At Living Computers: Museum + Labs, we are perpetually interested in how things connect. Technology, services, people. Everything. We see the possibility and potential everywhere.
Even today, when we are all quite removed from one another and are charting (on the fly) what the future will hold, across all manner of industries and business. It’s the nature of our current situation – finding ways to be close to those around us, but at a distance.
Nowhere is this more true than in the sports world, where teams of all sizes are faced with the difficult dilemma of keeping their fans engaged and interested when their main product – the sporting events themselves – aren’t an option.
The NFL, which ‘luckily’ isn’t in the middle of a season at the minute, had the challenge of bringing one of its highlight events of the year, the NFL Draft, to fans worldwide in a completely virtual format for the first time ever. No players in the green room, no hugs from the commissioner, no fans cheering (and at times, booing) the picks as they walk on stage. How would it be done? Would it have the same impact when done completely remotely?
We had the opportunity to chat with Jeff Richards, the Vice President of Marketing at the Seahawks, about what Seattle’s beloved franchise did to ensure the draft would be an experience that their fans would enjoy from a minimum of six feet away.
Living Computers: Technology obviously had a huge impact on this year’s NFL Draft. What were your initial thoughts when it was announced that the draft would be completely virtual?
Jeff Richards: When I first heard the NFL Draft would be completely virtual, there were a range of thoughts and emotions. First, it was a real strident reminder of the situation our world faces right now with this pandemic. There are so many people dealing with a wide range of challenges and anxieties, and we tried to keep this relatively minor inconvenience of an all-virtual draft in the proper perspective. It’s awesome that we even get to have this event, don’t sweat the big shift. After that, there was a lot of excitement about getting to create something new and being part of an historical event in sports. I do remember saying to friends, family and co-workers, “We’ll remember this one forever.”
LC: Were there gaps in what you were able to do because of the nature of the draft or did it help to enhance and strengthen the Seahawks online presence?
JR: This incredibly unique draft posed both challenges and opportunity for our fan engagement. We believe there is no more powerful, lasting experience than one that is live and in person. When we can engage a fan at a game or an event, we’re able to connect at a deeper level and build major affinity quickly. It’s hard to completely replicate that virtually, but that digital experience does provide a lot of opportunity as well. Flipping to a virtual draft party and moving the show online was going to let us connect with hundreds of thousands rather than a thousand or two. For the virtual draft party, we assembled a unique and fun lineup of guests, and more than 333K fans tuned in across YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Seahawks.com at different points. Over the three days of the draft, the live streamed draft parties featured draft analysis and visits with actors and celebrity Seahawks fans Joel McHale and Rainn Wilson, ESPN Senior Writer and longtime Seahawks fan Mina Kimes, Seahawks Legends Matt Hasselbeck, Lofa Tatupu and others.
LC: What surprised you most about how the draft turned out?
JR: Honestly, with all of the tech gymnastics that teams, including ours, had to do to make sure the key decision makers in football operations had access to each other and the rest of the league, with no room for lag or interruptions in connectivity, I’m astonished it largely went off without a hitch. It’s a credit to the IT teams, sports science and video folks, and others involved in completely re-engineering the communications and information sharing that is so essential to pulling off something like the NFL Draft.
LC: What was the impact of data at the draft? Were there any things you tried to harness the fan data you already had?
JR: We leverage data in all facets of our organization, including everything from player performance, to analyzing food and beverage sales at the stadium, to getting a deeper look into our fan base. From a team perspective, our coaching staff leverages and analyzes data to provide greater insight into player capabilities. From a fan perspective we saw the spike in engagement with our brand as an opportunity to capture more leads for a variety of ticketing and premium seating products for gamedays. We launched a lead generation and re-engagement campaign over draft weekend and added thousands of prospects to our database as a result.
LC: With a lot of the player evaluations also done remotely, was there an impact on the team’s effort to identify the right players and then how to tell their story once they were drafted?
JR: Pete and John spoke a little bit about the prep process this year during their pre-draft press conference, which anyone interested can listen to on Seahawks.com. Above all, Pete and John have worked together for so long, and gone through so many drafts together, they have a really good idea what they are looking for each season and this year was no different even though the process was different.
In terms of telling the story of the draft, while everything was broadcast virtually this year, in a way it actually offered a more personal look for fans. Fans got a live look at Coaches and GMs in their own homes. They got a live look at the top draft prospects as they were chosen, celebrating at home with their families.
One of the fun elements we do every year is that we video/record the “Draft calls,” where John calls each player to let them know they are about to be chosen by the Seahawks. These are always so emotional and exhilarating, and you can’t help but smile listening to them. This is something we were still able to do this season even with everyone virtual.
LC: What does the marketing landscape look like for the Seahawks moving forward with most initiatives being online-based in the near future?
JR: While I’d love for us to be able to hold a draft party with fans, go out on our normal 12 Tour interacting with fans around the state, be able to shop at the grocery store without a mask on and be in the office every day, this pandemic has provided new opportunity for our business and we’ve created new ways to connect with 12s everywhere. We have shared access to players we haven’t been able to in the past as guys have popped into high school virtual classrooms literally around the world, we have let our fans watch a virtual hangout between players – past and present – where they really let their guard down and show a side you normally can’t see unless you’re invited into the meeting rooms at VMAC, and we have highlighted stories of how Seahawks fans are on the front lines of serving the local community during this pandemic.
In April alone, we had 8.4M interactions and 16.4M video begins across our main social media channels off of nearly 122M impressions. Those are double-digit jumps year-over-year, and they come despite not having schedule release and our rookie minicamp in April like we did last year, so you can see the effects of all of us staying home looking for content to help pass the time.
LC: How do you stay on top of the constantly evolving sports landscape given today’s situation with COVID-19?
JR: Lots of conversation and absorbing the really massive uptick in idea-sharing content available all across the internet right now. Whether that’s through direct correspondence with counterparts at other NFL teams or with teams in other leagues, or through reading blog posts, articles and social threads where folks with similar business opportunities and challenges are sharing best practices, insights and how they are planning for different scenarios, we are trying to take in as much as we can and synthesize that with what we know here in our own market and make the best decisions for our organization each day. As we are all experiencing, this is a moving target and being thoughtful about all reasonably possible scenarios is critical.
LC: And a favorite here at LCM+L… What was the first computer you owned or an early computer experience that helped shape your technology use today?
JR: I remember spending a lot of time at the computer lab at Sunset Elementary in Bellevue messing around with MacPaint, Oregon Trail, Microsoft Works, and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego. They had to drag me out of there. Fast forward to high school and I would do everything I could to get extra computer time in the library and would play Flight Simulator or point the Netscape Navigator to Yahoo to read sports news.
In high school, I remember my dad had an early IBM ThinkPad at work that he’d bring home every once in a while. It was big and bulky and slow connecting to the internet via a modem. I remember how excited we’d get when we heard that familiar sound of the modem connecting via a phone line. The world seemed a little bit smaller, more real and more accessible through that.