Sports brands and retailers, as well as arenas and stadiums, are using tech and direct-to-consumer models to fulfill individual needs and improve the fan experience.

Today, a number of brands and retailers are entering the sports industry, disrupting long-term economic models to make it easier for fans to rep their team spirit. Rep the Squad, for example, is using a rental subscription model to provide fans on-demand jerseys, and Nike’s new jersey gives sports aficionados VIP access to the world of their favorite players. At the same time, sports arenas and stadiums are stepping up to bring visitors the best of the direct-to-consumer boom, using apps to provide seat-side service that also allow managers to retrieve customer insights in real time, contributing to an always improving and personalized experience—and no missed home runs in the bathroom line.

1) Rep the Squad taps into the rental economy, using a direct-to-consumer rental model to enhance the fan experience.

Rep the Squad—a startup that is tackling the rental economy in the tradition of Rent the Runway—sends bona fide, authorized sports jerseys to sports fans for $19.95 a month, which subscribers can keep or trade in at any time. Each jersey is professional washed when returned to the company and can be chosen from an expanding pool of leagues including the NFL, NBA and MLB.

Like Rent the Runway, which has democratized ball gowns and cocktail dresses (and now a host of other high-end apparel and accessories verticals), Rep the Squad saw a pre-existing market—this time comprised of devout sports fans—and uses a low-price rental and subscription model to deliver sports jerseys direct to each customer’s door.

While it’s easier to get an existing customer to spend money than to create a new one, the company isn’t just monetizing these fans—it’s giving back to its launch pad and its future: the sports industry. Staking out a niche in the gigantic sports industry, which is expected to value $73.5 billion by 2019, the company’s mission is to grow the sports community and help fans engage with and exhibit their team affinity and pride with genuine jerseys. Rep the Squad raised $1.5 million ahead of its summer 2017 launch and has since obtained an addition $1 million in seed funding. As it grows, so will team royalties; sports teams make the vast majority of their revenue from TV contracts, sponsorship deals and a certain percentage of jersey and ticket sales that don’t go to the stadiums.

As a rental company, Rep the Squad has also created an alternative economic model to the traditional jersey market. Typically, a one-time jersey purchase is $100 or more—a long-time feature of the market that has generated a large counterfeit industry. Disrupting this model with a cost-effective, flexible, on-demand subscription, Rep the Squad supplements a pre-existing fan experience, bringing sports retail outside of the stadium with all the added benefits of ecommerce. The company also offers fans a better value proposition, making it easier to rep their team spirit with small incremental payments instead of large one-time transactions, and even rewards those who send in old jerseys with a free one-month subscription—this reduces the number of inauthentic jerseys in the market, which eventually cycles back, serving as a boon to teams.

Rep the Squad sits in a gray zone between sports teams, organizations and fans, so, moving forward, its success will depend on just how flexible its model remains, how it evolves to navigate licensing rights, and how it builds relationships with different teams. While the NFL has remained the largest sports business and brand, Rep the Squad is creating an economic and brand opportunity adjacent to the league, which is working for now but could raise problems in the future.

Another potential obstacle for the company is how quickly it will be able to react to fans’ changing levels of affinity for a given player or team, both of which are constantly in flux. How the company responds to its potential weak spots will affect its customer base and retention rate. It will also influence the company’s ability to enter the brick-and-mortar space at sports venues—an avenue that it is interested in pursuing, but which necessitates convincing stadiums selling full-price jerseys that Rep the Squad’s discounted model is growing the jersey market without taking away this other stream of income.

2) The Nike NBA Connected Jersey lets fans “tap into the game,” combining retail with new media to transform a passive fan experience into an interactive one.

In September 2017, Nike released its NBA Connected Jersey, which comes with an interactive chip, giving “the wearer an all-access pass into the world of their favorite team and players.” Nike coined the slogan, “Tap into the game” for the jerseys: Using NikeConnect technology, fans who download the NikeConnect app can tap a near field communication (NFC) chip embedded in the jersey with their smartphone. This allows her to view unique sports and sports-related content—pregame arrival footage, game highlights, and even music playlists curated by her favorite players—and also unlock exclusive product offers.

Similar to how Burberry and other luxury companies are using apps and live streaming content to augment the relevance of runway shows, NikeConnect technology extends the lifetime of a sports game well beyond the event itself. It not only pioneers a new fan experience, but also provides fans new ways to interact with players and teams beyond the game—essentially providing an entry point and VIP access to the world of these players, with new forms of media that fans aren’t otherwise privy to.

Nike is also keeping up with changes in sports media: Though fans who watch sports on television are aging, an increasing number of young fans are turning to social media to live stream games—the NikeConnect jerseys use new media to give its customers the semblance of a “front row seat” and newfound access to their favorite players. In turn, players and teams have a new way to market themselves; especially as licensing agreements with TV networks become less profitable for both parties, NikeConnect amplifies a team’s online and social media presence, which will only become increasingly important and a larger source of revenue over time.

Sharing new content across previously inaccessible channels, NikeConnect acts similarly to social media—just as celebrities can post directly to their Instagram followers, players can use Nike as a conduit to share their information and personal brands with fans without any sort of middleman. As seen with the growing number of celebrity brands and influencer marketing, retail opportunities abound when public figures build relationships with consumers—authentic access to a celebrity’s lifestyle creates excitement around reproducing that way of life at home, which builds intimacy and grows to sales in a way that pure brand and retailer marketing cannot.

Nike is using NikeConnect to embed in the sports game, but it is also using the technology as an extension of its activewear ecosystem. As the company works to redefine design- and function-driven sports apparel for professional athletes, it is extending these innovations to fans, which may very well help inspire them to exercise and participate on a team as well. If so, they don’t have to look any further than Nike for the activewear and accessories they’ll need to join a game. Like H&M’s Coachella tent, NikeConnect turns a passive experience into an interactive one that also has the potential to transform a consumer from audience member to performer.

3) Stadiums and teams are creating apps that let passionate fans better experience the game with a focus on personalization.

Sports venues, a growing majority of which are now equipped with WiFi, are utilizing apps to curate each visitor’s specific needs and interests, which simultaneously boosts the number of transactions made during each game. Much like airports, cruises, or theme parks, stadiums and teams that have developed or are using apps like VenueNext and YinzCam to capitalize on the unique time and spatial constraints of a stadium—another form of “captive retail.” Apps like VenueNext also improve the viewing experience, reducing distractions with a radicalized direct-to-consumer model. Visitors can order snacks, beverages and other merchandise during the game through the app, all of which are delivered directly to a fan’s seat—this type of on-demand service has proved to increase both the amount and number of purchases. The apps also house other game-related services; they allow fans to purchase their tickets and track rewards in their loyalty programs, and they also inform those at the venue of individual restroom wait times and broadcast game replays. Levi’s Stadium (home of the San Francisco 49ers) is using VenueNext to facilitate and grow seamless monetary transactions, making it easier for fans to spend money and for stadiums and teams to reap those profits.

The tech companies behind these apps can also craft bespoke services for individual teams and stadiums; In February 2016, VenueNext created an entirely new app for the NFL, which featured celebrity live feeds and express merchandise pick-up. In addition, the basketball team Orlando Magic has an app that allows fans to return their season tickets in exchange for Magic Money credit, which can be used to pay for food and beverages at future games (80% of food is already bought via the app). This incentivizes fans to return to the venue in the future while simultaneously freeing up tickets to help ensure that each game plays out in front of a full house.

While many venues send out customer experience surveys after a game, some sports venues are now utilizing a service called HappyOrNot to receive customer insights in real time. The Finnish startup works with retail spaces—from stadiums to gas stations—to install terminals that let visitors rate the customer experience effortlessly and anonymously. Terminals are placed by entrances, restrooms and concession stands, and their simple interface—visitors use a touchscreen to rate how they’re feeling about a given experience—encourages more responses. At Levi’s Stadium, HappyOrNot has brought issues with the WiFi to the attention of the IT team—with the HappyOrNot app, visitors can send texts and pictures to management if something is awry at a concession stand or in a restroom. Instead of the traditional post-game surveys, whose results are often highly dependent on the final score, HappyOrNot’s results can be collected multiple times throughout the game, more or less in real time.

Other tech companies are capitalizing on other types of immediate gratification endemic to sports events. For the 2016-2017 NFL season, Uber partnered with the Miami Dolphins to launch UberTAILGATE; the stadium gave Uber 20 spots near the arena to help fans leave and arrive safely to the venue while also reducing traffic. Amazon Prime Now has also struck a partnership with the San Francisco 49ers, bringing gameday essentials directly to Prime members’ parking spots.

Events like sports games are open opportunities for brands to provide attendees what they need, when they need it. While brick-and-mortar retail is struggling to craft the perfect shopping experience that leads consumers to buy more products, sports venues are already fully experiential—for stadiums, teams and sports brands, the challenge then is to improve that experience even further. With apps and on-demand services, fans are less likely to miss a homerun because of a long hot dog line—and, they are more likely to return to the venue in the future, knowing that the stadium makes it easy to celebrate their favorite game, team or player. These services also provide stadiums and teams with more data about visitor demographics and what fans want during the game. Knowing what a visitor ate, what time she arrived, and what merchandise she purchased helps stadiums improve the in-house experience for future games and more effectively persuade visitors to open their wallets.

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