Heidi Browning: Technology is creating a new type of sports fan

NHL CMO Heidi Browning: Tech Is Creating a New Type of Sports Fan

As the CMO of the NHL, Heidi Browning believes in utilizing technology to reach and serve the increasingly personalized needs of today’s connected fan. In this week’s Agents of Change soundbite, Browning discusses her views on emerging technologies like virtual reality, how the league uses multiplatform partnerships to drive tune in to live game broadcasts, and the importance of not only collecting data but harnessing it to fuel insights and effective storytelling.

Read or listen below to learn how the NHL is harnessing the power of technology to serve the needs of a new type of fan.

Every aspect of the fan experience is changing, whether it’s ticketing, or how you view your sports, or every aspect of personalization. For us what I think is interesting is that it is creating a whole new type of fan that we haven’t acknowledged as an industry before. Technology is creating people who want to enjoy sports, but view them only on social media or only through esports.

You ask yourself, “Are these avid fans?” Well, they talk about it through social media, they engage with messenger [apps], and connect with their friends in the real world to talk about the games afterward.

Even though they might never buy a ticket or they might never tune in on regular television, these are important fan bases. They still buy merchandise, they still consider themselves fans, and still identify with teams. They follow athletes and players and they follow teams and clubs through social media. This is a huge opportunity for us.

How do we harness this next generation of fan at the same time we’re focusing on our avid and loyal base that is tuning in and buying tickets? I don’t think we can underestimate the power of data and the importance of it in our marketing future.

Mary Meeker does this internet report and she reported that 79% of people are willing to share their personal information in exchange for something in return, something meaningful or valuable in return. In most worlds, that’s attention—human attention, right now, which is at a scarcity. We’re fortunate in sports because we have people who want to share their data with us.

All these touch points—real world and digital touch points—feed us an incredible amount of data. The challenge is, what do you do with that data? How do you create stories out of it and how do you find insights in it that will drive your business results, drive ROI, drive more revenue, and drive increased fandom?

That is what the challenge is with these data sets, especially some of these older data sets. How do you get them cleaned up and ready to go so that you can operationalize as a business? We’re investing a lot of time and resources and really making the investments and [building] the martech foundation so that we can take it to that next level of personalizing our communications. It can even get into personalizing the in-arena fan experience.

We’re working with our friends at SAP to help us do this, through our HANA and our Hybris, which will enable us to use all these data insights to market and personalize across different channels. Again, this is key because we start to think about how do we capture that attention, how do we drive engagement, and it’s through those personal and relevant communications.

Even though they might never buy a ticket or they might never tune in on regular television, these are important fan bases.

Heidi Browning, CMO of the NHL

I haven’t seen opposition [to technology]. It is just a challenge to take in all these new technologies. There are so many companies inventing around AR/VR/AI, and every aspect of data, and social media, and around the fan experience. They all are good ideas but how do you sort through it all and prioritize? How do you test and then scale? These are the big challenges that [we] face.

Internally at the NHL, we see everything. Every new technology presents itself to us, and we have to make hard decisions and ask hard questions. I’d say starting with the foundation is where you begin—starting with that foundation of building your technology infrastructure so that you can take in all of this data. That’s a trick as well because you have to teach an organization to have patience while you build.

These things are long, multiyear projects and you have investments that may not have payout for a year or two in terms of return on investment. You have to keep finding those little wins to keep the whole organization moving along with you and excited about these small innovations before they turn into a bigger part of your company.

For us, player-puck tracking is what we are really excited about as a part of our future. What we’re doing is working with technology partners to be able to embed technology into the puck so it will track the puck at 200 times per second, and you can get a huge amount of data from the in-game performance. We envision a future with where we can bring this real-time data and seamlessly integrate it into the broadcast experience to enhance the fan knowledge and understanding of the game, but also send it through to our iPad experience for coaches so that while they are in the game they can make decisions and changes on the fly.

When you think about it, this is an incredibly hard thing to do. The game of hockey is so fast and the ice sheet is not that big so it requires an incredible amount of accuracy to be able to do this. There are 60 minutes of live game action per game with very little stoppage. This is a big business problem, a big innovation problem that we’re trying to solve.

Our role is to really enhance broadcast viewing and our game is very special. It is well known to be the most popular sport to see live but sometimes is lost in translation when it is on TV. HD has made a huge difference for us and we’re very excited to see how 4K works and scales to transform the experience. We do a lot to focus on creating awareness around tune in.

We go live through social media; we do this with our broadcast partner. We go live shortly before a game to drive awareness and conversation to drive that tune in.

In addition, this last season for our playoffs, we realized that one of the important aspects in driving your rating points is retaining viewership throughout the course of the game so we worked with our partners at NBC who created these double boxes so you could get a live look-in of another game while we were on intermission to help engage and retain our viewers so they didn’t go and do something else.

That made a huge impact on the success of our ratings. In fact, we had the best ratings that we’ve had since 1997 so this was exciting but a simple development that happened in the broadcast space.

I’d say the last thing that we should do to encourage more viewing—whether it’s getting people to games or to watch on TV—is to just be everywhere, making sure that we have our game available on Roku and Apple TV. We’ve been doing some experiments on Twitter in Canada and with Hulu to make sure that we are where you want us, when you want us, and how you want your hockey game experience.

Heidi Browning spoke at Hashtag Sports 2018, an annual conference designed for digital decision makers in sports. Learn more here.