Sports Properties Miss Low-Hanging Fruit in Online Business

Globalization and ethnic diversity are the next frontiers in sports fan development, especially for the three major US sports, each of which has reached some level of saturation in the primary target markets. The NFL, NBA, and MLB have all taken to hosting games overseas, opened player development facilities outside the country (be it minor league or youth), and have seen an increase in foreign born players. It’s probably safe to say internationalization and diversity are in the top three business initiatives for each sport.

Yet, explore the websites of teams and leagues, and see how many clearly indicate they are available in multiple languages. The majority of properties have overlooked what would seem a logical first step – putting content in the native language of the people you want to target. How do you expect to run a diversity program, play games overseas, or wax poetic about growth strategies built around penetrating new ethnic boundaries when you make basic content is not readily available in the native language. The Colts recently announced games will be broadcast in Spanish language on local radio – a deal that should not be the norm, not the exception if the NFL wants to increase its Hispanic fan base, as they say. Colts website is available in Spanish – top right corner of toolbar. The Giants and Jets, who play in the melting pot of NY, no sign of translation – lost in translation, if you will.

Forget globalization for a minute, think local. Hispanics and Asians are the two fastest growing population groups in the US, at approximately 3.2% and 2.5% respectively in 2008. Further, Hispanics are now the largest minority group in the country at 15% of the population, surpassing African-Americans at 12.2% of the population. Advertisers are hot for cultural demographics. Businesses are using new products to better target ethnic groups. If you want to be a major business player in the 21st century, you have to not only say you want to be ethnic, but embrace it and live by it.

The NBA is the model of sports globalization and has various language translations available on their site, though they bury the translation buttons in the lower right side of the home page after scrolling down. Maybe different home page designs are geo-targeted and I get the US version, but still should be prominent. Baseball does a good job of putting translation links to Spanish and Japanese at the top of MLB.com and in the same spot for every team website – and we’ve come to expect nothing less from MLBAM. Basketball should impart the same model for Chinese and Spanish, at a minimum on all its web properties. The NFL is furthest behind, with no evidence on the league site or most team sites. Check out UFC.com, home of the fast growing MMA flagship league. In the top toolbar, it has 5 flags to denote its language availability. No explanation needed, prominently displayed on the home page, a good example for others to follow, though I’m sure no major sports property wants to hear that they should model anything after UFC.

Why does this matter? One word – traffic. Page views and uniques remain the currency of online monetization. Even subscription based models, which for the most part these sites are not, require some level of sustained traffic for success. If traffic is the name of the game, media managers should strive to make it available and accommodating to all potential fan bases. If Dwight Howard’s jersey sells well in China, his team’s webpage should have Chinese translation so his new found fans can follow the team. Plus, the team can win some long-term fans in a profitable market, considering Dwight will not play forever. Making the site accessible to entire body of potential fans will increase traffic simply through availability, and enhance current or future marketing efforts to reach new demographics. Plus, remember the comment about advertisers desire to reach these rapidly growing demos – incremental sponsorship and ad dollars are there for the taking.

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