Sports, engagement, and tech company lack thereof

The sports industry is exciting and cool and has brand equity like no other. Yet, the companies themselves don't have a lot of money to spend on their business operations due to what they are (over)paying the athletes. Does this mean the tech companies selling tech to the sports world should ignore the industry they're selling to? Apparently, they think so. Find out why is not only a bad idea, but a very very foolish one. And I'll name some names.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

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As those of you who know me, know, I'm a huge sports fan.

I love the Yankees, really like the New York Giants, like the Rangers and the Knicks, though can't tolerate the Knicks owner(ship), who are a blight on the game of basketball. In the latter case, thus, I, like other somewhat rudderless or at least broken-ruddered NBA fans, like watching the Golden State Warriors. I have a second NFL teams that I like beyond the Giants, though not as much: the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams, due to the love of those teams by a pair of my unrelated friends. Baseball, its only the Yankees. Diehard, Diehard 2, and Diehard 3 in my commitment.

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Oddly, due to my CRM "reputation," for the last six years I've been actively involved with the business side of (mostly) professional sports teams/leagues/venues via an association called the SEAT Community (Sports Entertainment Alliance in Technology), which are, if I had to characterize them, what you might think they are, the leading consortium of the technology buyers in sports. They are the ones who buy CRM systems, data/analytics systems, IoT systems -- any systems that either operationalize their organizations and support the sales and marketing cycles of the teams or that support the engagement of fans. They were founded and still are led by the extraordinary Christine Stoffel, who not only has this community she created, but also was one of the first senior level women in sports back in 2007 when she led IT for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Each year, at around this time, I attend the SEAT annual conference as a member of the Executive Advisory Board of SEAT. I do my job there: Speak on some topic or another, introduce people to each other, cross pollinate the tech world with the sports business world, etc. And I love every minute of what I do there, not only due to my love of sports, but because the attendees are these enormously engaging, highly skilled professionals, both young and somewhat older (though not many my age) who love, love, love what they do.

What's not well known about sports teams (but germane to this post) is that they are not enterprises, though a few (Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees, Real Madrid) can be classified marginally that way given their revenues. Most though are mid-sized businesses with small business sized staff. The business staff, including the people who make the decisions on which CRM, customer engagement, data warehouse, analytics, social media tools, and technologies that the teams are going to use, have small budgets for what are huge tasks and big choices. The reasons are the obvious ones. The markets aren't all major cities, though are urban, for the most part, and more importantly, the players get paid far more than they are actually worth for the entertainment value they bring and thus the seats they fill and the ancillary revenues they help drive. Some of the larger entities, like the Yankees, built their own regional network to take more control over the ancillary benefits -- and their YES Network is the most watched regional sports TV network in the US of any kind. But, more typically, in whatever sport they are in, they are getting a piece of merchandising and TV revenue that is due to the excitement that is generated around a good team and exciting players. But that means the expectations are so outsized and absurd that when a player has a bad year, you hear the media saying, "He only got a raise from his $3.5 million to $4.7 million," as if that's normal, when the only thing that a normal human being would get if he performed equally as poorly at his job would be fired.

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But, even with these smaller budgets -- the money effectively left over after the salaries of the players are paid -- the sports business side is expected to manage the expectations of these millions of fans who love their teams. To compound this, the sheer quantity of fans and the sheer level of the expectations of each of these fans is breathtaking. Expectations are outsized, often even entitled, and enterprise scale. That's because the fan's perception of the team, aside from the romantic view, is that the team is as big as the salaries they pay.

You know that this is true. You know that because you're a fan of some team somewhere -- I assume most of you are -- and you (and me too) have ridiculous expectations of what that team, which you have loved since you were little, should be doing on the field all the time and for you whenever you ask. Rarely would you demand that performance level from any other entity you interact or transact with -- mostly because you don't care as much, so you don't bother.

This is the power and dilemma of sports. They (and maybe music or movies) have a unique problem. Most of us, most industries, and most companies would kill to have advocates and evangelists who are promoting and communicating about our brand nonstop and passionately believe in it. It is literally the optimal customer for you: They both transact and get others to do the same. Sports' problem is not finding or creating advocates. They have millions of ready-made advocates per franchise. How to manage and communicate and embrace them in ways that ultimately satisfy both the team/league/venue and the fan is what their problem is now.

The power of a team lies in its ability to influence those millions of devotees. The impact a team can have on a brand -- an external one - is enormous. It's why companies in the tech world like SAP, NetSuite, Oracle, Salesforce, and others associate with the teams of their choice as sponsors.

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This salient fact goes to the heart of why I'm writing this: Given the impact that these teams/leagues have on a brand and given the outsized love that fans give to teams, several of the technology companies -- and I will be calling out some shortly -- are doing something that I think is incredibly poorly thought through. Yet fixing it would take so little effort; the cost would be minimal and benefit exceptional.

Let me explain.

SEAT 2018 happened and you weren't there -- at all

You know me... I'm not a hostile person and never will be. But I am straightforward, probably due to my New York DNA. I'm saying this to set a stage. Because I'm naming names soon for tech companies that are showing a disgraceful lack of support for an industry.

As I sort of said, I'm a member of the executive board of SEAT, and the only non-sports person on it.

For the record: I'm speaking on my own behalf here, as Paul Greenberg, CRM industry analyst and individual guy -- not on behalf of the executive board at all. My opinions are my own, but then again, who else's would they be?

I have attended six SEAT conferences, including the 2018 one in Dallas Texas that I just returned from. They are wonderful events where I speak on non-sports topics that have relevance to sports -- this year customer engagement, but not fan engagement, per se. I interact and mingle with both the teams and leagues and venue folks and the sponsors who I often know from my "regular" life. It is relaxed, enjoyable, and the content is always valuable. What makes this particular event unique in the world of sports is its composition. The attendees are the people who buy all those systems that I mentioned before. In other words, the people making the purchasing decisions for whether or not to choose one CRM system or another are those who attend -- roughly 1000 of them. They range in title typically, from senior manager to C-level executive. But they are the ones who decide that they are going to buy someone's CRM system.

What I found out, non-scientifically over the years that I've been there, are numbers and inferences like this when it comes to what technology vendors are used by the teams, leagues, and venues (and these are numbers I was told, not from formal studies):

  1. Microsoft Dynamics DOMINATES the CRM landscape -- estimations are about 65 to 70 percent of all sports including teams, leagues and venues, and over 80 percent of major league baseball use Dynamics CRM or some part of it.
  2. Salesforce is making important inroads - with teams like the San Francisco Giants, Golden State Warriors, Detroit Tigers, leagues like Major League Soccer, etc. But Salesforce, oddly, lacks a sports vertical, so they have no real focus around it. To me, lost opportunity.
  3. KORE Software, a combination of a standalone solution and an integrated solution designed for sports, has over 100 teams in their stable and some major sports industry influencers like Russell Scibetti and Mark DiMaurizio working for them.
  4. Tableau has about 80 percent of their market share in at least baseball and high percentages elsewhere. Significant enough to show some major support for the industry.
  5. Marketo has been a choice for many teams for a marketing automation platform. Again, in sufficient numbers for Marketo to show that it appreciates the business.
  6. Oracle Hospitality has a significant presence; I think mostly in venues. Again...
  7. SAP is gaining significant market share in the data management and analytics side of things in both teams and venues.
  8. Thunderhead is gaining ground for the customer journey orchestration and the associated analytics with several teams onboard.
  9. SSB is also a player that competes with KORE more than anyone else and is highly visible.

Yet, at SEAT -- the SPORTS INDUSTRY CONFERENCE THAT HAS THE BUYERS OF THOSE VERY PRODUCTS -- only Oracle, KORE SSB, and Thunderhead sponsored it and did what any sensible reasonable company in this situation should do: Show support for the industry that they are participating in, rather than being disrespectful, which is what it is, by not being there when this is a no brainer to attend. And the effort and cost are minimal by comparison to what they spend.

Clap, Clap, Clap, and OK and Booo

I applaud these companies for being there (of the tech companies that I know from the CRM, engagement, CX, ecommerce side -- there were others).

  1. Oracle (Hospitality, Sports, & Entertainment)
  2. Adobe (via Magento)
  3. Thunderhead
  4. KORE
  5. SSB

Here is who attended but should have made a more significant effort, and I trust will next year:

  1. SAP (had their Sports vertical lead there, but didn't sponsor)
  2. Salesforce (had their chief evangelist there but as an individual)

Here are the scofflaws that didn't even bother to send anyone (or, if they did, they certainly didn't make their presence known nor did they appear on any attendance list):

  1. Microsoft
  2. Tableau
  3. Marketo

The three latter companies should be ashamed of themselves -- especially Microsoft and Tableau, which have majority percentages in sports market share in their respective domains. How do you not even bother to show up and show support for an industry that has given you the lions share of their business? I can't fathom it. Especially if they (the vendors) have an organized sports practice at the company. This is the conference that the folks who buy their technology and make the decisions on whether or not to continue to buy the technology attend. Not MIT Sloan, which is a sports analytics conference and a place to hunt for a job in the sports industry. SEAT: Sports Entertainment Alliance in Technology. Get it? It's in the name.

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Excuses? Nuh-uh

Let me make something clear -- and again, this is my observation, not SEAT's executive advisory board -- the tech companies that don't attend SEAT don't go unnoticed. At one point or another, there were multiple conversations about the non-attending companies above. They took two roads. The first, and honestly, the lesser of the number, was the lack of attendance at SEAT and wondering why companies like Microsoft, which, to be fair, had sponsored SEAT in the past (and years ago, even sponsored a speech by me at one point -- or, actually sponsored a session that I was going to be giving regardless), weren't there. The other was far more prevalent and, portended far more issues than not attending SEAT - complaints about problems that the teams were having with all of the companies. These were complaints related to:

  1. The technology itself and their particular implementations of it.
  2. The lack of responsiveness to help them when they need it.
  3. The ignorance of the needs of the teams/leagues/venues as they evolve.

This is far more potentially deadly to the companies that could, by attending, have at least indicated a willingness to communicate by being there and to put out the fires in the making. But they weren't, and since this is a conference where best practices and, like any other human endeavor, industry gossip got shared big time, wells started to get poisoned, as complaints were shared and thus reinforced. The good will -- that the tech companies had -- started getting reduced, and the lack of communications reinforced by the fact the companies weren't there to support and respond.

It wasn't all bad. Not at all. But I will say, what used to be a trickle, is now a stream, and if I was Microsoft or Marketo or Tableau, I'd do something before it became a river.

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I can imagine their excuses -- and one of them is actually somewhat valid, but shortsighted: "We don't get enough revenue from them to justify support." Its true, these are hardly the defining revenue streams for these companies. And, "Well, a few of us (Salesforce, Microsoft, SAP) pay millions of dollars (or hundreds of thousands) to be sponsors and we have suites at the stadium etc." But that actually just bolsters what I'm about to say: It's not an excuse at all. (And maybe they would be wise to not use that either.)

So, let me make this easy by addressing the no shows:

Revenue is not the reason that you work with a sports team -- as you well know, because some of you do purchase skyboxes and sponsor walls at the stadia. The ancillary benefits, the marquee value, the brand equity, the willingness of a team to say that you provide tech that makes them work better etc., is a major plus. Think team endorsement of a brand like, say, Coca Cola. You think it doesn't impact Coca Cola sales? You know it does. Brand association is the where the power is, and it impacts revenue in many places. So, don't me give that revenue argument. You wouldn't be sponsoring teams if you didn't understand the immense value that the association with the teams and leagues and venues provide. To emphasize the point, studies done by the Sports Business Journal and Turnkey in 2017 found that:

"47 percent of the 400 fans surveyed correctly identified Gatorade as the league's official sports drink, the highest recognition rate ever received in the study by any NHL sponsor.

Gatorade spent $4 million advertising during NHL telecasts last season, according to data from iSpot.tv, up 150 percent from the 2015-16 season.

Along with the NHL, Pepsi has league sponsorship deals with the NBA and NFL.

In another Sponsor Loyalty Study down by SportsBusiness Journal and Turnkey Sports, but this time for the NBA, Gatorade, a partner with the league since 1984, saw its fourth consecutive year of improved awareness among avid fans and continued to inch closer to its all-time high of 64 percent among that group, which it established in our inaugural study back in 2007."

Look, I'm not trying to say this B2C example is the same as a B2B relationship. It isn't. But it reflects the power of sports and the willingness of the brands that are consumer direct to pay out a lot of money over a long period to retain the relationship because they recognize the value of sports in influencing decisions to purchase. This has an impact on decision makers in B2B deals, too. I think you all know that. Think all the way back to the 1950s and 1960s. There was a reason that part of the courting of the decision-makers that went on then was taking them to ballgames. You've all felt that power. I know you know it yourselves.

This is also where you stop the poisoning by being available to answer questions and dissipate the rumors that are being reinforced by being shared when you are not there to answer them; show the teams that use your systems, that you actually care about the problems that they are having with your technology in their specific deployment by being responsive on the spot; and interact with the teams to show them that you are willing to support them.

This is where you stop viewing every conference in the universe as either worth it or not worth it due to its lead generation opportunities. Let me be crystal here: Conferences are never worth it as lead generation vehicles. If they happen, and a deal or two comes from it, its pure serendipity. They are valuable for the networking, the visibility, and the ability of someone who might become a lead down the road to have at least: A) seen what you have to offer; B) be aware that you are supporting the industry they are in (a big plus); and C) provide them with the ability to evaluate you in a first somewhat informal way with your competitive peers. That's it. If a true lead comes out of it, you have a bonus. But it's a bonus, not a reason to be there.

Another reason? Sure. The people who attend SEAT are senior management from those sports teams/leagues/venues. Many of them are part of much larger entertainment empires (e.g. Kroenke Sports & Entertainment) or are expanding their offerings far beyond the game and the merchandise itself (e.g. Golden State Warriors, Dallas Cowboys). There is a lot of opportunity due to the wide spread idea of sports being a leading experience in an experientially based environment. These guys are building empires, not stadia ,and if you are a tech vendor that can't see beyond their own... tennis racket... then don't come.

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Just saying.

I hope that all the vendors I've called out read this and realize I wish them no malice as irritated as I sound. I see lost opportunity, disrespect for an entire, influential industry, and no apparent concern. It bothers me -- despite the fact that I like Microsoft and Marketo. I don't know Tableau as well, so I can't say that I like them or not. But I also think that if you are going to be involved in an industry, and that you understand that we live in a digital world that involves not just software and services, but emotional responses, behavioral signals, a potentially viral response to the effort expended, which can go in either direction, and the power of an industry that rests well beyond the revenue it provides, then an effort should be made at a minimum to respect those you are taking the money from -- and to some extent, to fear the consequences of that lack of respect. Also, if you can't see that, think of the opportunity you are losing for sports brand support by the increasing disrespect that your disregard brings, as the relationship erodes over time.

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I'm an industry analyst that makes literally no money from the sports industry. In fact, it costs me money to work with them, because I'm free to all them. But I've met some amazing and now lifelong friends and highly experienced practitioners, which makes it worth it to me well beyond the coolness factor that sports always provides. And even though its companies like Microsoft and Marketo who's world I am a part of, considerably more than sports, I think that these tech companies need to be called to the carpet to fix their relationships with the teams/leagues/venues so that they aren't in a position where there is nothing left to fix. I don't mean to be harsh. I really don't. I respect the companies I'm calling out. But its time for them to step up and support the sports community, which means, honestly, to support those very people who support them with their dollars and their use of their products. That means honor those who are honoring you.

In this case, that means, the SEAT community. Plus, simply, how smart is it to do it, and how hard is it to do it? Very and not at all.

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