How Voice Activation And Digital Will Expand Both Major And Niche Sports

Sports fans are viewers, correspondents, and players thanks to a growing array of digital channels, said NHL CMO Heidi Browning at the Ad Club of NY's Verticals event.

Major sports leagues seek ways of engaging fans across a wide variety of digital choices beyond traditional media, and the discussion of how to reach viewers on platforms such as Twitch and Facebook Watch was singularly upbeat at The Advertising Club of NY’s Verticals panel session.

“This is an amazing time to be in digital sports,” said panel moderator Geoff Reiss, GM of Verizon’s Oath Sports, setting the morning panel’s tone.

As viewership of major sports tends to remain flat across traditional media, the rise of digital platforms is attracting new waves of fans. And the impact on how people are engaging with sports has created a hybrid viewer/participant, said Josh Cella, Head of Global Partnerships, MLG- A Division of Activision Blizzard.

Seizing that idea, Heidi Browning, EVP/Chief Marketing Officer for The National Hockey League, also noted that fans can now be thought of as commentators as well thanks to the way influence can spread on social media.

David Beck, Chief Strategy and Ventures Officer, Turner (TBS &TNT);
Heidi Browning, EVP Chief Marketing Officer, The National Hockey League; Josh Cella, Head of Global Partnerships, MLG- A Division of Activision Blizzard

Meanwhile, the teams themselves are altering the dynamic between fan and viewer. “Our youngest players are transforming our game and the game has morphed because of it,” she said.

Whereas binge-watching has irreparably disrupted cable and broadcast networks, the live nature of sports programming has allowed leagues to take advantage emerging distribution channels in ways that scripted shows haven’t.

“Live is always going to win and there’s no better way to experience hockey than in a stadium,” Browning said, pointing to the league’s first expansion in 17 years to Las Vegas with the Golden Knights. “We knew Las Vegas was a perfect place to expand to, and that visitors and residents want something other than a Britney Spears show to go to.”

At the same time, eSports and digital are redefining what “scale” means when it comes to viewers of those live events.

“When I think about the media landscape overall, not just in sports, but it is harder and harder to create mega-hits,” said David Beck, Chief Strategy and Ventures Officer, Turner (TBS &TNT). “There are only so many big brands and leagues that are out there. My daughter just dropped ballet to pick up American Ninja Warrior class. I can picture my son flying drones around the house an crashing into stuff.

Turner’s Beck,NHL’s Browning, and MGL’s Cella at the Ad Club of NY.

“I bring those two examples up because who would have ever thought that a competitor sport like American Ninja Warrior or that drone racing would emerge into what they are today,” Beck added. “I’m excited about finding these smaller niche sports, because you’re not going to be able to replace and build mass scale sports like what we’ve known in the past.”

Lastly, the rise of voice activation via Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple’s Siri, is also offering a return to the way live sports was first experienced — as an audio event. It’s something media executives and advertisers are looking to as the next major channel for sports distribution and fan engagement, the panelists said.

“Coming from Pandora, I’ve been a big believer in the idea of ‘voice as the new touch’ for years,” said Browning, who was previously SVP, Strategic Solutions at Pandora before joining the NHL. “And now, it’s finally here. The opportunities are becoming more available to entities like the NHL. I can’t speak to specific conversations we’re having now, but we recognize that voice activation is an integral part of human experience. Voice activation is transforming the way we interact with technology, access content, and shop via e-commerce.”

Even networks like Turner are looking at how voice can complement and drive viewers on cable and on the TV company’s digital extensions.

“With the proliferation of content opportunities, we’re constantly trying to find new ways to deliver experiences through search,” Beck said. “My kids search everything through Alexa; they don’t want to endlessly scroll through a screen and a clumsy set-top box to find something to watch.”

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.