NRF 15: A sporting chance at digital transformation

Profile picture for user cmiddleton By Chris Middleton January 11, 2015
In the first of a series of reports from the NRF 15 retail show in New York, Chris Middleton hears how the sports industry has adapted to digital change and provided exemplars for other sectors in the process.

Olivier Bierhoff
Olivier Bierhof

Don't judge. Don't complain. Adapt.

Those were the words of Oliver Bierhof, General Manager of Germany's World Cup-winning national soccer team, when he was asked how long-established industries should react to wholesale digital and mobile change.

The soccer legend was one of several sports luminaries speaking at NRF 15 – 'Retail's Big Show' – in New York, in a keynote and Q&A that proposed that retail and sport have much in common. But beyond the fact that much of sport is retail, do they? And if so, what?

For Bierhof, data-gathering and sharing is the key to success in both markets:

First, data [about performance on the pitch] helps us to be successful. And it's easier to get people to buy a shirt from you if you're successful. And then we use our data to move faster for the customer. Then we make special editions of shirts, and so on. And our partners want to know our customers too. They know that we have access to all these fans and they use what we do to make a bridge for their own products.

Hosted by America's National Retail Federation, NRF is an annual showcase of the latest technologies that are available to a sector that employs 42 million Americans – one quarter of the entire US jobs market. And this year, mobile and social technologies filled three halls of New York's Javits Center.

Alongside smart point-of-sale technologies, mobility, social platforms and customer loyalty are all that everyone in retail is talking about – and in sports too, according to the panel. Pat Bakey, Global General Manager of Consumer Industries at SAP, explained:

[Today] sports is an always-on, always-engaged personal experience, and retail is the same. It's all about a continuous and immersive relationship with a retail brand. Retail is about how each person can express their own individual identity and style. Retailers need to move away from broadcasting their messages to listening to their customers.

SAP worked with the German national team to develop a range of data analysis apps – but unlike in most American sports, FIFA doesn't let teams use them pitch-side.

But the panel acknowledged that striking the right balance between real-time data analysis and the live human element that defines sport is essential. The lesson for retailers and for other digitally enabled businesses: don't put technology in the way of creating a customer-friendly experience.

But while retail is “moving away from relationships defined by transactions to relationships that are defined by experiences”, in Bakey's words, the sports world wants to build more transactions around the already experiential world of competitive live action.

The aim is to move sport away from being a “billion-dollar lemonade stand” and towards being a technology-enabled community of super-fans, which extends the experience of sport outside of the tournaments and arenas themselves. And core to that process is recognising that analysis of past events is fast being replaced by predicting future ones.

Emotional connectivity

Clearly, any industry that's defined by 'fandom', as sports is, can teach other sectors how to use technology to build emotional connections with users.

But there's a difference: most athletes, sports, or sports teams already have their own communities of fans; in soccer, for example, someone is unlikely to switch allegiance from one team to another, least of all because of poor data management.

So can organisations use technology to convert mere 'participants' into loyal fans? Mark Tatum thinks so. He is Deputy Commissioner and COO of the National Basketball Association (NBA). For the NBA, the solution has been to take a chance on complete data transparency by releasing all of its game statistics since the year 1946, making them available to the public in real time (and not just to the coaches and players);

We realised that people wanted to go much deeper on information,” he said. “Now, traffic is up by double digits and they're getting the insights that keeps them engaged.

Tatum offered a glimpse of future models of consumer engagement, too: the NBA is videoing matches in 3D with the aim of making them available via virtual reality headsets.

Paraag Marathe, President of American football team the San Francisco 49ers, described the team's stadium as being a “petri dish” of data gathering and sharing, giving fans watching a live match new layers of data, interactivity and enquiry on top of the game itself.

NRF 15

Replays can be sent direct to fans' phones within the stadium, and they can order food and products via their mobiles and have them despatched to their seats “within five minutes”. The brand's mobile ticketing app is the key to unlocking fan preferences.

Stacey Allaster, Chair and CEO of the Women's Tennis Association, said that mobile apps, social platforms and data allow a broad range of sports brands to forge deeper connections with fans than used to be allowed by the time-based, globe-trotting nature of tennis tournaments. She said:

We're on the journey of technology. We come to town for one week, not for a whole season, and then we leave them [the fans].

Our front office is sport. Tennis is a niche sport, but through technology we could take a quantum leap.

The key to achieving this will be data, she said:

Young data-driven analysts will help us one customer at a time.

But Allaster warned that organisations shouldn't make too many assumptions about which platform will prove popular for consuming different types of content. Most sports fans now watch on social, rather than video platforms, she said, with still-image-sharing platform Instagram emerging as an unlikely favourite. For many young sports fans, 'watching a game' has become a real-time feed of stats and still images on their mobiles.

In the future, different sports and teams should look to create their own social platforms, she suggested, and so own the medium as well as the message;

We should create the platforms and make people sign in. Use social platforms to make that connection.

The panel was hosted by Alexis Glick, the former Wall Street analyst turned TV anchor and Director of Business News for the Fox News Channel. Today, she is CEO of the non-profit organisation GENYouth, which encourages child health and fitness through sport. [A separate interview with Glick will follow.]

Glick said that sports fans can swiftly be converted into loyal, long-term consumers, and so it's important for retailers and franchisers to use mobile and social technologies to create positive experiences early, “not in a push or pull [sic], but in connected relationships”.

But authenticity is the key, she said:

allowing our fans to talk to one another in an authentic way without inserting ourselves into the conversation. And the only way we can do that is via technology.

Disclosure: at time of writing, SAP is a premier partner of diginomica.