The pandemic will force sports to reimagine the fan experience

When I was 10 years old, my dad took me to Fenway Park for the first time. I remember quite clearly walking up the runway and seeing the brilliant green lawn and being totally and completely amazed. Now that’s a great customer experience.

I was hooked simply by the beauty of the ballpark, even before watching these talented men flip the ball effortlessly around the diamond during infield practice, before the first pitch, the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd. The sounds, the sights, the hot dogs and drinks were all part of it — and I was in love with that experience from the moment I saw that emerald lawn.

Stadium sports has always been about the experience. “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, I don’t care if I ever get back….” That has only increased in the days of mascots and dancers and massive high definition scoreboards.

But sports suddenly face an existential crisis in 2020. If we can get back to the point of playing games again, yet there are no fans in the seats, how do the leagues reproduce the excitement of being there at home through the use of advanced technology? As every business is forced to rethink the meaning of customer experience during a pandemic, maybe sports could show the way. “And it’s root, root, root for the home team….”

This week we’ll get our first taste of how that could work as the NFL Draft goes virtual. It had previously been scheduled to be a three-day, fan-driven Las Vegas spectacle. The stage was going to be set up on the water in front of the Bellagio Hotel, and players were to be taken there by boat as they were drafted. All of that carefully-crafted pageantry is gone, and it will instead be delivered by technology in COVID-19 isolation.

In the short term, it would be unfair to look at the draft as the ultimate exercise in going virtual. It is the first, and chances are it will not be flawless, but like every business, from conventions to universities to retailers, suddenly just about every experience possibility is on the table, and it will be interesting to see how they do it.

It’s not just the first round spectacle that is changing due to the virus; the way teams work together has changed as well, just as it has for many businesses in the last 6 weeks. They have to figure out ways to recreate the “draft war room” when all of the key players can’t be in the same room together. Sound familiar?

If and when games resume, the way we watch live sports will probably change as well. How will all sports build off the NFL’s first attempt? How will they create community and generate excitement without a live audience to drive the mood?

Chances are we will see changes big and small. Spitballing some ideas, there could be live interactive communities in which the players participate with fans. There could be wider use of microphoned players and coaches on and off the field as we get a look behind the curtain. The possibilities are endless, and you can be sure there are many discussions going on across every sport, pro and college, about how this could work.

They could turn to virtual reality or augment the experience in other ways like advanced replays, creative camera views or putting the fan virtually on the field, ideas that have been on the table or been slowly implemented in recent years, some of which we saw in the recent, short-lived XFL. We already have advanced stats with brilliant visuals from AWS-sports league partnerships. All of these ideas and more are suddenly being forced to accelerate much faster.

However these experiences manifest themselves, we are about to find out just how creative the leagues can be. Perhaps we’ll find new ways to experience life outside the ballpark in our homes that give us a different, but no less exciting, experience. Maybe some 10-year-old kid will still feel that same thrill I felt, but learn in a different way “...if they don’t win it’s a shame, and it’s one, two, three strikes you’re out at the [new] ballgame.