This past Thursday night I watched the Philadelphia Eagles preseason opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers via the NFL’s Preseason Live iPad application. Despite a few bandwidth kinks, I thought it was a step in the right direction for the NFL to properly utilize digital tools to drive deeper fan engagement. It was a pretty good app that allowed me to stream the game live and watch it on my iPad. I could also see box scores from the game and get live play by play data. For a $20 purchase fee, the app gives users access to all preseason games.
The app was good but it could have been better. I thought the NFL lost an opportunity to reach even higher engagement heights, similar to the Olympics app NBC built for the iPad. The Olympics app was clearly built to not only be a great digital companion to those watching the Olympics — the Primetime Companion feature of the app streams in facts and photos of specific athletes who are performing events in realtime — it also is jam packed with social features that allow you to amplify your viewing experience via social channels.
While the NFL is by far the most popular sport in the US at the moment, and has been for the past several years, it has been well documented that despite it’s overwhelming popularity with fans, actual in stadium attendance has been declining over the past 5 years. Why? 2 important reasons:
- The at home viewing experience has gotten dramatically better over the past 5-6 years. Viewers at home now have large flat screen TVs that bring NFL action to their living rooms in stunning HD quality. And for those with packages like DirecTV’s NFL ticket, they can see every game (as opposed to the 1 or 2 shown in their geographic market by the networks).
- Viewing sporting events have always been social experiences and with the tools available today, this is increasingly the case. At home, fans can watch the game while sharing the experience with friends across the country, or even the globe for that matter. They watch games with their laptop, smartphone or iPad in hand and push out commentary via social platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
As popular as the game of football has gotten, the in stadium experience is just not able to keep up in some respects with the experience fans get in the comfort of their own homes. This is significant given the fact that prices for NFL tickets can easily run $150 per seat and more.
The NFL knows this and in response, it is working to provide Wi-Fi in each of its NFL stadiums — a great move since data tends to be strained with tens of thousands of concurrent users toting smarphones at each game. Once Wi-Fi is readily available in each stadium, it will be critical that the NFL develops apps that offer exclusive experiences and features for fans while in the stadium. It also goes without saying that these apps need to be 100% integrated with social media functionality.
Think about it. What if the NFL app was similar to the Apple Store app, which has a core set of functionality when you’re not in an Apple store but is dramatically enhanced with additional features when you’re IN the Apple store? What if your NFL app made you eligible to exclusive give-aways like team paraphernalia or would make you randomly visible on the Jumbotron if you’re logged in and tweeting via a hashtag? What if, similar to the Apple Store app, you could purchase gear via your app and bypass the long lines that are typical of NFL pro shops in stadiums? And if I’m at a game and actively pushing out content via social channels, maybe I can be eligible for a discount off the price of a future ticket purchase?
You could even see an educational companion that explains the rules like the “tuck rule” or breaks down the X’s and O’s specific to teams you’re watching, like those who run the Tampa 2 defense vs a 3-4 or Wide 9.
I think the sky is the limit in terms of what’s possible for the NFL and how it can increase engagement with fans, certainly while in stadium but outside of the stadium as well. It will be interesting to see how the NFL handles integrating digital/social tools going forward. The good thing is that it has millions of rabid fans who are counting down the days before the start of the season. How it draws those fans closer to the game will determine whether or not we see a reversal of the downward trend in attendance.