Looking back at six winning digital sport activations in 2017

When it comes to intense rivalries and storybook moments, the sports industry always seems to deliver year after year with iconic images that become permanently etched in history. As we turn the page into 2018, the accelerating adaption of technology is breaking sporting events out of their venues, beyond television sets, and onto a myriad of social media apps, platforms, and devices.

As fans, we now demand digital experiences that match our ever increasing expectation levels. This leaves sports organizations holding a double-edge sword with the responsibility to satiate fan content demand on one side, and the business objective of driving digital revenue on the other.

Despite these challenges, 2017 delivered several inspiring examples that helped savvy sports organizations simultaneously delight both their fans and their CFOs. Here are six great examples:

Wimbledon - serving up digital aces

The understated and pristine 140-year-old tennis tournament known for its reserved and respectful nature played to its strengths last year. Wimbledon delivered the perfect blend of tradition and cutting-edge digital best practices bringing a touch of class to the intersection of sports and digital.

The challenge of packaging a niche sport like tennis for a global digital audience of casual fans should not be underestimated. The 2017 tournament reached 157m people on Facebook alone. However, it’s the year-over-year increase in digital performance that highlights the pace of their digital transformation story.

In 2016 Wimbledon generated 115m video views, this year that number increased to more than 200m, an increase of nearly 75%. Total video views on the Wimbledon Channel this year skyrocketed to 30m compared to 3m last year, and the Wimbledon Radio Channels had 40m+ listeners this year vs. 30m in 2016.

According to Alexandra Willis, head of communications and digital for Wimbledon, “The year we don’t try something new will be the year we’ve done something wrong.”

Given Wimbledon’s track record of digital growth and success, the likelihood of not raising the bar again in 2018 seems pretty slim.

Golden State Warriors - Playoff Facebook Messenger Bot

Whether you are watching an NBA game in an arena or from the comfort of your favorite armchair, there is a strong chance that you will also be turning to your smartphone. Discussing a game in real-time via a group chat app has become the norm, but how do teams engage with their distracted fans?

The Golden State Warriors introduced an AI-driven virtual assistant into Facebook Messenger during the NBA Playoffs. The initiative was aimed at seamlessly interacting with their fans on a one-on-one basis, providing instant access to news updates, highlights, and player stats allowing fans to be a part of the narrative, and even livening up group chats during banter fueled debates. This led to over 40k fans using the bot during the playoffs, sending over 4.3m messages.

Still active and growing, the Warriors chatbot now has 300k users, roughly 125k of which are active during games. In fact, the bot initiative was so successful that the Warriors are currently working with Rakuten (one of their sponsors) to take Warriors Messenger game to the next level for Viber and the platform’s 950m global users. In 2018 the Warriors should continue to be as dominant with their chatbot game as they have been on the court.

Real Madrid + Facebook – Creating the future of fan first programming

Real Madrid famously became the first sports brand in the world to reach 100 million Likes on Facebook, and continued to drive engagement by using the world’s largest social media platform to enhance and share the deep connection the club shares with its players, city and fans around the world.

In 2017 Real Madrid launched Hala Madrid, a polished broadcast quality multi-part series on Facebook’s new Watch platform. Fans were given a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into every aspect of the world’s biggest football club. Shot in partnership with GoPro, the show captured a unique and authentic look into rare moments by taking viewers to places they would never see without the ingenuity and diverse set-up of dozens of GoPro cameras.

The series reached 96m people on the platform, driving 30m+ total views to date. When you take into consideration that Facebook Watch launched only in the US where Real Madrid has less than 7% of its total FB fan base, the results are even more impressive.

Philadelphia Eagles - Making the most of a big moment

When performance meets preparation, great things can happen. A good example of this is how the Philadelphia Eagles used a historic 61 yard game-winning field goal to inspire and activate their social fan base calling upon user-generated video from fans in the stands to enhance the story, and leveraging a mic’d up clip provided by the NFL from their star QB.

The result was generating over 5m views across two videos, giving the Eagles a Twitter monetization ratio that was 10x the club norm that particular week.

The Eagles fast-thinking digital content team used every advantage they had – including great access and the power of creative storytelling to activate their fans, keeping a big moment alive for several days into the following week.

Portland Trailblazers - Trade for Cash Considerations Stunt

One of the most frustrating aspects of being a true sports fan is watching stale post-match interviews with or contrived press conferences with your favorite players. Nobody wants to hear the same tired clichés delivered over and over again.

With their "Trade for Cash Considerations" stunt, the Portland Trailblazers found a way to take a relatively mundane, unexciting piece of news and make it incredibly dynamic and newsworthy. Fans embraced the humorous, and mildly self-deprecating, content. This campaign highlights the importance of giving a brand a personality.

In a digital age where everyone is bombarded with content and white noise, it’s often times the creativity and personality behind your message that will allow your voice to break through the clutter.

The end result was the two most successful tweets in team history, generating over 10m impressions, and millions of dollars in PR with extensive press coverage.

NBA - Chasing History Snapchat Series

For a third straight year, the 2017 NBA Finals once again featured an epic showdown between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. The NBA partnered with Snapchat on a six-episode Snapchat show, titled Chasing History that gave fans a behind-the-scenes look.

The unique format of the show consisted of a series of consecutive snaps – up to 20 seconds each in length – and the content captured was a unique adaptation of the NBA’s signature all-access coverage. The addition of exclusive interviews, capturing players on-the-court complete with mic’d up team huddles proved to be an instant hit with fans.

The six episode series throughout the NBA Finals generated an audience of 17.1m unique viewers, which further illustrates how audiences have an increasing appetite for seeing what goes on behind the curtain.

Digital transformation is more than just another buzzword. These examples illustrate how technology is rapidly changing the way fans are experience sport. We have come a long way from having only a cable subscription and a television set. As we embark on 2018, the ball is in the court of the most prominent sports organizations in the world to raise the bar.

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Craig Howe

Craig Howe is founder and chief executive of sports digital strategy and tech venture firm Rebel Ventures

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