with various destinations throughout to keep fans occupied and in the stadium, Logan said.

In the outfield, a swimming pool will look out at the field. A kids splash pad is also found in the stadium.

“This is all a tribute to the Hughes Corporation being willing to spend money where it matters and improve the experience,” Logan said. “We want to make people more comfortable and want to come back more often.”

The suite level will have two end caps with walkout party decks with capacity for 350 people.

Logan also said the food and beverage program will be much more aligned to modern minor league baseball than Cashman was and more indicative of the Summerlin community. They’ve even built in a show kitchen to bring in celebrity chefs to cook for fans.

“What other Triple-A team has the ability to do that?” Warden asked.

For players, they too get a respite from the baseball season heat. Cashman Field had no indoor batting cages, weight training or rehabilitation center. The facilities were regularly regarded among the bottom of organized baseball.

READ MORE: The Minor League Baseball of the Future

Now, there’s three indoor batting cages under the right-field stands, as well as greatly improved player facilities for better development.

The organization is already in talks with college conferences to host tournaments, and it plans on hosting more MLB exhibitions than the one or two a season at Cashman. The Aviators’ former stadium is still home to the Las Vegas Lights, the city’s United Soccer League team.

Las Vegas Ballpark is one of two Minor League Baseball stadiums opening next season, along with Advanced Class-A Fayetteville Woodpeckers.

“We’ll be the belle of the ball,” Logan said. “The good thing is we had 35 years to learn from and improve on, and we’re benefiting from all of it.”

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