(This post originally appeared on Forbes.com 11/21/12)
By a show of hands, how many of you use a smartphone or tablet to follow professional sports?
If you raised your hand, you are not alone.
According to Strategy Analytics, between 2008 and 2017 there will be more than 350 billion smartphone and tablet apps downloaded. This translates into an estimated $57 billion globally in paid downloads by 2017.
With over one billion active smartphone users worldwide and another billion forecasted by 2015, this growth in digital technology has exploded onto the professional sports landscape. More and more fans are seeking instant access to scores, highlights, and live action on their handheld devices, which has increased the blending of digital technology with live sporting events.
Earlier this month, Miami Dolphins Owner, Stephen M. Ross, andMLB Advanced Media CEO, Bob Bowman, spoke about this growing trend at the Michigan Sport Business Conference. In the conversation moderated by ESPN’s Monday Night Football announcer, Mike Tirico, Ross and Bowman discussed how professional sports teams can maintain their home-field advantage in a digital age.
Here are highlights from their conversation…
On the growth of Major League Baseball’s At Bat app:
Bowman: We started with a wireless group, and we hired five developers six years ago when we thought the world was going mobile. This year we are the number one grossing app of all time at Apple. The At Bat app was downloaded 6.5 million times by fans principally here in the US, but some oversees as well. Even more importantly, it was opened by half of the people every day. At baseball, we play every day, so we have to build our apps and our digital strategy very differently than other leagues. It has to be reliable and ready twelve hours a day, seven days a week for the entire summer.
On the challenge of maintaining home-field advantage in a digital world:
Ross: The biggest challenge an owner of any sports team in any league is knowing that the fan experience at home, watching it on TV, is probably a better experience today than it is going there live. Being able to have the replays and the production that you have on television is a good reason not to go to a game and it is very expensive.
As an owner, I looked at it as how do I enhance that fan experience to bring them to the stadium? Why would they want to be there? And give them everything they would have at home, and give them a better production by being there live and in-person.
This year at Dolphin Stadium we are looking to be the most technologically advanced stadium in the country. We are being wired right now with over 1500 connections for Wi-Fi. All fans will be able to tune in on their smartphones to see the replays and other games, and we hope to have that operable by the end of the year. There are so many different areas that you have to look at as an owner in enhancing that fan experience to compete with television.
On blending the digital world and the sports world:
Bowman: We live in a two screen world. The second screen is what is in everyone’s hand. They are using it right now, texting and emailing. We need to get the second screen valuable no matter where you are – at home or in the stadium. The first screen is always going to be great. But the second screen, if you have to go somewhere and give up the second screen that is when you are going to run into problems. The second screen has to be just as valuable at a live event as it is at home.
On attracting a younger demographic to MLB.com in a digital age
Bowman: Twelve years ago Commissioner Selig set this company up. It talks to a younger audience; it is relevant to a younger audience. It is hard to get people to put their device down and go somewhere else. We have to be everywhere because that is where our audience is. Our effort and our assignment is to combine content with commerce. Bud Selig was just so far ahead of everybody. Whether we meant to or not, we are talking to the next generation of fans every day. We are trying to be relevant on every device people are carrying, and not forcing them to go to any particular device.
On the challenges of maintaining the NFL as the most popular sport in the United States:
Ross: Football has been facing a lot more challenges outside their attendance and outside the games than baseball has. MLB is far advanced than the NFL from a digital media standpoint. The opportunities for football are fantastic. I think other leagues look to see what baseball is doing and react based upon that. In football, we have 16 games, as opposed to 162 games. The challenges are a little different.
They are now studying to see how do you bring technology into the stadiums; they have not really attacked it, and they don’t have the personnel to look at it the way baseball does. We are trying to create and bring connectivity to stadiums, and MLB is ahead of the NFL in regard to that. I think within a year it will be everywhere; the stadiums will be connected, and we can really start this new age of digital technology in the stadiums. Where it goes from there, I think we’ll see who is the most aggressive and creative.