Professional leagues, faced with the challenge of attracting digital natives

Professional leagues look for formulas to connect and attract digital natives, in a multichannel environment where social media and OTT services play a fundamental role

It may seem contradictory to think how difficult it is to connect with consumers in such a connected world. But that is the reality. The sports industry, in general, and professional leagues in particular, are looking for new ways to connect and attract digital natives before it is too late. In 2030, 80% of people will be digital natives (born in the digital era, after 1994) or digital immigrants (those who have become familiar with digital systems as adults) and 90% of consumption will be generated in the digital environment. The change in consumption habits is greatly impacting one of the most powerful industries: the sports industry. It is time to invest in knowing these new ‘clients’ and getting prepared for when they, en masse, have real purchasing power.

In an interesting talk organized by Palco 23 at its Sports Business Meeting event sponsored by Johan Cruyff Institute, the leaders of the Spanish professional football, basketball, handball and futsal leagues shared how each competition is trying to connect with the new audience, while not forgetting the one it has already consolidated. The objective is the same, but the approach and focus of attention is different. If for the LaLiga football league, the ‘window’ and the way in which the content arrives has priority, for the ACB basketball league, it is the study of habits that weighs most in the balance. In the case of the Asobal handball league, the magic formula is that your product really attracts people, while for the LNFS futsal league, definitively going for digitalization is proving to be quite a feat.

Professional leagues, faced with the challenge of attracting digital natives

From left to right: Marc Menchén, director of Palco 23; Javier Tebas, president of LaLiga; Antonio Martín, president of ACB League; Ricard Hijós, Secretary-General Asobal League; Javier Lozano, president of LNFS. *Photo: Palco 23

LaLiga is, for the moment, the one that has done its homework best, not only on its own initiative but because of its greater economic power. The Spanish football league has been betting on internationalization for years, but it was not enough to make itself known around the world. As a good host, it also wants to hear from its guests, although they exceed 84 million followers worldwide on social networks. And for that, a complete digital transformation was necessary.

They have invested time and money, especially money. “We have made a very strong investment, close to 20 million euros, on our platform with Microsoft,” explains LaLiga president Javier Tebas. “I think that, like in all companies, we had thousands of different spreadsheets and hundreds of thousands of databases. Now everything is on the same platform and all the data it feeds on comes in the same language. We can analyze the behavior parameters of our followers. All our games are there, where there are millions of users, the website data of many clubs and our OTT service LaLigaSports, which gives exposure to many other sports. Through the Business Intelligence and Analytics Department, we can launch very segmented mobile, email or ‘push’ campaigns that do not represent any invasion of clients’ privacy, which in the end generates rejection”.

Professional leagues, faced with the challenge of attracting digital natives

Javier Tebas defends that “the consumer adapts to the new windows through which he sees sport, but in addition to the digital native generation, other consumers still exist and those windows have to be adapted to each generation and system”. In that sense, the president of LaLiga refers a study that Netflix made of the consumers of its OTT service in order to make a reflection: “There are 150 million Netflix subscribers in the world and, according to the company, 25% of them sign up through the television itself, 40% via a smartphone, 10% via tablets, and the rest through a PlayStation. But in that same study, Netflix also revealed that, in a period of six months, those people who start to consume on mobile devices end up drifting to smart TVs. Will what happens on Netflix happen in sport? My answer is ‘yes'”.

Antonio Martín, president of the ACB League, has led the challenge of digitalization since he assumed the presidency of the Association of Basketball Clubs a year ago and does not hide that “we are in the process of recapturing an audience in an age range up to 40 years old that we had but lost, through our own fault, because they were a bit abandoned by us”. For the ACB, more than the platform in which sports are consumed, “the most relevant thing is the consumption habits and, in that sense, at least in basketball, it is unquestionable that a certain generation is consuming in a more encapsulated way, with shorter videos, based on highlights”, he says.

Professional leagues, faced with the challenge of attracting digital natives

Antonio Martín agrees with Javier Tebas that “people will continue to watch television, but our communication team is also making a very big effort to speak the language that the regular public wants to hear on social networks, and we must not forget that ‘second screen’, which is the mobile phone. We must anchor ourselves to the territories in which consumers from between 10 to12 and 40 years old move. And children understand that they have to interact with their friends while watching the game”.

In the OTT service of LaLiga, you can see live or on-demand content, not only football but other sports. And the LNFS has also signed up to the new platform. “The emergence of millennials has been the most disruptive stage and has accelerated all the changes in our area of management”, says the president of the LNFS, Javier Lozano. “We have a large consumer sector of 40-year-olds, but also a very large base of followers between 14 and 34 years old. We have detected who follows us and established relationships with them, giving each one what they want. The implementation of the OTT service of LaLiga also offers us the possibility to give them what they are asking for”.

Professional leagues, faced with the challenge of attracting digital natives

In the Asobal League, they are very clear that it is all about taking care of what you already have, decorating the house so that they like what they see when you open the door. “With the new technologies, the range is much wider and all this forces you to look for new formulas. But what you have to achieve is that people who like handball appreciates the product you are offering because it is one of the best. Later we will go into specific methods, but the magic formula is that your product really attracts people”, says general secretary Ricard Hijós.

Hijós acknowledges that “we have begun to do the analysis of our consumers with the experience of the OTT sevice of LaLiga and our conclusion is still premature. We are trying to learn what they are asking us for”. Handball consumers are not very different from those in other leagues and in the Asobal they know that “they no longer just want to watch the game on television, they want to interact, whether it is by going to the pavilion and making a mosaic, or through social networks, via internet betting or through what television will give us in the future, with a series of applications that you can customize yourself to watch the game you want to watch at any time”.

Professional leagues, faced with the challenge of attracting digital natives

Whatever the channels through which the different generations connect with sport, it is indisputable that the audiovisual format wins by a big margin and, in that medium, the creators of content are indispensable. Human capital makes a difference in the broadcasting of sporting events, whether consumed on a smart TV, on a computer or on a smartphone screen, and regardless of the social network used: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo or Instagram.

“The human factor is what we must continue working on. We are very focused on technology, but I am also very interested in the people behind, how they broadcast, the vision they can give of sport”, says Tebas. For Antonio Martín, “the person who tells you the story is essential, and if they  have a special sensitivity it increases the quality of  the product. We are light years away from many people in terms of innovation, not only in the human aspect, but also in the technological one. I don’t know if it is very attractive or not for the consumer yet, but the possibility to customize your statistics in real time or see the different play options that a player has at any given time is something that we are testing today. Things may seem distant in terms of tactics, but nobody knew anything about Formula One, and then after a year following Fernando Alonso, everyone seemed to have come from out of the Porsche workshops. People like to get involved and know more about the content, enjoy it more and make it their own”, explains the president of the ACB League.

Richard Hijós says their pilot experience in the Asobal League last season was very positive. “A camera was placed on the chest of the goalkeepers and the images were spectacular. You could see a player almost 2 meters tall and weighing more than 100 kilos up close, taking a shot against the goalkeeper less than 6 meters away. We are far from being able to say that there is nothing else to do; there are many innovations in terms of image that could be offered to the consumer and would help the competition to grow.”

“When we arrived nine years ago, we faced a dramatic situation, and the first thing that caught my attention was the television product. It was like a Marx Brothers movie, but not funny and in black and white”, the LNFS representative Javier Lozano explains graphically. “That was what shocked me the most and we decided to take very serious measures, eliminating non-productive expenses so we could invest in everything that gave us value. The first thing was to create a good story about the game because you have to have a product that is really appealing and then know how to tell its story”.

Catching up with the digital transformation is still a long-distance race for some and a sprint for others, but everyone has already made a start. The new generations are pushing and come with the highest demands.

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