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Fans and fanfare: What team dancers, mascots and dunk teams are doing to live sports

Sporting events are no longer about watching a game, and haven’t been for a long time; they can’t afford to be.

SHARE Fans and fanfare: What team dancers, mascots and dunk teams are doing to live sports
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FILE - The Jazz Bear rides a bike through a ring of fire during a break in an NBA game in the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on May 13, 1997.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — If you’ve ever felt under-stimulated at a Jazz home game, prepare to be entertained.

A courtside DJ sets the pregame tone until artificial haze fills the air and the team jogs out into a laser light show. Grab a halftime snack from the South Temple Sandwich Co., Float On, Totally Nutz or Chick-Fil-A — now fresher, prepared on-site. And if scoring lags, venture up to the FanZone on Level 6, where you can now play cornhole, pop-a-shot and foosball to idle away the third-quarter doldrums.

Oh, and enjoy the game.

The Jazz announced these “enhancements” to the Vivint Arena fan experience on Tuesday ahead of the home opener Wednesday against Oklahoma City. They’re but one shrub in a well-fertilized forest taking root throughout American professional sports, though fans may not realize the extent of it.

Today’s sports teams are battling for your attention. Their competition? HD television, streaming services and smartphones. As fans find more reasons to stay home, teams are trying harder to lure them to live events. This philosophy has cemented since the 1980s, but the smartphone era and the “attention economy” have chiseled it into dramatic relief. 

The attention economy traditionally refers to companies designing digital products aimed at getting people to engage as much as possible. The longer you use a platform like Instagram, the thinking goes, the more opportunities there are to display ads, and the more money Instagram makes. Some have argued the attention economy is dying, but understand: In sports, it’s just beginning. 

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FILE - The Jazz Bear gets the fans going before Game 4 of the NBA second-round playoff series between the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers at EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City on Monday, May 10, 2010.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

Entertainment while being entertained

In sports, the attention economy is not just about bombardment of advertising and sponsored kickoffs; it’s about selling tickets and keeping fans in the building. And to do that, teams must make games a “fan-friendly place.”

That’s according to Jim Riordan, an associate clinical professor and director of the MBA and sport management program at Florida Atlantic University. Sure, he admitted, there was a time when all that mattered was the game. 

“They would throw open the doors, and people would come flying in,” he said. And when the game ended, they’d flow back out as though through a cracked dam. 

That started to change in the 1950s and ‘60s, as baseball teams started holding small giveaways once or twice per year. Minor league teams became a laboratory of oddball events and promotional schemes.

By the ’80s and ’90s, the proliferation of malls and megaplexes, cable and internet access, and larger TVs with high-res screens gave Americans more entertainment options to choose from.

“People needed reasons to come besides the game,” Riordan said.

This led teams to exert more control over all aspects of the operation, including concessions, parking and the stadium itself. Teams added more giveaways, theme nights, special effects and fan-driven games.

“Guests need to be entertained,” Riordan concluded, “while they are being entertained.”

Knifed for a bobblehead

On the other hand, “purist” fans believe the competition should stand on its own. Ronald Dick, an associate professor of sports marketing at Duquesne University, feels this way about baseball. If he watches a 2-1 pitchers’ duel, he’ll go home thinking he watched a great game. But as a researcher who specializes in ticket sales, he acknowledged that appealing to purists is an unsustainable strategy. One reason: the purists are getting older.

“Purists can sit there and watch the game and it’s great,” he said. “But I think young people and people who aren’t purists of the sport really need all those extra distractions to keep their interest.”

Selling concert packages, for example, can help boost ticket sales. So can giveaways — especially bobbleheads. 

“People will knife each other for a bobblehead,” Dick said. 

The appetite for extra grows as attention spans shrivel. With more information available than at any other time in human history, a buffet of focus presents itself. And sports organizations want, as much as possible, to be more than just the entree.

Pivoting toward in-game entertainment

Every sport has down time. What used to be a break is now a business opportunity.

Basketball embraced the opportunities afforded by nongame time before most leagues, per Norman O’Reilly, a professor in the college of business and economics at Canada’s University of Guelph, where he specializes in the business of sports. 

According to O’Reilly, former NBA commissioner David Stern once observed a regulation NBA game is 48 minutes long, but can last 3 hours. Which, Stern said, gave him 132 minutes to work with. Why invest in those 132 minutes when basketball already lends itself to constant gratification?

“Even though they don’t need it as much,” said Marvin Ryder, an assistant professor of marketing at Canada’s McMaster University, “if I’m trying to attract a young fan base, I’ve got to keep them constantly stimulated.”

Which leads to team dancers and mascots and dunk teams and promotional advertising and one-shot competitions and timeout music and T-shirt cannons and kiss cams and dance cams and smile cams and lip-sync cams and sparklers behind the backboard. 

This approach quickly emerged from the NBA, O’Reilly said, and is now embraced by most major sports leagues. The purists are becoming an endangered species. 

“As long as the quality is there,” O’Reilly said, “the complaints seem to go away.”

Will teams encourage fans to use their phones at games?

Perhaps most fundamental to the fan experience is stadium design, as explained by Pearson Cunningham. He manages venue projects for Varsity Partners, a “creative consultancy” specializing in brand strategy. He recently helped the University of Georgia with a facelift of Sanford Stadium. 

When he visited, “it was gray and white walls everywhere,” he said. He advised the school fill those bland spaces with colorful portraiture and wall art depicting great moments in Georgia football history, or spelling out legendary calls by longtime radio announcer Larry Munson. Anything to give fans an experience unlike what they can get at home amid lagging attendance

One stadium innovation that could become common, he added, is the addition of social spaces. The Oakland Athletics’ new ballpark, for example, will feature standing space for 10,000 people in an “elevated park.” Such areas bypass the limitations of a single seat and allow fans to mingle with multiple friends.

Technology is also likely to impact fan experience in ways that are currently unthinkable. Cunningham suggested teams could use E-Sports as a way to appeal to younger fans (the NBA is already doing this). He also pointed to a partnership between the New Orleans Pelicans and a company called Unblockable, Inc. that was tested earlier this year. 

Unblockable created “a live in-game prediction app ... that enables fans to make real-time guesses about player performance,” per SportTechie, with correct predictions eligible for prizes.

“Meet fans at their phones,” he explained of the thinking, “because that’s where they’re going to be anyway.”

What’s wrong with using a phone at a game?

Some argue that the phone strategy could backfire if it further erodes the difference between going to the stadium or watching at home.

In an increasingly “mediatized” world, Brett Hutchins, a researcher at Australia’s Monash University, has argued, the people he surveyed crave nondigital social connections. In a 2016 paper titled “‘We don’t need no stinking smartphones!’ Live stadium sports events, mediatization, and the non-use of mobile media,” published in the journal Media, Culture and Society, he highlighted vocal opposition to phone use at sporting events — period.

“Sports spectatorship stands out in this regard, privileging and idealizing a form of physically proximate togetherness that generates an emotionally charged collective focus,” he wrote. “The events, actions, and arguments detailed in this article represent a visible defense of this privilege, asserting that there are limits to how far mobile media should extend into the experience of live games.”

Ann Argust, the University of Utah’s associate athletic director for marketing and branding, said her focus is creating a “participatory atmosphere.”

She wants fans to feel critical to the team’s success and to experience the moment as much as possible. She conceded that in some ways, smartphones can help in this regard; consistent Wi-Fi access allows fans to share their experiences, which can enhance the appeal of showing up. But her team has recently limited video-board coverage of football games at Rice-Eccles Stadium, opting instead to capture the crowd’s energy. And while she remains open to potential smartphone engagement in the future, it’s not a priority — and, in some ways, shouldn’t be. 

“It’s critical to not create a watch mode on their phones during the game,” she said.

As far back as 2010, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban worried that phones represented the competition. “The last thing I want is someone looking down at their phone to see a replay,” he wrote on his personal blog. He explained that it’s the team’s job to keep a fan entertained so they never have a chance to reach for their phones. “You can’t cheer if you aren’t watching. It’s my job to give you something other than the game to look up at.”

“The fan experience is about looking up, not looking down,” he continued. “If you let them look down, they might as well stay at home, the screen is always going to be better there.”

Destinations > Venues

Nevertheless, expect experimentation. 

“Who knows what technology will be available in three or four years?” O’Reilly said. “Maybe instead of being at the game, they’ll be at home in their virtual reality chamber.”

Also expect people to attend sporting events less for the actual game, and more for what surrounds it, just like a music enthusiast may have once visited Wrigley Field for the organ music. This phenomenon will continue to balloon as arenas cease to be “venues” and become “destinations” — places to be visited and enjoyed on their own merit rather than because of a game.

Riordan has worked at two Super Bowls. Both times, he overheard someone ask, on the way into the stadium, what teams were playing. The game — even the biggest of them all — had become more about experiencing the Super Bowl than watching memorable football. When competing in the attention economy, therein lies the tension teams must navigate. 

“How much is it about the sport,” Ryder said, “and how much of it is about meeting peoples’ attention?”