First published in the Harvard Business Review.
As much as companies like to tell you the customer is king, that’s hardly true in most industries. Instead, major players put enormous effort into narrowing our choices — selling us on what they have to offer.
These efforts are obvious in the bricks and mortar world, where retailers control what goes on the shelves, but it’s not all that different for e-commerce. Although etail increases consumers’ access to more and more products, the focus remains on getting people to want what companies choose to provide.
Right now, this power of incumbency is enormous and very undemocratic. And, one might argue, heading toward consolidation, as Apple has consolidated the music distribution business and Google, Amazon, and various other platform providers vie to dominate electronic publishing.
But a parallel trend is building toward giving customers far more opportunity to express their views. And those who move to harness that collective voice have an opportunity to storm many traditional vertical markets.
It’s already happening at scale in one of the most centralized industries in the world — sports broadcasting.
During the Super Bowl more analysis was delivered with more passion on Twitter (10,000 tweets per second near end) than any network announcer could hope to muster. Participation in the commentary was wide (many people posting) and deep (people posting many times), and continued well after the game. And the best analysis of the commercials was found on Twitter and Facebook, not necessarily the USA Today Ad Meter.
Advertisers were ready to cash in on these spontaneous conversations with prebuilt Twitter and Facebook campaigns set to launch at just the right moments in the game. And, not surprisingly, start-ups all over Silicon Valley are developing new ways to harness these conversations through technologies that enable sports consumers to express and share their own views independently of traditional network broadcasts. These start-ups are aiming to thrive by giving fans more control over how they watch sports, when they watch sports, and what sports they can see.
Take Greg Carlson, who (perhaps as a result of being an avid San Francisco Giants fan growing up in a Brooklyn Dodgers household) joined with CEO Aaron Krane to become a founding member of OnSports, a site for crowd-sourcing sports commentary. Regardless of what’s on the family TV, sports fans can follow and contribute commentary before, during, and after their favorite teams’ events, whatever they are. OnSports doesn’t have to guess what its customers want, and Carlson has sometimes been surprised by what bubbles up — like the high number of boxing conversations his site attracts. OnSports didn’t seek boxing fans, but it was found and embraced by them nonetheless.
Similarly focused on letting fans decide what they want are statistics sites: like StatSheet , which automatically transforms sports data into compelling stories, complete with charts, tables, and graphs, giving fans knowledge and insight normally reserved for the pros; and numberFire, which performs sports analytics for fantasy league participants.
Even as Google and Apple reportedly flirt with the idea of distributing European Premier League soccer content independently of broadcast TV, online distributors with direct access to sports content can already apply technologies like OnSports, StatSheet, and numberFire to broadcast niche sports in the United States. New entrants need only register a URL, attract an audience, and serve just the most profitable segments of the market. Without barriers like FCC licensing, studios, and broadcast towers, any sport (curling? squash? women’s boxing?) can find an audience.
If those new entrants prove profitable enough, incumbents like the NFL, MLB, NHL, and NBA could be induced to look to the web audience for profits. Rather than continue to tango with the cable companies or the networks, they could conceivably go direct to the fan base by crowdsourcing the commentary, using IP/billing codes to localize it (say, Boston locals talking about the Red Sox during the game), and inserting local commercials. When that happens, traditional content distribution models could well become obsolete.
As could the televisions, too, as more and more fans get used to streaming to larger, thinner, higher resolution monitors. That’s in fact what we do in our house, where we don’t own a television, aren’t connected to satellite, and have no phone lines or cable TV. We use cell phones, a couple of iMacs, and have two large screens connected to Apple TV units that stream from our computers. We only watch commercials during the Super Bowl.
These developments should serve as a wake-up call for any broadcasters still thinking of their role in terms of gatekeeping — that is, of presenting sports to fans and interpreting what they’re seeing through expert commentary. As Carlson suggested, when asked what led to the idea of OnSports, “We looked at the existing sports environment, powered by ESPN, CBS, Fox, and Yahoo, and there wasn’t a way for fans to be part of the one-way relationship. Our vision is a crowd-powered, 24/7 highlight reel, where fans are editors and content creators. OnSports brings an inherently social experience catered specifically to the sports community.”
What’s true for American sports is true for any market that engages people’s passions and where consumer opinion hasn’t been adequately addressed. These markets will certainly change when the choices aren’t pushed out by retailers but are instead decided by the collective conversation joined by those who are most passionate about the topic.
The facilitators of those conversations stand to become very powerful. Whether they will be the ESPNs and Yahoos of the world — or new companies we haven’t heard of yet — may depend how much traditional gatekeepers seek to enable, rather than control, those conversations.