Ep. 52: Embracing The Changing Sports Landscape with Ben Young
In each episode of The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently.
Ben Young, CEO at Nudge, joins Rob Cressy to talk about embracing the changing sports landscape. Why is it a fascinating time to be in sports? Where are the opportunities to engage fans coming from? What can we learn from emerging sports? Why is it important to embrace a culture of experimentation? What trends are we seeing with big companies and in tech?
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Rob Cressy: (00:04)
Welcome to the GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, a discussion around how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate game day more efficiently. I'm your host, Rob Cressy and joining me today is Ben Young CEO at Nudge. Ben, great to have you on the show.
Ben Young: (00:28)
Thanks for having me. It's great to be here.
Rob Cressy: (00:30)
Can you give a quick overview on who you are and what you do?
Ben Young: (00:35)
I’m the CEO here at Nudge. Originally from New Zealand, but living here in New York and been here the last eight years now really, really clocked up. At Nudge we work with brands to help them understand the value of their content partnerships. So, a content partnership being, if they work with a publisher or increasingly a sports team or athletes, or even influencers.
Rob Cressy: (00:59)
What we're going to jam about today is sort of a combination of things of sports tech and fan engagement. And in our pre conversations, one of the things that came up is this is a fascinating time to be in sports. And I'm curious to hear from you, why is this a fascinating time?
Ben Young: (01:21)
Its kind of like the world has been tipped upside down in a way like when we both watched sports growing up there were only a few feature games, the production quality, but at the time was good, but if you go back and have a look, it wasn't as good. Now you've got drones and fly over cameras. You've got streaming on your phone, but the dynamic which I've found quite interesting is that some of the more traditional sports are kind of plateauing. And they're trying to figure out new ways to engage their fans, but the technology and the ability to create new content and distribute it has meant that the distribution costs have dropped. So, the last few years we've seen the if one pop up, we've seen lacrosse, there are now two lacrosse leagues. We're seeing the World Surfing League. And they even run their own content themselves. And more recently rugby.
Rob Cressy: (02:17)
That is something that's been a theme that we've talked about numerous times on this show, but even more recently, because let's break this down in terms of the value that this can deliver for the listener right now, it's like, alright, so if we know that major sports or traditional sports are plateauing, they're looking for new ways to engage fans for these emerging sports to have big opportunities now. And what do these emergency sports do? Well, they do a very good job of speaking the language of their niche and target audience. So, if you like rugby or if you like surfing, boom, they are going to give you rugby or surfing content. But when we look at the larger level for the traditional sports they're traditionally a little bit slower to move and not all of them are the same way. I mean, I think baseball is the biggest example at the current moment of who's moving the slowest, whereas football on the other side of things, the NFL did their virtual draft. So, we've got both sides of that, but what can we learn from the emergence of niche sports and the opportunity to engage fans?
Ben Young: (03:24)
I think emerging sports realized that they are content companies, whereas I think some of them mature teams haven't fully figured that out. Emerging sports are going, all right, we've got these athletes, let's have them tell their stories on their platforms. If they want to do a podcast, they can do a podcast. If they're really good at Instagram, let them do Instagram. They are really good at cutting out their content and making sure it gets out there. I think the biggest thing is one, the acknowledgment that they are a content company and they need to produce it. And then, two, the flexibility, like when I speak with sponsorship managers at big leagues, like the NBA, the amount of restrictions that they have for the content they can create and where they can distribute it and the sign-off, it just means they can't be dynamic. Whereas these emerging leagues, they can try a podcast. They can try behind the scenes, they can do a Netflix partnership. So, I think they are playing and using that leverage to their advantage.
Rob Cressy: (04:27)
So, what I hear from that is innovation is necessary. Everyone needs to think of themselves as a content company and baseball was almost too big to fail, right? No. What you're quickly realizing is if you don't adapt with the times and, or innovate or tell different stories, then you are going to get passed by. And maybe you're not gonna notice it today and maybe you're not gonna notice it tomorrow. But, I think one of the themes that I recognized right away when everything happened with the pandemic is the larger companies, it takes a long time for an iceberg to turn around. Whereas when you're smaller, you're nimble. By design, you have to innovate, you have to deliver an exceptional experience because you can't rest on your laurels. And I really see it as companies who are resting on their laurels versus those who say, wait for a second, what can we do to innovate? What are the tools that are around us right now? And this is something that I think applies to everyone who's listening right now, because this just isn't about professional teams or niche sports, or high growth sports teams. This is every single business because now you say, alright how can we, one, tell our story? But more importantly, two, how can we build a relationship and connect with our audience and consumer and then the various ways to do so?
Ben Young: (05:54)
Yeah, that's the thing, sports teams aren't competing just against other sports teams. They're competing against everyone else. Like they're competing against the other podcasts. The other things you've got in your queue, the other newsletters you get, the restaurants that you're choosing to go to instead of staying in and watching TV. You need that content to be where the consumer is and you need it to be engaging.
Rob Cressy: (06:18)
So, talking about the engaging side, you said there were some great examples. So, we've seen virtual rugby. I know NASCAR has been very good at this, creating virtual leagues. We have walk-throughs of museums. Audi had a thing where you went on a four-hour drive. But the thing that I really like is home workouts from athletic brands. So, as I think about what do brands need to do more of? You need to give people a reason to want to care and to be part of something. So, are you just Reebok, a shoe company or all of a sudden when it's time for me on Sunday night to plan my week ahead, am I saying, huh, let me see what Reebok or Lulu lemon are doing in terms of workouts that I can do. And then if you think about that, compared to where we were at the start of the year, that is a whole other level of fan engagement that has never been tapped into.
Ben Young: (07:10)
Yeah. It's like five years of change accelerated into one year, isn't it? Not even one year, six months, three months in some areas. What's amazing is that the talented people behind the scenes that have been able to deliver that. Like if you work at Reebok and you pitched that idea last year, what would have happened? It probably wouldn't have happened. That speaks to the culture of those companies to spin on a dime and give it a shot. And that those that are doing well are really being rewarded.
Rob Cressy: (07:42)
Let's talk about pitching the idea thing because I think this can be a big challenge for a lot of different companies, both big and small. So, on the big side, oftentimes you hear the executives are older and not as in tune with things. So, is the CEO or CMO listening to podcasts, doing live streams? Does he or she understand TikTok? And if they don't a trickle-down effect happens where it's like, not for us, excuse, excuse, excuse. And then on the flip side, you go to the smaller companies who say, you know what, we don't have the time, resources, or budgets. So, really we've got two groups of companies, big and small, all making a different version of their own excuse. But then you find the people in the companies who say we absolutely must innovate. So, what can someone listening right now do to try and pitch these ideas and help with the innovation? Because we have seen time and time again, those who innovate will succeed. Those who don't will die.
Ben Young: (08:46)
Well, the irony is we're commenting on the example that we saw from Reebok. We haven't seen all the other things that they've tried. Like I guarantee they had tried a few other things. That's the beauty of the internet. The good ideas bubble to the top and the ones not so much, you don't see them. So I think whether you're big or smaller, it's about embracing a culture of experimentation. One of the great things is it's very low cost to try a podcast it's really low cost to try a new email newsletters. It's a very low cost to do a video. So, it's a very safe zone to do experiments. And if you're a leader at a big company, approving an experiment with very little downside, it's an easy thing to do and also at a smaller company. And so I think it's about embracing a culture of experimentation. And then just seeing where that leads you. Like you might find certain things that your fans like over other areas, like maybe a podcast isn't for your fans, maybe an email newsletter, but you don't know till you experiment.
Rob Cressy: (09:49)
And you did touch on a key thing, certain things your fans will like. And that is what the mindset needs to be is, what can we do for our fans or our audience, to engage them, to build that connection, to get them to care and look forward to hearing back from us again? And you're right. All of these opportunities are very low costs. We've got, you can shoot things with your iPhone. You've got Zoom. You've got Google Forums. We've got live streaming. All of this takes little to no money whatsoever, but here's what this does take. And I believe this is probably one of the biggest hurdles. It is a lack of knowledge. Ben, how do I... create a podcast, do live streaming, do any of these different things, and so often it is the uncertainty that stops things. And what I use when I do teach is you need to think about this like riding a bike.
Do you expect to be doing wheelies the first time you ever get onto a bike? No, you've got your mom or dad or someone holding you onto the back of the bike and you're all shaky. And then you go back the next day and you're a little bit better. And you go back the next day and you're a little bit better. Until two weeks from now, all of a sudden you're like, Holy smokes I'm riding my bike on my own. The same mindset needs to happen when it comes to these innovations for ways to engage fans. I really believe that, or this, if you have a culture of experimentation, be comfortable with it and say, listen, we know that there are going to be a few bumps, but we're willing to learn and put in the time. And if you're not willing to put in the time this isn't gonna work, because that goes back to the excuses that people make. We don't have the resources. We don't have the knowledge. We don't have the time. Be cool with saying, you know what? Our customer deserves this because for us to engage the fan, we have to do things we've never done. So, let's do this for them, not for us.
Ben Young: (11:41)
That's, that's, that's something we can learn from big brands. So, we spend a lot of time working with brands helping them figure out what are the best types of content executions and why to do them. And I think some of the bigger brands, they have the resources to figure out the right processes. But if I was to simplify it, I'm really good at coming up with a hypothesis going, Hey, we think we should try podcasts because the data suggests that our audience is on there. If we do a podcast, we know it's successful because, one, our fans tell us, two, the data suggests that it's working, three, at our own feedback. So, I think coming up with a bit of our hypothesis and using data with that, again, just helps really unstuck and make some progress and helps lead you to places where you don't know. That's kind of like peeling an onion. You start doing a podcast, get some feedback, peel back the first layer and find that, Oh, actually people listening to my podcast at this time of day, maybe I adjust the format.
We had an example with a consumer brand who had partnered with a sports company and they were releasing content early in the morning and late at night, which makes sense. With Mobile content, you pick up your phone in the morning and your second screen in the evening. But when they dug into the data, what they found was that the attention on their content during the evening was 40% longer. And that was an unexpected bit of feedback. What they're able to do is in round two, they went back and went, okay, people were enjoying this content because we're getting the feedback, but they're paying more attention during the evening. Do we adjust our morning content for a shorter format and extend it in the evenings? So, I think you have to be open-minded to the feedback that you're getting and then adjust. Cause that's where you come up with these unique ideas.
Rob Cressy: (13:32)
I'm curious, your thoughts around the monetization of some of these emerging technology opportunities for fan engagement because I know it's something that can be a big sticking point for companies. When you're not seeing a dollar per dollar or minute to minute value where you say Rob and Ben, what is the value in creating this podcast or doing a live stream? We're not seeing a hundred sales coming from this. And from my perspective, I think about it in terms of building a relationship with your customer and how valuable that is. We're not expecting to monetize every time you and I talked to each other, Ben, because that's how relationships work. I'm not like Ben, great to see you $10, please. But it's a different departure of things because if we are spending time creating a podcast or a live stream as a company and figuring that out, and we know that there are some good metrics around it, but at the end of the day, we always know that money is going to be the number one thing but is the way that things evolving meaning that money, while obviously the number one, can't be the only metric that you go by because if you don't invest in the relationships then longer on down the road you're going to get that money.
Ben Young: (14:52)
Yeah. I quite liked the analogy. If you're at a bar with your friend or catching up with a friend who's not in the industry, how would you explain why you do something to them. Like how would you really simplify it? And I think most experiments should be able to pass that test. I'm doing a podcast because I believe my fans are going to listen in the car on the way to work. If I’ve got more fans listening, I've got more people tuning in which means I sell more tickets and more merch, right? So, I think in any execution you should be able to simply explain it. If it is too complicated, it probably is too far from adding business value.
Rob Cressy: (15:34)
You work a lot with bigger brands and you've given us some good examples, but is there anything else that you can share that we can learn from? Because one thing that I love to do is try and get information and share from others saying, all right, who are the examples out there? What are they doing? How might we be able to apply this to our businesses or our personal lives? Knowing that we can have people from fortune 500 companies in teams and C level executives all the way down to booster club people because sometimes there are threads like innovation and content creation that we can all say, all right, you don't have to be the San Antonio Spurs in order to apply to do a podcast for whatever you're working on now.
Ben Young: (16:17)
So, there's one recent trend we've seen come about really quickly in the last few months. And that is the idea of “edutainment.” So creating content that is entertaining, but educational. And we're seeing that fueled by one, people have more time in the day. So, at the moment less commute time, so people have a bit more time in the day to learn a couple of things, but if they can learn and be entertained, I think that's quite helpful. So, we've seen that with this record rise of virtual events or even some of the virtual sports. When you're hearing the drivers and seeing them race and games that you can race, you're learning how to do that as well. So, we're seeing that's a pretty big trend which has come about and we think will be sustained. Would you rather learn and it be boring, or would you rather learn and it be fun? Everyone's in the latter, right?
Rob Cressy: (17:12)
That's such a simple example that very much resonates with me and my ethos for marketing and content creation, because like, why would anybody ever work with me? I'm like, well, you're more than likely marketing to the demographic that I am and that I specialize in. It's like, all right, Rob, well, what should we create? And I'm like, well, what would I like to see right now? And we don't want just one thing you want to make things fun and exciting because learning is evolving. We're used to growing up, having to read about history and arithmetic and geology, and these different things that may not be interested in us, but that doesn't mean moving forward. We can't say, wait for a second, you can learn and have fun at the same time. So, why don't we make our content and marketing the exact same way?
Ben Young: (18:00)
Sign me up, right? So, I think that has been a big trend, that has been because there's more time on the day. People have more appetite for learning. The second one and this has been true if you'd asked me 10 years ago, there's just newsletters work. If you're building an audience, get their permission to contact them again, because this helps you identify your best and most valued and most loyal fans. So, get their permission, get them on a newsletter and speak to them. This worked before Facebook, it before Google. It still works in the TikTok era. You need to know who your fans are and are able to have a dialogue with them so that you can get that express feedback. I guess that's just been a universal truth in digital marketing. It's worrisome when you find someone that isn't using that, and we see that in nudge starter as well. So, we do a lot of analysis on how content is distributed, like how it's shared and where you get your most engagement from. And newsletter traffic is always in the top five at least. It's a great source of, one, engaging with your fans, two, building an asset, and three, shining the light on new projects. It's a great way to launch new content.
Rob Cressy: (19:23)
And I want to circle back to what we just said, edutainment, because what is one of the biggest challenges or pitfalls of newsletters for most companies? Well, let's just create the thing that we want to do, so here is what I would call the white paper version of a newsletter where once a week, we're going to get the business to speak about the internal stuff. The thing we're pitching, the new thing, that's part of our company. And it's all about me, the company, not you, the consumer, the fan of us, and you need to reverse engineer it. And the way that I think about all content that I create, 100% of it, is what can I do to provide value to the person consuming this? It's not about me. It's about you.
Ben Young: (20:10)
Yeah, I really liked what Lean Luxe do, I'm not sure if you subscribe to the newsletter, but I've got a private Slack group that only people with a sustained high open rate can be a part of. And I like that. They've got your permission that keep you going with engaging content. Hey, look, there are other people like you who are really involved. Why don't you join our community? So, there are really smart things that you can build off as well.
Rob Cressy: (20:35)
I've actually never heard of that before. That is a fantastic idea. And it's just as simple as jumping into MailChimp or whatever it is, sorting by opens or engaging rates. And then you create a new tagging system or segmentation that says, boom if someone gets above a 20% criteria, now let's send them something else that they can be involved in. That's a phenomenal idea.
Ben Young: (20:59)
There we go.
Rob Cressy: (21:01)
Here's the last thing I'm going to get you out on. Let's look at the technology side of things. We're both forward-thinking people. What has your eye right now? What should we be thinking about? Or what are you thinking about or seeing in the marketplace?
Ben Young: (21:16)
Live streaming, it would be redundant to say that that's big, but the exciting thing with the increased usage of live streaming is it means everyone's investing in it. So, like we're recording this on Zoom. Google Meets has also invested a lot. We now see WeChat as launching streaming. So, I think that's just great because now there are more tools for doing that. Whereas even 18 months ago, it was pretty hard to do that. Now, anyone can and I think a lot of people might have discounted doing live streaming in the past because of those hurdles. But I think it's worth revisiting.
Rob Cressy: (21:53)
I am all in on live streaming. I'm all-in on video. I am all in on podcasts. Let that be a little birdie out there for everybody there. And why in the world would I be all in on those things is actually quite simple because, one, what helps build the relationship more, all of these opportunities because you can hear me, you can feel me, you can allow your brain heartbeat to shine. Where previously Reebok was just a pair of shoes. Now, Reebok can say, welcome to our live stream, let's get running. You're actually sweating with Reebok and I'm someone, I own a Peloton. It is an absolute game-changer when you understand your ability to build a community using live streaming or video because this is a connection in previously, you're like, there's no way in the world I could ever, for example, have a conversation with Mark Cuban until Mark Cuban jumps on Instagram live.
And you're like, Oh my God, I'm in the same video stream as him, and you can ask a question and he's like, Oh, Rob from Chicago. Great question. You're like, what in the world is going on? Think about this? You have the opportunity to use live streaming, to engage one fan at a time, no matter how large or small. So, I even thinking about the booster club mom who is doing this for her son's football team in high school. You know what? People would love to, in that community, hear from that mom that says, Hey, you know what I'm doing right now? I am getting all the punch cards ready for the bingo thing or blah, blah, blah. Because people want that behind the scenes. They want that extra look because that's what's memorable. Guess who is not going to do this? The overwhelming majority of other brands, because this is scary. It's difficult. We don't know what we're doing. We don't have the time, the knowledge, the resources. Think about all of the excuses. So, this is the opportunity to 10x the relationship-building side of what you do, because by design, you're letting people into your heartbeat as a brand.
Ben Young: (23:57)
Yeah. It really reminds me of Kevin Kelly's 1000 True Fans. It's an older post, but the premise is, if you can find a thousand true fans that will spend a hundred dollars with you in a year, that's a hundred thousand dollars business. That's more than enough to run the local soccer club. But the same principles work all the way through.
Rob Cressy: (24:20)
And for those who are not familiar with what Ben's talking about, Google Kevin Kelly, 1000 True Fans. For me, it was an absolute game-changer to my mindset in terms of how I build communities for myself and for brands, because it is steeped in the foundation of you don't need a billion fans in order to succeed. You just need a thousand of them. When you think about this differently, all of a sudden the why are we investing in podcasts, video, and live streaming? It comes a lot more manageable when you're like, wait a second. We only have to go from zero to a thousand. Sign me up for that.
Ben Young: (25:00)
Yeah. It makes it a digestible goal that anyone can reach, right?
Rob Cressy: (25:08)
Boom. And that is a perfect way for us to end this. Ben, really enjoyed jamming with you. Where can everybody connect with you?
Ben Young: (25:15)
So, big on Twitter. @BWAGY, B W A G Y. That's actually my initials. My parents gave me a few names. So, you can find me on there, and then you can find Nudge over at, giveitanudge.com.
Rob Cressy: (25:28)
And as always, I would love to hear from you about this episode. Here's what I'm curious about. Is live streaming on your radar at all? One. Have you ever done a live stream, whether you're just a person or a brand, have you done one? Two. If not, what is holding you back? If you have, what was that experience like? You can hit up FanFood on Twitter @FanFoodondemand, on Instagram, @FanFoodapp, or on LinkedIn. And as always, you can hit me up on all social media platforms @RobCressy.
Ben, I've actually got one last thing for you. One thing that really helps us out as hosts of podcasts is when people rate in review and subscribe on iTunes and let us know what they think about the show, but here becomes a challenge. We hear this all the time, rate and interview.
Why should anybody ever do it? And what I always say is, you know what? If you get any value from this show, it would help us because other people will discover the show based on your rating and review. What are your thoughts about fan engagement for this specific call to action? Because we hear it on every single podcast and it really helps us out so much when someone's like, boom, I enjoyed X, Y, and Z, five stars. Thank you very much. What are your thoughts on the feed engagement around the ratings and reviews?
Ben Young: (26:54)
So, feedback helps creators figure out what's really working and what's not. I've got a little folder and Google Drive and anytime someone sends a nice note, like, Hey Ben, I really enjoyed this, or this was good, or we really liked the answer and pass this on to a friend. We take screenshots of that and we share that with the team. Here's why we do this. Here are the things that are working. Like people can really tell us. If you don't get the feedback and reviews, you don't know. So, if you're a fan and you're really like what's going on, tell them because that will really feel that creative to just go and do more of it. So, it's a win-win for both sides.
Rob Cressy: (27:32)
Thank you very much, Ben.