Before he became the President of the NHL’s San Jose Sharks, Jonathan Becher was one of the premiere marketing executives in the technology industry. And it’s safe to say he brought the visionary approach he developed at companies like SAP with him to the Sharks – which has paid off during the past 18 months as the pandemic disrupted the traditional fan experience.
Becher and the Sharks have been one of the more innovative teams in all of sports, which is why my CRM Playaz co-host Paul Greenberg and I were excited to catch up with Becher via LinkedIn Live to see what he and the Sharks have been up to, how they’ve been exploring ways to create more aligned fan experiences to the current situation with the pandemic, how lessons learned during the pandemic are being implemented in preparation for life after Covid, and to get his perspective on where he sees the puck going – so to speak – with how fans will experience content in the coming years, including how they become collaborators and creators with their favorite sports franchises.
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation. Click on the embedded SoundCloud player to hear the full conversation.
The Pandemic’s impact on content consumption
Jonathan Becher: We’ve been talking about cutting the cord from cable, for what now, maybe a decade? In the last 18 months, during the pandemic with… we all watch way too much Tiger King and everything else, but now virtually every channel, every content producer, every environment has their own plus, has their own OTT (over the top) network as a way of doing it. The problem is now they’re competing for attention. It used to be content wars. The company with the best content would win. To some extent content still wins, but delivery is now as important as content because there are only so many apps you’re going to download to your phone. There are only so many apps you’re going to download to your Smart TV. And so we’re getting back to a war of visibility, which is basically based on money.
You’re spending money on marketing, my old discipline, as well to try to get to be top of mind. And I wonder whether in 5 or 10 years, anyone’s going to remember anything about platform. Are you going to remember whether you consumed the same thing on Amazon or Apple TV or Netflix, or et cetera? What we really need is a general search engine that says, I want to see content that looks like this, and I don’t really care where the subscription is. The funny thing is I think some of the big cable platforms may realize that aggregation of content, because we’ve been in this 10 years of dis-aggregation, is important in aggregation and search and indexing, and it’s great. So what does that do to your question is I think that’s, what’s starting to happen in the tech world.
Content on its own isn’t enough
Content alone doesn’t work anymore, because you used to create your own compelling content, put it out on other people’s networks, platforms, whatever, they were called news sites. So now they’re trying to disintermediate the equivalent of the cable companies and try to go directly on platforms as well. I happen to know that Salesforce, isn’t the only one thinking about it and building such things as well, but they’re going to compete for the same thing for attention. Can they get on your Smart TV? Can they get on your app? That’s going to be a marketing and money as well. Somebody, maybe it’s CRM Playaz, is going to become the aggregator of that content as well, the traditional news organizations. I think we’re just going to go through these continual cycles. That’s my sense, guys, that we’re in a world where we need to be talking about share of entertainment.
People have a fixed amount of capacity, just like they had a wallet of entertainment time and they’re making purchase considerations, whether it’s free or paid doesn’t matter, about how to spend their entertainment time.
Paul Greenberg: Yep.
Jonathan Becher: And in some cases it might be live events, it might be consuming things on cable, it might be watching Dreamforce or anybody else’s event, but there’s a fixed amount of entertainment time we have. Somebody has got to flip the model on their head and start from consumer in, entertainment in, and try to decide how do I make my entertainment choices at that point of decision making, and how do I inject that valuable content then, that I think is how the distribution will work. Right now, it’s very much of a push model and we say consumption, but nobody really comes from the consumer consuming side.
Paul Greenberg: No.
Jonathan Becher: For most of our existence, the people consuming content, outweighed the people, outnumbered the people, creating content by a factor of 10 or a factor of a hundred. Now almost anybody can be a content creator. I mean, you use TikTok, that’s a perfect example, right? So we’re probably right at the precipice where the number of creators roughly equals the number of consumers, and sometime soon the number of creators are going to outnumber the number of consumers. What happens then when we all have our own player’s channel? Then we’re competing for attention, it’s nothing against the people that help you create, but how do you differentiate yourself in high signal to create more visibility as well? I think that’s the future about.
Brent Leary: How does that shape your approach to what you’re doing with the Sharks, how you present the content, where you distribute it, how you think about distribution, how do you think about new opportunities that maybe weren’t feasible before all this? It is very feasible now.
Jonathan Becher: I don’t like to pretend that I have this all figured out, sometimes healthy experiments and things fair out. Actually, I think we talked about it last time I was on the show, which is when the pandemic first broke no live events, right? I didn’t have any physical in-person events for 18 months. And most casual observers are sports teams and entertainment venues said, see, e-sports will always work on, we’ll always beat them online while always being. And I made this comment, which was a little bit of a throwaway comment, which is, I don’t think pure digital ever wins. I don’t think pure in person wins. I think some hybrid wins, but I don’t know what that means just yet. And you may remember the experiment I ran.
I didn’t run it, my team ran it, I don’t want to take credit for it, was taking real humans and injecting them into the simulated games.
Paul Greenberg: One of my favorite things.
Jonathan Becher: And changing the simulation based on their height, their weight, which way they shoot, et cetera, and all kinds of weird things happen. And we talked about a story where a guy got digitally injured, not in real life but in…
Paul Greenberg: Right, yeah.
Jonathan Becher: And got a call from our GM, et cetera. And what that has taught us is, the human world has the spontaneity of live that you can’t reproduce in the digital world. Right? Cause it’s not, it’s programmed in some way, but the programmed world can be 24 by seven. So let’s marry the two. And one of the creative things is, take a game that happens, we could win, we can lose, it doesn’t matter, and your favorite player perhaps didn’t play the way you think they should play, allow that person to re simulate that game or allow you to substitute in that game.
Where then all the smack talking that you do… “I’m better than that professional athlete”. Well, prove it, so that you’re actually better. So I’m not saying get rid of the traditional stream because you still want to see how the live of that, right? That’s why you play the games, right? Cause underdogs win sometimes as well. But still allow virtuals, but now cross the streams for you Ghostbusters fans, and say, what happens when you say I’ll be the GM for the day, I’ll inject myself in there and allow that group simulation. I think that’s where we’re at. I don’t want to, that’s not my scoop, I don’t want to tilt my hands too much and show what’s going on. But I think the combination of traditional media on something like Twitch, where everyone can create their own simulation and see whose prediction of what will happen, does that happen in digital life?
Reducing physical interactions with Reverse ATMs
Jonathan Becher: People are getting back into our buildings, which were open again. We had a 10,000 people for Guns ‘n Roses, 10,000 people for Colombian superstar Maluma. We had four monster truck events that I think together were like 25,000. So we’re bringing people back. So it’s a little bit of a return to, I want to call it normal, whatever the next thing is. We did a ton of stuff based on health and safety, but again; happy accident. So one of the things we said is let’s find all the interaction points between people, and see if we can reduce them the most we can, because we know that this virus spreads voice to voice, et cetera. And one of the interaction points that gets elongated is when you use cash to buy something like food and beverage, right?
So we said, we’ll get rid of cash and we’ll go cashless, except look, diversity, equity and inclusion is a really big part of who we are as a franchise. And frankly, there’s a whole part of society that is based on cash. And if you go to debit/credit card only you’re disintermediating them. I don’t want to do that. Right? So we looked around, we don’t this experiment. We found a company that we partnered with and help them build out a reverse ATM. So reverse ATM is exactly what it sounds like, an ATM you normally put your debit card in, you get cash out. A reverse ATM is you put cash in and you get a shark’s branded debit card back, no fees whatsoever. I’m paying the VIG basically, cause there are fees, but I pay them. So you put your $20 and you get a $20 debit card now, which is not only good in my four buildings, but we’ve set it up, it’s a real debit card. You can use it anywhere debit cards are accepted as well.
Paul Greenberg: No.
Helping cash-based businesses while staying safe
Jonathan Becher: You know the old phrase, banking the unbanked? In an unexpected way, we’re helping people that are cash based business, be able to get debits and stuff like that. And it’s got all the financial tools based on it. So they get tracking when their debit card gets low, they can reload it, all that kind of stuff as well. But now it starts to occur to me, oh, we should let them tie that to our digital wallet, cause we’ve kind of actually coming out with a digital wallet. Because our digital wallet says I buy tickets, oh, I can’t use them all, rather than trying to resell them on the secondary, which sometimes can be tough, put them on your digital wallet, cause then you can use them for, for other tickets to other events because we don’t just have hockey, we have concerts, you can buy merchandise F and B. Oh, but if I tie them back to this debit card, then you can actually use them in other places as well.
Paul Greenberg: Wow!
Jonathan Becher: You may have seen I was first in the NHL to accept crypto. So now I’m starting to say, well, maybe this should be some kind of token. Let’s call it a teal token. Doesn’t have a name yet. So I’m not announcing the teal token because then now you can decide to go from cash directly to cryptos. And now I’m looking for an ATM that can, you can put in cash and get crypto back to be part of this as well. Why? A, It’s convenience, health and safety. But if you opt in, we can help you make financial decisions together with our financial sponsor, we can help you track where your… So we get injected, now not only do I have share of entertainment, but maybe I go back to my retail days and I start talking about share of wallet as well. So unexpected, simple ideas, start with the one to reduce the time that people pay because cash takes extra time, turns into a potential line of business for us.
The Era of Narrowcasting
Brent Leary: Have you been checking out the Manning Brothers on Monday Night Football? What are your thoughts? And do you see that as something that could translate well over to NHL , finding the right folks and putting it in the right environment, completely different from the traditional way of having the broadcast dictated to you, so to speak. To this way where it’s more fun, they’re cutting up on each other, they’re bringing in guests, it’s very informal, and it seems to be connecting with maybe that audience you talked about, the discord audience, the folks that are younger, that are not the diehard traditionalist, and it seems to be connected.
Jonathan Becher: I have seen it. I personally love it. I know it’s not for some traditionalists, et cetera, but I think you’ve hit on the point, which is historically, and it’s in the word, we treat it as a broadcast. A broadcast means, give everybody the same broad view of what’s going on. And we’ve got to get to, I guess I’ll use the opposite word, there’s one narrow cast, where we start from what a people want to consume, again to use the word we always use in this industry, and program it for them. Which probably means you need not just two, you probably need 8, 10, 12… We’re never going to get to segment of one, which is one of the things marketers love to say, not in this particular media as well, but we could probably create 4, 6, 8, 10 segments, I don’t want to predict the number, I’m also not the broadcaster myself.
In hockey, point of view is really critical to consuming the game. What do I mean by that? If you’re a hockey fan, some people like to sit behind the goalie and see the play development as they come to score. Some people like to sit on the glass, which is sort of a basketball thing as well, and watch the action and see people smashed into the glass of nearly a hundred miles an hour. Other people, me, I like a slight at angle, medium angle view. Some people like to look from above as well. Problem is right now with a broadcast, you don’t get to choose, you get one, maybe two during the replay, views as well. What if it was programmed the other way around where there were 4, 6, 8, 9 live views, and you get to pick maybe even switch back and forth?
Giving the audience the power to control their viewing experience
In my preferred world, you could even control the camera remotely as well, so that you can zoom in or pan, and stuff like that. Cause now that’s, you’re the creator, if you will, because you’re consuming the experience. Now, some people worry, if you go in that direction you cannibalize attendance for the game. What I say is, maybe, but an arena like ours sits 17,384, I think that’s our official capacity, and we have something like 1.3 million registered fans, right? So get those 1.3 million, many of which don’t live within a hundred mile of our arena, and therefore maybe come once or twice a year or maybe don’t even come in their entire life, you get them to consume the game in a very different way.
So I love the experiment of different announcers. We’d gone from NBC to a combination of Disney, which is ESPN and Warner, which is Turner and Bleacher. So I would love both of them to experiment with announcers and multiple. But I think where we’re really going is experimenting with different views and not just on replays, but live consuming.
Giving Viewers the tools to be citizen broadcasters
Brent Leary: Somewhere along the way, I stumbled across these reaction videos where people are reacting to everything like music, movies, sport.
Jonathan Becher: Yeah.
Brent Leary: But the thing that’s fascinating to me is they’re like these kids that label themselves, LeBron James fans viewing Michael Jordan highlights from 30 years ago and they’re getting into it, and then they’re starting to like become their own announcers. Do you see something like that coming to come to not just the sharks or the NHL, or like bringing the fans, even the fans that are new fans connecting with content that’s 30, 40 years old and they seem to love this stuff.
Jonathan Becher: Yeah. We’ve already seen hints of it in our Twitch stuff. One of the experiments we ran which wasn’t as compelling, but it didn’t work out the way we wanted is we took one of our most famous alumni, I named Owen Nolan, and we had him play as a 23 year old and as a 31 year old. So we took, we simulated his skill levels and stuff like that, and it was confusing, the call was confusing cause no one… In fact, the 31 year old scored on the 23 year old, so it was exactly opposite the way you expected. But now imagine again, I’ll go back to Paul, imagine creating your fantasy team of all time Yankee greats, and having play them against a fantasy team of all time Red sox greats, and building that simulation and having it announced by, pick your favorite Boston Red Sox super fan, and your favorite New York Yankees super fan, and maybe there’s a contest for that as well.
I mean, that could be a simulated experience. And now if you could, and probably a players association wouldn’t let you, you then try to break that into the real world and take current players and put it in that mix as well. That’s a very different kind of content, which does not cannibalized live games at all, but extends it to another generation of gamers where this it’s this weird hybrid thing as well. So yeah, Brent, I do think, what do we call them in the, the citizen data scientists, that kind of phrase.
Brent Leary: Right.
Jonathan Becher: So I think you’ll have citizen broadcasters or citizen announcer trends coming as well.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.