Cathy Engelbert speaks at CES 2021 panel on experiences for today’s fan

Photo Credit: Lamar Carter

In lieu of this year’s CES 2021 conference returning to Las Vegas, this year’s conference went the digital (virtual) route as almost everything seemingly has nowadays.

One of the panels focused on the sports realm and how modern technology (as well as the pandemic) has changed the viewing experiences for today’s fan. WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert was part of one of those panels along with WWE’s Stephanie McMahon (an ardent W supporter herself), NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Angela Ruggiero of the Sports Innovation Lab, who moderated the panel.

Engelbert and Bettman were the brains behind their respective sports adopting “bubble” formats for the restarts (or in the WNBA’s case, the entire seasons) of their seasons. McMahon’s WWE, after initially staging its 2020 events (including Wrestlemania) at the empty Performance Center in Orlando, since moved to the Amway Center (home court of the Orlando Magic), then Tampa’s Tropicana Field (home stadium of the Tampa Bay Rays) for its WWE Thunderdome events) where fans have participated virtually.

Engelbert spoke first and mentioned how prior to last season’s virtual draft, the WNBA created an augmented reality Snapchat video to send to the draftees given how popular it is among the age demographic of a typical draftee. AR technology was also used during the broadcast on ESPN, she said. She did say that one bit of technology that will remain once a WNBA season is returning to arenas is its “Tap to Cheer” option on its mobile app, which she said led to an 85% increase in mobile app downloads and over 140 million taps throughout the season.

There was real-time data integration, fans started competing with other teams’ fans, and so the real-time data integration not only created more awareness around the WNBA, but it created this competitive atmosphere.

–Cathy Engelbert, WNBA commissioner

Engelbert cited Nielsen statistics mentioning how 80% of 18-24 year olds are using mobile devices (cell phones, iPads, etc.) while watching television and that number only drops slightly among a slightly older demographic.

McMahon emphasized that even with the challenges brought upon by the coronavirus that the show had to go on. Before the pandemic hit, Wrestlemania was set to take place at Raymond James Stadium. McMahon felt that even with the events at the Performance Center that it simply was not enough either. She said WWE partnered with an organization called The Famous Group to call for 1,000 fans to participate virtually via its Thunderdome format.

So it really does feel like the audience is there, and I’ve actually had the opportunity to perform and to be a part of the show and it really does feel so much better than having that empty arena, because as we all know in sports, our fans are critical, their reactions are critical.

–Stephanie McMahon

She says that the delay is only a second and a half for the virtual fans and that these difficult times allowed for WWE to experiment with virtual reality, augmented reality, pyro effects and drone cameras – as well as mixing audio with real crowd reactions.

As for the NHL, it staged its postseason this past year in a dual bubble format with both in Canadian cities – Toronto and Edmonton. Bettman said that the decision to go to Toronto and Edmonton was because those were two of the safest North American cities at the time. The NHL, as did every sport, implemented robust testing protocols for its players, coaches and staff.

Bettman mentioned that in empty arenas that the goal was to turn those venues into television studios so the NHL’s product could still look attractive on television. Seat tarping, extensive use of the video screens and background music all played a role in that. He said it was a “jarring” experience to walk into a game at an empty venue, but eventually wanted to center on the game experience, which in-person, has been hailed as one of the best in sports.

Once we got to the bubbles, in addition to creating it like a television studio, we brought in more cameras and more camera angles than ever before because we didn’t have to worry about blocking fan views.

–Gary Bettman

In addition to a data-driven method to particularly connecting with younger fans, he also joked that it provided for something new to occur within the NHL – him presenting the Stanley Cup without being booed.

As for Engelbert, she mentioned how it was particularly important for the WNBA to proceed with a season even with these challenges because it could not be out of the sports landscape for a whole 20 months. She cited how traditional television partners such as ESPN and CBS Sports Network plus social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter stepped up to provide greater coverage of WNBA games while secluded in its IMG bubble in Florida. It also produced more content on its social media platforms, and much of that tied into how WNBA players have stood up in advocating for social justice.

If you think about a league of 80% women of color and how important it was for them to use their platform that this was bigger than basketball, this was a way to engage fans and casual viewers on important issues in society that the country was going through this summer up through the election.

–Cathy Engelbert, WNBA commissioner

Another focal point for the W’s success in 2020 – the orange hoodie, which as Engelbert mentioned in her panel was the Fashion Statement of the Year for 2020 via Sports Business Journal. McMahon even mentioned that she has an orange hoodie herself.

As far as its content strategy, McMahon mentioned that WWE still believes in the Pay TV model – via its partnerships in the United States with NBC (Raw on USA Network) and Fox (SmackDown). It also has a huge following on its YouTube channel and its TikTok accounts. Its third, of course, is WWE Network which, as everyone knows, is a content gold mine for WWE with not only its Pay Per View events such as Wrestlemania, SummerSlam, Royal Rumble and Survivor Series, but original content and classic content from the old WWF, WCW and ECW days. It also has a linear channel as well as an OTT format.

She said a strategy it had was to supply content for networks that were sports-starved since some sports were not in session because WWE is a year-round entity.

We started posting longer-form clips and we also started posting more historical content, and we actually saw our YouTube viewership numbers increase 70%. On WWE Network, we invested more heavily in documentary-type content that really explored the real person behind the characters.

–Stephanie McMahon

She cited how Network numbers rose 50% with a big driver of that that being “The Last Ride” documentary about The Undertaker.

McMahon agreed with Engelbert that the challenges brought on by the pandemic only accelerated the transition to online streaming that sports organizations such as the WNBA and WWE were already experiencing pre-Covid. Bettman mentioned that a major element of its content strategy with the NHL was giving fans greater access into what life is like for players inside the locker room and away from the ice.

We’ve strived very hard to give them new touch points, whether it’s all-access shows, whether it’s sports betting, whether it’s the creation of new data which is millions of data points a game.

–Gary Bettman

He talked about how hockey can be such a fast-paced game that the technology it has invested in has the goal of slowing the game down so fans can have a more interactive experience. After all, hockey has received a reputation for being a better in-person sport than a television or radio sport.

The panel closed with how the three sports leaders was talking about how current times have affected their respective businesses. Engelbert mentioned how sports are one of the few sorts of content anyone watches live nowadays.

I think this kind of partnership and making sure that we all get the best thinking around how to evolve our technology platforms, whether it’s in-arena, whether it’s in the fan’s hands, whether it’s at the office quite frankly when we finally get back in. I mean, there’s so much that’s changing because the one thing I learned in my year and couple months in this role is sports is big business.

–Cathy Engelbert, WNBA commissioner

McMahon was particularly grateful for how the WWE’s e-commerce business boomed and she said it made up for the loss of venue sales. She said that the success for technology in sports is when that technology can be used to create emotional connections to fans.

Bettman mentioned how technology has made working in a pandemic a slightly less daunting challenge than what it would have been if it were occurring in the 1980s or early 1990s when modern technology was in its infancy. He also closed by mentioning how those connections with fans with technology can actually lead to new revenue streams for sports such as the WNBA, NHL and WWE since those fans are the lifeblood of the sports industry.

Engelbert’s has another speaking engagement coming up in mid-February at the 2021 She Believes Summit presented, ironically, by Deloitte – the Big 4 accounting firm Engelbert worked at before assuming the WNBA commissionership. She is slated to speak on Friday with NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird.

Abby Wambach and U.S. Soccer President Cindy Barlow Cone are also listed as scheduled speakers. Registration for the virtual seminar is $15.

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