Updated: Nov 17, 2020

I’m writing this blog at home, with my MacBook plugged into a large screen monitor. I’ve got four app windows open in front of me (email, Slack, browser, calendar) and then four apps on a second desktop accessed with one swipe (whats app, zoom, another browser and excel). There’s about 20 or 25 apps on my computer, but about 95% of my time is spent in only seven of them.

Then look at my phone and there’s easily 80+ apps on there and I use at most eight or nine of them multiple times per day: email, calendar, WhatsApp, Slack, messaging, Safari, weather, Google Maps, Twitter (even though it makes me angry) and the BBC News app. I’ll use others such as my banking app or podcasts on a regular basis, while I haven’t used my British Airways app in what seems an eternity. Of all the apps on my phone not many are getting used regularly at all and many of them, email, calendar, WhatsApp, Slack are exactly the same ones that I’m staring at all day on my laptop. Most of the time, my phone’s screen is locked, so I’m only going to see things if they appear as notifications on my lock screen, meaning that the lock screen notifications have become a channel in their own right.

Then take our Smart TV, we “cut the cord” some time ago so only watch what is available on the apps on our TV. 99% of it is across Netflix, Amazon Prime, BBC iPlayer, YouTube, All 4, Now TV and BT Sport. I’m still holding out on Disney+ but Star Wars will win in the end – the force is too strong. So we’ve gone from a world of an infinite number of channels to one where a small number of channels, each with a very deep library, are the access points to what we watch.

If you are a brand, a broadcaster, my football club, a retailer or any organisation that wants to get my attention, then you need to talk to me in the channels that I’m using or I’ve given you permission to send me notifications from. That’s not that many channels. It’s very likely that I will go from my “core” applications that have my attention to something else (another app, streaming service or website), but as a starting point, a prompt or reminder in these channels is going to be way more effective than hoping that I will go to your app / website without a very specific reason to do so.

I’ve used our setup at home as an example, and the specific apps that hold people’s attention will obviously vary between different people, geographies and generations. For example, Snapchat, TikTok, Discord and Houseparty are much more likely to feature amongst younger users “core” lists and are less used on my phone (I like Tik Tok, it just makes me smile). older users are much likely to get information via email than younger users and younger users will tend to have both more apps installed and use a greater variety of them. But the principle remains the same – a relatively small number of apps are the gateways to consumer attention.

So what does this mean if you are a sports team, brand, league or broadcaster wanting to reach your fans and audience? The concept of “fish where the fishes are” is not new, but why does it feel so pertinent now? Well, there seem to be three broad trends – first, as shown above, is the concentration of people’s time and attention in an increasingly small number of channels, secondly the growth of, and investment in, companies such as Substack who are helping deliver content directly into the applications that we are using every day (in Substack’s case the email inbox), or as the NYTimes put it, For us, the inbox is becoming a more attractive medium than the news feed” and thirdly, the trend for content to be increasingly shared within private channels such as WhatsApp or Slack groups rather than posted publicly, therefore further increasing the time spent in the “core apps”.

Let's look at this through the lens of the increasing number of right holders who are launching, or considering launching, direct-to-consumer propositions, which inevitably from a consumer’s point of view, means more apps that want your attention. At first glance, trying to get fans to a new destination app to watch your sport, feels contradictory to the trends that I described above. However, I think the really interesting part here is not whether a direct to consumer offer is the right thing to do (in many cases it absolutely is), but rather, if you have a direct to consumer proposition, how do you interact with fans in their “core apps” and when is the right time to try and move the fans between them?

It’s very unlikely that a direct to consumer streaming service for a specific sport or team is ever going to be one of your daily go-to apps for many people, but it can be exactly the right thing for specific “appointments” – when the match you want to see is on, your favourite player is playing or you want to see the highlights. Therefore, letting the individual fan know about the things that will be of interest to them in the channels that they spend the majority of their time becomes paramount. This requires data as a precursor to a genuine understanding of the fan. Have a look at Sports Loft company PumpJack and the work they are doing to bring multiple sources of data together about individual fans, such as what content they engage with, what tickets they buy or what players they follow, in order to get a deep understanding of the fans. It also requires being able to notify them at the right time and in the channels where they are spending their time, have a look at Sports Loft company Covatic, and their work to understand “windows of opportunity” in people’s days when they are most receptive to receiving content.

However, one channel that I think is still massively untapped when it comes to letting people know about things that are of interest to them and potentially moving people into streaming services or towards other content is the calendar – one of the most heavily used apps on both your phone and computer, but the experience is often very static. Companies such as eCal and Stanza are doing some very interesting work in this space, but this feels like an area with lots of opportunities.

Yet, to take this all the way back to the idea that we are witnessing a concentration of people’s attention into a relatively small number of apps, not everybody will rely on the same core apps. Therefore, for sports organisations to deliver great experiences in the channels that the fans use every day or choose to use around specific events or matches, this means being able to operate to a high standard across multiple different platforms, which is very hard. Sports Loft company Satisfi is a prime example of recognising this and all their recent work around engaging with fans away from the stadium through virtual assistant and trivia has been across multiple platforms such as WhatsApp, Messenger, SMS, tournament apps and voice – meaning that they can serve their fans over whichever platform the fan chooses to use, whether its one of their core day-to-day apps or something they specifically use to watch matches.

And if you are going to try and get people’s attention inside the core apps that they use every day, then you need to stand out – and that’s by creating really good content that people want to engage with. For many people, the core apps will be the social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram (especially on their phone) and when it comes to sport, the content that drives engagement will often be player related. Sports Loft company Greenfly operates right at the intersection of athlete content and the social channels, helping teams, leagues and brands to use athlete content in order to really cut-thru the deluge of social content. Equally, Sports loft member company Slate helps teams and leagues maintain their brand consistency across their social posts whilst operating in real-time, making sure that the quality of the posts remains really high in these "core" apps.

So, if you are a sports organisation grappling with how to connect with your fans and through which channels, please get in touch. There are a number of companies at Sports Loft who can help. And if you a startup company doing great work in this space, please also get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.

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Updated: Nov 17, 2020

In Brad Stone’s book, The Upstarts, he recounts a story about the founders of AirBnB and their interview at Y Combinator. AirBnB did not start well and was a long way from the success story of today, it nearly fell apart on numerous occasions. At the end of the meeting, Paul Graham, the co-founder of Y-Combinator said “wow, you guys are like cockroaches, you just won’t die”. According to the book, being a “cockroach” was one of the highest compliments that Graham could pay to a founder. It meant that they had the mental toughness to overcome the hurdles, the negativity and the constant setbacks of doing something new. Let's face it, with COVID and the sports industry, there have been quite enough headwinds for any startup founder in 2020.

That got me thinking, if being a cockroach is important, what are the other personality traits that we should value in startup teams? I’ve recently written about how we look at a company’s “traction” and explained the seven focus areas in the sports industry that we believe will experience significant adoption of new technologies. However, if the adage of “invest in the people” is true, then we also need to be clear about the characteristics that we want to see in the teams at Sports Loft. We work with multiple founders and their teams every day, so we’ve been able to build up some great insight about what traits make a really positive difference to a startup’s growth. Here I set out the five characteristics that we look for in the teams at Sports Loft. There are others, but we are seeing these five make the most difference on a daily basis.

The first is the ability to sell. That’s not just the sales team, but everyone. The reality is that in a startup, you are always selling. Whether it’s selling the idea to an investor, the product to a potential client or the vision for the company to a prospective hire. The team has to be able to sell. The team at Fevo can sell, if you don’t believe me, watch this video with the CEO, Ari. But equally if you’ve been on one of our “office hours” sessions with Josh or Colin, you will know that they are some of the most effective impressive sales presentations that you will see. Donny White at Satisfi can sell. He is able to tell the story of Satisfi in an incredibly impressive way, whether on a stage or on a zoom call. Telling the story in a way that people can relate to is a skill that many startup founders don’t have as they are archetypal product or technical people, not storytellers. So whether it’s how the company was founded, how the customers use the product or how the first hires were made, storytelling is such an important part of selling. Listen to how he does it on the Sports Loft podcast. Andrew at Formalytics is another example of a CEO being able to tell a great story around their business and his background as a VC makes this very effective when talking with potential investors as he showed on our podcast.

The next is just being “up for it”. Running a startup is hard – so you have to enjoy it and you need to be enthusiastic about it. There are plenty of easier things to do with your life, so if you are not “up for it”, then don’t bother. The team at Slate have only been with Sports Loft for two months, but oh my, are they “up for it”. Every idea comes back brimming with enthusiasm, the starting point is always “how do we make that happen?” not “it’s too hard” and they are always one of the first to put their hand up for opportunities that we’ve put in front of them. It’s not a surprise that they are making such progress. Yes, the product meets a clear need in the market, but their attitude is so positive.

Next up is knowing your market and expertise. Certain politicians might not like experts but I do. If you don’t know your market, your customers and the challenges they are facing then how are people supposed to buy the vision that you are selling to them? Every time that you talk to them, you can tell that the team at Greenfly such as Daniel, Andrew and Peter genuinely know their stuff. They understand what is happening with athlete created content, they are clear about how the social channels have in many cases given the athletes greater reach than the teams and they understand the challenges that the team’s social media teams fans. Equally, listen to Nick at PumpJack on our recent podcast. Nick was one of the first to think about how sports teams could use Facebook data to sell more tickets, he has long advocated the economic value of using data and this expertise is evident in what they are building at PumpJack.

The fourth trait is the willingness to listen. Many startup founders are not good at that – they are confident, they know what they want and often they just won’t listen to the advice available to them. Nick at Covatic is one of the best startup CEOs when it comes to listening. He has probably learnt more about the sports market in the last few months than he would have ever expected. Covatic has just started with the Comcast Lift Labs programme run by Techstars, so their opportunity to listen and learn over the next few months from some leading thinkers is going to be huge. It is one thing to listen and then another to act on it and make changes, something that Nick has shown that he is very capable of doing.

Fifth is the ability to get “stuff” done. Whether it is getting the meeting with the investor, shipping new product functionality or getting a sale, the ability to make stuff happen is huge. At the risk of generalising hugely, people with sports or military backgrounds are often very good at getting stuff done. It’s really easy for founders to have great ideas and create powerpoint presentations, but it’s only when you get a product into the market and start to get feedback that you really begin to learn. The world is full of potential founders who have a great idea but then six or twelve months later have not been able to get something done. Those who will succeed will have found some way of making it happen. The Zone7 team is a great example of that. They always seem to have something that they are delivering or moving forward, whether a client conversation, a product feature or a piece of marketing. This creates momentum which is a huge factor in a startup. Equally, the team at Spalk are always developing new ideas and have an incredible work ethic. During Covid they have added new functionality, sold to different types of clients and created new business lines by brokering deals, a great example of being able to get stuff done in a challenging environment and as a result, they have been able to unearth new opportunities.

Those are the five characteristics that we see on a daily basis that we think make the most difference. When we talk about the companies that we would invest in ourselves, these are the things we immediately look for. However, if you think we’ve missed something let us know and if you’re a founder in the sports or media sector that has these characteristics, then get in touch!

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In the past few months the idea of “community” based companies driving value seems to have caught the imagination of various investors and commentators, not just in sport but in the wider economy. It is an area that we have always been bullish on, calling out “technologies that can bring people together around their shared sports and media passions” as one of our key focus areas at Sports Loft.

The buzz around “community” has also been re-enforced by the performance of companies such as Zoom, where revenues have leaped 355% in Q2 compared to last year, articles such as this one by Sarah Drinkwater from Atomico (shared recently by both Mike Broughton of Acceleration Equity and James Emmett at Leaders) and the excitement is furthered by tweets such as this from D’Arcy Coolican, an investment partner at VC firm Andreesen Horowitz.

However, the notion of building successful products and businesses around community is not new. I was working at Reuters in the late ‘90s, and the company had already built a very significant business around providing trading terminals to foreign exchange traders at the different investment banks. No-one would cancel because they were too scared of missing out on the best deals, the ultimate retention mechanism of a community based business. In 2007, I was at Nike when Nike+ was launched, initially billed as “running with music” (which led us to mistakenly position bands all around the course at the Great North Run- whoops!) the real power came when different groups would compete against each other, creating mini-communities that individual runners were part of. Then look at the likes of Ebay, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and Etsy – all of which are highly successful and fundamentally based on ‘community”. Add to that companies such as Uber and Airbnb who use the ratings of other people in the community as a way to police their services.

So, why now and why sports? Why now? There’s a natural reaction to value things that we are deprived of – ie if you can’t see your friends, work in person with other people or go to events during lockdown (all of which are clear examples of “community” behaviour), then you are going to value those things even more. But whilst COVID has reminded people how much they value community experiences, there was already a powerful trend developing towards more authentic communities that revolve around very specific ideas, personalities or common interests. For example, look at the communities that have developed around email newsletters such as Morning Brew (and pretty well any subject matter will have their own equivalents), the way that virtual event platforms such as hopin have grown as a result of the pandemic, how apps such as Upstream (an invite only networking app) have attracted early adopters or the communities of subscribers that are building around specific writers on platforms such as Substack. Now, whilst these communities might be small in comparison to the big social platforms, they are very authentic – and their strength lies in their authenticity. They need to remain small in order to maintain their authenticity. If Upstream got too big then the quality of the interactions would surely fall.

Why sports? As an industry, sport should be inherently community driven. For example, communities form around the shared identity of supporting a particular football club, they form around playing for a team or taking part in a specific fitness class. However, community driven business models have been more readily adopted in areas such as individual participation sports and fan content as opposed to the highly commercial areas of professional sport which have retained much more linear models. For example, in cycling, communities of riders have developed around specific routes on Strava and, on products such as Team Snap or Pitchero, communities immediately form around the team you play in or your role at the club. Equally, you can see how clear communities based on strong fandom have developed around unofficial fan related content such as the community that exists around things such as Arsenal Fan TV or the “Stoolies” that come together around specific personalities on Barstool. Despite this, most elite sports leagues and teams have stuck to a broadcast one-to-many model of communication with fans, perhaps driven by their reliance on the TV rights fees. This has left communities to form on other platforms like Whatsapp or fan blogs that they can’t monetise.

I also think that broader technology trends are set to open up new community driven opportunities in sport. We’ve been repeatedly pitched the idea of “Facebook for sport” or “twitter for sport” and my response has always been “we have Facebook or Twitter for that”, but is there more of an opportunity now, given the shifts towards authentic micro communities in other industries, for highly authentic and engaged communities around specific teams or sports? Twitch has shown the way around building and serving communities in gaming and the widespread launch of their Watch Parties functionality could have a significant impact in building micro-communities around content - including specific sports teams and matches.

Hence why at Sports Loft, we’re so positive about the community driven model in sport – the opportunity is largely untapped and the broader technology trends are only moving one way. At the participation level the industry has still barely scratched the surface and the fan content model is still developing (what if you combined models such as Substack with really strong fan writing?). At the supporter level, the pandemic showed how fans can be brought together virtually to watch games and I don’t think that use case is going to go away now that fans have experienced it (even if the user experience can still be improved considerably - back to Twitch again). Equally, what if you started to inject genuine community models in the way that clubs and teams interact with their fans, whether in terms of ticketing, fan engagement and soccer schools? And, what if you could apply community tools to elite training and you could 'gamify' drills and practices amongst highly competitive athletes - whether in schools, colleges or professional teams? Whether football, rugby, cricket, baseball and the list goes on, the data already exists to do it, then it becomes a question of developing the right user experience and how the data is delivered in the best way to the athletes.

At Sports Loft, a number of our member companies have very strong community principles and thinking built into their products. For example, in making group ticketing easier and rewarding the people who organise their friends, Fevo is the epitome of using social connections in the ticketing process. Spalk is bringing fans together around specific commentary feeds – whether they are based upon language or the personalities of individual commentators. Greenfly is helping teams and leagues create and distribute content via their communities of players and fans. Formalytics is helping players build their own “player card” so that their performance can be compared with their friends and teammates. PumpJack is helping clubs identify unifying traits (whether they be demographic, interest based or purchase related) amongst sub-communities of their fanbase.

We’re always looking for companies that can “bring people together around their shared sports passions”, so if you work at such a company, or you know of one, then please do get in touch.

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