Simona Kruhar Gaberšček
These adjectives form the acronym BALLSY, coined by Jon Burkhart to inspire sports brands towards creating content that would enable a deeper communication with fans. Similarly, Guilherme Guimarães, who used Twitter and Facebook to connect the Brazilian Football and Olympic teams’ fans worldwide, is well aware of the importance of quality content. In their opinion, social media can be an immense opportunity for smaller sports clubs that can afford to be bolder and take greater risk.
Jon Burkhart and Guilherme Guimarães are passionate sports fans. Jon is an American currently living in London, who has been enthusiastically following the US national soccer team since it first qualified for the FIFA World Cup in 1990. In his new country, he is just as passionate about England’s football club Wolverhampton Wanderers, while Guilherme swears by Brazil’s Atlético. Their careers are closely tied to their love of football. Jon is a content strategist, an author and a keynote speaker whose main topics at international sports conferences revolve around fan engagement – how to keep fans wanting more captivating sports content. Guilherme is the General Manager of the Brazilian sports marketing consultancy Ativa Esporte and strategic partner of the sponsorship consultancy agency Synergy, based in London. He was Director of Sports for Twitter Brazil during the 2014 FIFA World Cup and collaborated with Facebook for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Jon and Guilherme, who will also be speaking at the SPORTO 2017 in November, offered insight on the power of social media in the sports industry, the digital revolution allowing a deepening of the relationships between sports brands and fans and a greater visibility on a larger scale for smaller sports clubs, and the direction in which the sports industry is heading.
Two important acronyms for quality content creation
Jon Burkhart has been closely following how social media are being used by sports teams and sponsors’ brands to connect with fans. To determine this, he has been tracking four qualities summed up by the acronym QUIET: questions – the ability of a team to answer fans’ questions in real time and at the same time predict their questions, imagination, empathy and trust. “The way it works is you come up with the questions and turn them into content. You have to use imagination to create appealing answers, then analyse which of those answers are the most empathetic, which ones will touch fans on a deeper level so that they themselves then create content for their team. The final element of trust is about long-term side effects of this content that deepens the relationships and expands the fan base globally,” explains Burkhart. He uses another acronym in his evaluation of the content, a method he calls BALLSY, which stands for brave, actionable, likeable, long-lasting, surprising and you-centric.
Teams, which are experts in the social media game
Burkhart sees two types of sports brands: those that know who they are, that have a strong sense of what they stand for and that are listening to their fans really well and those that have no real vision. “Technology has been instrumental in helping fans who have been trying to communicate with their favourite players in real time. It is of no surprise that the NBA Golden State Warriors use technology to their best advantage, because they have every tech company at their doorstep in Silicon Valley ready to help them,” he says adding that the most obvious winners include top sports brands like Nike and Under Armour or influential companies like Red Bull. In his workshops, though, he prefers to focus on the less obvious winners – smaller local teams that will often surprise with their fan engagement activities.
“VR and AR could be interesting in sports as long as they add to fan engagement and experience. If you sit in the front row at the basketball game, you do not need any VR, you have a reality in front of you.”
Brazilians have enthusiastically embraced social media
A good example of fan engagement through social media is the communication between fans and the Brazilian national football players on Twitter during the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the Brazilian Olympic team on Facebook two years later during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. According to Guilherme Guimarães, Brazilians spend an enormous amount of time online, more than any other country in the world, in fact, and have enthusiastically embraced the social media. “Brazilians are very social, so they just translate their sociability to the digital world. Social media gave sports clubs and institutions the opportunity to connect with fans and when it comes to the World Cup, you can see that the national football team took the opportunity to be closer to Brazilian fans. Most of the Brazilian national football players play abroad and are far from the Brazilian fans most of the year, so it was important to open up a window of communication between the team and the fans,” elaborates Guimarães. Twitter was chosen as the main communication channel through which all fans’ questions were promptly answered and fans were included in all important events, including press conferences. At the same time, the platform was available to other stakeholders as well, such as host cities, allowing them to open a new channel for their own global promotion. “All cities contributed to bringing fans closer to the national team, either on Twitter or through many services provided to the fans visiting these cities,” says Guimarães. During the Rio 2016 Olympics, a substantial development could be seen in Brazil’s sports industry. “The Brazilian Olympic team had a much better picture of what they wanted to achieve, so they devised objectives and started from the very beginning to take initiatives that would help them to get to these objectives. Because of the learnings from the World Cup, the industry was a way ahead than it was before. The greatest emphasis was put on Facebook, which proved to be of the greatest advantage for the team,” concludes Guimarães.
The US is leading with money and Europe with passion
When asked to compare European and other clubs and teams outside the US with the American sports institutions when it comes to taking advantage of the social media, Guilherme Guimarães answers that the American sports institutions, particularly those that are based in the heart of Silicon Valley, are more exposed to the innovation and new technologies, and for this reason, the US is leading the way in sports industry. “Because they are so big and such important sports brands globally, they sometimes tend to be less risk-taking. On the other hand, we have seen some very interesting initiatives taking place in smaller European markets that are more willing to take risks,” says Guimarães.
Burkhart agrees adding that for him “it comes down to money and passion” or, in other words, the US has more money, while Europe has passion. “The US is leading the way with technology and innovation and in presenting sport as entertainment. Regardless of what European fans may feel about this, I think with the attention spam we have to look at sport as entertainment,” says Burkhart. According to him, there are a number of teams in Europe that have discovered how to channel fans’ passion into creating contents that connect players and fans even better. One such example is ArsenalFanTV, one of the fastest growing YouTube channels created by Arsenal fans for the Arsenal fans. “The content is not always positive, it is very negative, too, because fans are allowed to say what they want. With Sky TV and other sports stations everything is always decent, filtered, so it is a bit bland, while young people want ‘raw’ and authentic. If ArsenalFanTV is going to give this to me, then why watch Sky? This is not happening to the same degree in the US because the brands and money are leading the way and the passion has only been recently discovered,” Burkhart concludes his interesting comparison between European and American fans.
Smaller clubs can afford to take more risks
Both experts are convinced that social media open great opportunities for smaller sports clubs and teams. “With social media, sports clubs now have a cheap way of testing and trying out things. Just think of sports broadcast, no matter how much sport you have, you will always have limited broadcast hours, but with digital you have limitless hours of TV,” says Guimarães. This allows smaller clubs to take more risks in their communication with fans. “Letting fans take control of their media and create content for their team can pay off big time. These are mostly local teams that are already closer to their fans because their fans are right there and not all over the world, so they can actually get them into content and involve them more easily with less risk,” adds Burkhart. The biggest influence of the digital revolution is that everyone is a publisher. “For example, my passion are the Wolverhampton Wanderers, a football club playing in a second division in England and at 5.05 pm, only five minutes after their whistle blew to end the game, I get the vlogger uploading his review of the match and he does not give me an artificial version but tells me who was really playing poorly, whom the manager should probably have substituted but did not. I get unfiltered opinion.”
“You come up with the questions and turn them into content. You have to use imagination to create appealing answers, then analyse which ones will touch fans on a deeper level so that they themselves then create content for their team.”
In Burkhart’s opinion, the biggest challenge for the sports industry is to harness fans’ passion – to help fans make their broadcasts better and give players more access to those fans’ channels, while making the club content less superficial, with more depth and authenticity. “The fans just want the truth,” says Burkhart. Guimarães thinks the most important thing for sports institutions is to have a direct access to fans and the other way around. In other words, there must be an opportunity for fan engagement: “It must be a two-way conversation which is the most important thing in this time and age. The clubs or institutions must continue to ask themselves how close are the fans to what they like and what they want.”
When fans sit in the stadium, there is no need for VR
When it comes to new technologies making their way into sports, such as virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR), Guimarães and Burkhart remain sceptic. “I have seen hundreds of cases and I have noticed all the marketing gimmicks. Of course, I love examples where VR is used to actually make training better or add to fan experience in an authentic way. The way the Minnesota Vikings used VR in a beautiful, innovative and nostalgic way in their museum is a perfect example of how VR can be used. But when you have fans in the stadium, you do not need VR,” believes Burkhart. Guimarães agrees, “VR and AR could be interesting in sports as long as they add to fan engagement and experience. If you sit in the front row at the basketball game, you do not need any VR, you have a reality in front of you.”
Getting a sports fan out of the chair
And what is ahead for the sports industry? “The clubs will start to understand fans’ needs much better. The amount of information that sports institutions have about fans today is so huge that the experience will be more individually tailored,” predicts Guimarães. Burkhart offers an even clearer picture, “When I look to the future, I instinctively think of the laziest, happiest sports fan in the world. This person sits in a leather chair with a refrigerator built into it, he has the most incredible view of the most boring American sports on his Samsung curved TV and he does not need anything else. So, how can I convince him to buy a season ticket for Minnesota Vikings? I think the future lies in getting that sports fan out of the chair and to the new Minnesota Vikings stadium, for example, which is actually an entertainment complex with some of the best restaurants, a VR museum, waterslides for the kids … – it is almost like Disney World with a football pitch in the middle.” He believes that a different fan experience should be created for young people who did not grow up being part of the fan experience and making sports entertainment is the right way to go. “We have a duty to help provide a mind-blowing experience where just the appropriate amount of technology can help enhance fans’ passion,” concludes Burkhart.
This text was first published in the SPORTO Magazine No. 10 (October 2017).