Digital Industry Moving Slow on Wireless

Of all the breakthrough technologies driving digital media, wireless should be at the forefront. Consider that almost every family in the US has a cell phone (84% of households, over 250 million people). You can’t go anywhere, stadiums, subways, schools, sidewalks, movie theaters, cars, without seeing people, young and old, using cell phones. Text messaging, phones, Internet, cameras, you name it, someone’s doing it. So why is wireless revenue for digital media sports entities still a blip on the radar?

Standards remain a big problem. Almost every phone provider and wireless carrier has different development platforms. Most phones have still have varied screen sizes. And to make matters more difficult, the landscape is constantly evolving with new releases. A content providers nightmare. Faced with developing a variety of formats to roll out just one application, content providers have stayed behind the curve opting to utilize more standardized offerings, such as text messaging.

Rights issue to video also hold back innovation. In order to maximize profit, some sports rights holders opt to negotiate exclusive deals with carriers, preventing millions of people that use other carriers from receiving desired content. It’s a mistake by the content provider (i.e. the NFL). No users will switch mobil providers simply to watch NFL highlights, you need to make it as accessible as possible to everyone. Exclusivity rarely works in the digital world, especially when you are trying to push out a product to mass appeal for the first time.

Even with these issues, it’s on the cusp of exploding. Phones continue to get better and better. Each round of smartphones has better display attributes (size and clarity) and better battery life.  Users are quickly moving over to smartphones, much more conducive to mobile content. Carrier networks are evolving with faster speeds, and at some point the day will come where standard will rule, making life easy of mobile application developers.

Thus far, text-based applications are the most successful. Local networks post questions during the broadcasts to text in a vote for the player or play of the game, or they will post a trivia question and have fans text the answer. Teams and sports media proviers also have text message based score and news alerts. Some providers charge a small fee, but primarily carriers collect a portion of the text fee, and providers garner the sponsorship money.

It’s a first step in fan engagement, yet it completely leaves out the fans at the game, and the fans not watching at the time. It requires appointment viewing. Content providers should expand the program to have question of the day contests, where users can text a question in and have the broadcasters answer it, or have it answered on the post-game show. Teams and networks should also integrate with sponsors, particularly QSR. Run an advertisement that offers a deal to users who text in an order (for example, pizza) within a certain time. Easily measureable and highly integrated. Teams can run ticket promotions at the stadium. Post a question on the scoreboard answered via text message, winner gets a pair of tickets or a dinner.

Mobile video is going to take off as smart phones improve. Costs, battery life, and rights issues are holding it back. As they are resolved, mobile video will can become a big money maker. The makers of Slingbox have a similar application for mobile phones,  allowing users to watch games and highlights from anywhere using their phone. In today’s world of constant information expect that technology to take off. How many people will be watching those afternoon baseball games at work, without worrying about streaming MLB.tv through the corporate firewall? Fans at games can benefit tremendously from mobile video. One word, instant replay. A great dunk, a great catch, a controversial call, fans at the game are not privvied to the thousand replays shown on TV. Eneter mobile video, allow the broadcasters or stadiums to stream replays out to the fans. I believe fans will pay a per game fee for that service, and it has great sponsorship potential.

Another form of text messaging is to connect the fans at the games with the fans at home on the Internet. Allow mobile access to message boards, connect the fans at home watching with fans on the road or at the game. Given a forum and a topic, users will engage. It leads to further engagement on the web site by home users, and another use of wireless. More engagement and more texts makes the product more attractive to sponsors.

MLBAM offers mobile video alerts, essentially the next generation of text alerts for news and scores. The alerts are accompanied with a video link. All highlight plays that you want get sent to your phone, when news breaks users not only get the alert but imagine also receiving the press conference or video of the news coverage.

WIthout delving further into more ideas, the fans will use mobile, now the teams and media need to find the revenue. The obvious part is to have a sponsor for the content or contest. However, it’s important to integrate the sponsor. Ad’s should accompany the content to the phones in a non-intrusive manner and give fans the opportunity to engage with the sponsor if they choose. Content providers should work together with mobile carriers to find a way to make the pie bigger to the point where each can take home revenue. Right now only the carrier nets revenue.

Wireless ticketing, concessions, and e-commerce will also have a major impact on the sports industry, but require separate discussions. It’s an all encompassing technology. Almost every fan has a cell phone attached to their hip morning, noon, and night, and uses the phone constantly all day. Phones are the perfect revenue-generating device for sports media because the eyeballs are already there, it’s just a matter of pushing the right content out and providing the right incentive.

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