Engaging a New Generation of NFL Fans: Insights From Over 40 Years’ Experience

·5 min read

Today’s guest columnist is Steve Bornstein, president, North America, Genius Sports.

Make no mistake about it, the NFL is king as a global brand, not just a sports property. What was a North American obsession has become a global phenomenon, attracting avid fans and partners right around the world. I have lived this evolution for over 40 years, and the upward track continues to amaze me.

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So where does it go from here? That’s why I am with Genius Sports now, after decades working on what was known as the traditional media side, leading business growth and expansion at ESPN and the NFL Network. There are plentiful new opportunities for the sport. Engagement. Data. Content, gamification and streaming of such an exciting and compelling product that transcends languages and cultures. And yes, I learned a thing or two about the power of gaming through my time at Activision Blizzard, all of which helps give us a really unique position for years to come.

As we prepare for the first Super Bowl with Genius as the NFL’s official partner, here are some key trends for the premium standard of sports entertainment.

Betting Is Another Engagement Platform

With Genius’ outstanding reputation for official data and powering the world’s largest sportsbooks, many people naturally associate our deal with the NFL as a betting agreement to distribute their assets.

Just a year in and we’ve achieved incredible market share with more than 97% of the U.S. betting market using Genius’ official NFL data to power their products. But this partnership is far bigger than that.

The NFL realized that by giving Genius access to their official data feeds, video streams and digital advertising inventory, we could create a partnership that would help to transform the entire fan experience.

As the NFL’s Brian Rolapp commented for last month’s Genius Investor Day: “This (the Genius partnership) is much more than betting for us… This is more about serving fans and helping them be engaged in our sport, 365 days a year.”

For the NFL and other sports worldwide, engaging with betting is part of a wider strategy to gamify the fan experience. This means testing fans’ knowledge of everything from the final result to the minutiae of the next play or individual player stats, to keep fans engaged for longer and across more platforms.

Betting can be a key component of this alongside free-to-play games, NFTs and other platforms. But it is vital to remember that while the majority of U.S. betting customers will be interested in the NFL, not every NFL fan will want to bet. And this is a key example of how leagues and their partners must give fans the option to customize the product they receive based on their preferences.

RomoVision Leads a New Wave of Customizations

In a recent Sportico poll, the NFL accounted for 41 of the top 50 most-watched broadcasts in 2021. But even though it is entrenched in the fabric of American content consumption, the NFL recognizes that it is constantly vying for fans’ attention, not just with other sports but other entertainment industries.

The major streaming platforms increasingly tailor their offering to each customer’s demands while Amazon’s X-Ray feature delivers insights and trivia embedded within the live broadcast. And the NFL is keeping pace, finding new ways to make the consumption of their content more compelling and bringing their data to life.

That’s where “RomoVision” came in. Launched this year in partnership with CBS and our Second Spectrum division, it helps fans visualize and embrace the nuances of the game through the forensic view of the star analyst and Pro Bowl quarterback Tony Romo.

The data is gamified using Second Spectrum’s unique machine understanding of sports to show everything from team lineups before individual plays, through X’s and O’s, to pinpoint tracking of quarterback passes.

It is fun to watch, and you see how enthusiastic Tony is in engaging with the technology to give everyone watching fun, and shareable visuals.

The NFL and CBS are meeting fans’ demand for more insights on every aspect of the game, creating new value from their Next Gen Stats (NGS) while enhancing the fan experience with unobtrusive customizations.

RomoVision is just the next step from a company, Second Spectrum, that walks the walk in digital and data visual engagement. They have worked with the NBA, MLS and other properties like the Premier League for years, and now are bringing all of that experience to every NFL screen around the world. Oh, and by the way, those slime tracks during CBS and Nickelodeon’s special NFL Wild Card presentation? That was Second Spectrum as well.

It’s fun. It’s innovative. And it’s customized to the consumer. These are all essential to engage the next generation of sports fans. RomoVision and other customizations are driving the shift from a one-to-many broadcasting standard toward a much more personalized and immersive one-to-one model.

What’s the Actual Impact?

Data, betting and customizations are much more than buzzwords when predicting the future of fan engagement. They help build genuine connections and have huge financial upside if executed properly.

As my award-winning colleague David Levy explained, fan engagement continues to drive the entire sports revenue model. Because when customizations like RomoVision or new channels such as legalized betting grab a fan’s attention, this increases ratings and clicks.

In turn, this increases advertising and sponsorship dollars from brands looking to tap into a highly engaged audience. Just last week, Captain Morgan unveiled its brilliantly over-the-top new Super Bowl Punch Bowl, which is connected with official NFL data to react to the events of the game and engage fans through a totally new channel.

Increased advertising and sponsorship dollars can then be reinvested by a league to enhance the overall quality of the fan experience. This cycle is nothing new. But as fans’ expectations evolve, so must sports entities and their partners.

The NFL is the best product in U.S. entertainment. With Genius and many other partners at the league’s side, this product has never been more compelling, not just in America, but the world over. And as we advance it will become more customized, more visually compelling, and, yes, more fun than ever.

Prior to joining Genius Sports, Bornstein was founder, president and CEO of NFL Network, and chairman and CEO of ESPN.