As Director of Creative Services and Advanced Technology at NBC Sports Washington, Mark Friedman has felt the influence firsthand of both the modern fan and the rapidly changing television market. This basketball season, NBC Sports Washington is airing an alternative broadcast format during a select number of Washington Wizards games that allow the audience to interact with the games as they are played.
Speaking with Hashtag Sports for a quick chat following the launch of these innovative broadcasts, Friedman discusses the inspiration behind the idea, the role fan engagement plays in the network’s programming strategy, and the future of the industry. For clarity, this interview has been condensed and edited.
NBC Sports Washington recently debuted a brand new interactive broadcasting format for select Washington Wizards games to introduce viewers to the concept of sports betting through free-to-play predictive game contests. How did the modern fan influence strategy for this innovative broadcast viewing experience?
We find the modern fan has a lot of screen in their hand. We wanted to try and get them engaged in something that’s related to our product so we worked with Telescope to create a voting platform that allows them to watch the game and still play along with the game as it goes. It’s just a natural evolution, really—people having more screens, wanting more technology, wanting more information. We also are giving them the chance to be a part of the game, and also a chance to win a prize. So it all kind of works together for the viewer’s benefit.
With social media platforms feeding fans constant in-game updates, how has the modern fan transformed the way sports networks must engage through live broadcasts?
We’ve seen throughout social media, on different sites and different platforms, that it’s easy for fans to just grab a quick highlight of a big play or to just watch the highlights, but we really want to give them a reason to watch most of the game or all of the game. We have to do something different that will break through the clutter.
That’s what I think we’re doing, and if you follow the team and our network’s social platforms, you’ll see. [We’re] giving fans something else to do instead of just scrolling through Twitter to see what their friends have to say about life in general, and instead, we want them to talk to each other about the questions that we’re asking [in] the game. We really hope to evolve it so that you can talk trash with your friends and compare where you’re at on the leaderboard. So that’s what we’re working on—really making the leaderboard more robust and keeping the fans engaged the whole time.
This format is a first of its kind and no other network has really experimented with interactive sports betting broadcasts yet. When your company was trying to build this, how did you determine what technology and partners would be needed to bring the broadcasts to life?
We thought about doing this last season, and we did a few very simple tests. We worked with Telescope previously on voting during our pre- and post-game shows for a variety of sports since we cover a number of teams and we realized we can expand this product. We can work with Telescope to give us a little more and make it more of an interactive game with a lot of questions back-to-back.
We tested it in about eight games for the Capitals and Wizards, did a couple questions per quarter (or period, for hockey) and we just threw it out there. We gave away a bunch of different prizes—jerseys, tickets to games, things like that. It was basic, but we learned a lot. It’s amazing to learn that people really liked it and wanted to play again. We had really good feedback and incorporated all of that over the offseason into what we have now. We’ve got another game [on February 22], and we’re making changes today. We’re changing every single time we do this. Ideally, every game is going to look different. We refine it, we talk to our fans—see what they like and see what they don’t like—and then we make the product even better. It all started with an idea that we tested, and we just keep working at it.
How did your network approach the production of the broadcasts in anticipation of the Supreme Court ruling regarding sports betting?
We suspected this was going to happen. A lot of signs pointed to the Supreme Court ruling, so that’s why we did the test [last year]. As a group—the NBC Sports Group—we all started talking as it was really becoming evident that the Supreme Court was going to come down on their ruling. We all got together and said, ‘Okay, let’s go into high gear here and tap into this, but not overwhelm the fans.’
We were always trying to engage with the fan—the Supreme Court ruling just makes it more of a priority to make sure we are [not only] engaging with fans, but introducing them slowly to what sports betting is. We’re not focusing on the hardcore gambler or the hardcore bettor who is going to watch the game anyway.
We want to put it out there for the casual bettor or the casual fan and explain what these things mean and what the terminology is (like“over/under” or “moneyline” or “spread”). That’s included in things you see in the graphics, but we don’t want to overwhelm fans. We don’t want to turn fans off. It’s a gradual process. We talk to fans, we learn from them, and find out what they like and what they want. In the end, we’re just an evolution of what the best experience is for the fan. Whether that includes sports betting or not, we factor it in, but we’re really just focused on the fan.
During the Super Bowl, for example, the casual people who wouldn’t be normally betting are introduced to all these things like prop bets: ‘What color is the Gatorade going to be?’ or ‘Who is going to score the first touchdown?’ What was the idea behind making prop bets the main focus for these broadcasts vs. other advanced betting concepts?
Prop bets are the easiest way to explain [sports betting] to a person who doesn’t bet because it’s really simple. ‘Will the coin toss be heads or tails?’ That’s a famous one that people always laugh about at parties. You put money on it, and you’re right or you’re wrong.
Simple prop bets, or predictive questions, are very easy to grasp. That’s why we certainly started there. It’s a lot easier than explaining how to bet the moneyline or a parlay bet, but again, that data is available on the stream. The moneyline is live, the spread is updating and the total (or the over/under) is updating. If someone jumps on the phone in the future in a district or state where sports betting is legal, they might look at the odds and say ‘You know what, I feel really good about this bet, and I like the value there and might place the bet…’ and that’s good for the sports betting industry.
From our perspective, if they put any money down on it, they’re gonna stick it out and watch our games because they’ve got something riding on it. That’s the goal—to keep people engaged in our broadcasts. However we can do it is what our focus is.
How big of a role do the partners play in allowing your network to create effective ways to engage the fans during the game, and where do you see these partnerships evolving?
I really can’t speak for NBC Sports or any specific company, but there’s certainly lots of negotiation on high levels on the future of this. I will say there is a lot of interest from all of the sportsbooks in being involved in these broadcasts and being the official provider of lines because it reminds fans and reminds viewers that if you want to put some money on this, here’s the line, here is a place you can go put your money down.
I think that it’s a natural fit that some of these bookmakers and data providers will partner with networks and content providers as it grows more and more as sports betting becomes officially legal in more and more places.
How are you guys using the broadcast viewing experience to engage the hardcore fans that are new to sports gaming and sports betting, and in turn, how are you using the broadcasts to build deeper relationships with people that are more casual Wizards fans?
I don’t think we’re really honestly changing it. We’re still giving them a broadcast and we still have the experience and the announcers that we’ve always had. We’re not trying to take away from the experience they know—that’s the key. And again, we might find that certain things on there are too much, and that’s why we’re testing them. We can’t understand what the fans really want unless we give them options. We’re giving them the inside information, the box score, team stats, all of that.
Some of the questions that we ask are kind of for the hardcore fans. If we ask a question about Bradley Beal, and if you know the team really well, (the Wizards really well) you know Bradley Beal’s second-half tendencies. You might have a little bit of an edge on how you answer the question we ask if we ask a question about scoring output in the second half.
There are also questions that are easy enough that anyone can answer. There’s a question that pops up that says ‘Who’s going to win the opening tip? Is it the Warriors or the Wizards? ‘Hey, I can answer that.’ Maybe you haven’t been following the past couple games, but anyone can answer that question. So the casual bettor is engaged right from the start. The hardcore fan is going to watch anyway, and if they happen to bet too, then we’re just giving them more information.
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What defines or measures success of this broadcast?
Success is engagement and making our viewers happy. I say that a lot, but it really is true. If it does well, great. Sponsors are gonna love it for sure. Our sales team will go out there and talk to companies and sponsors who are interested, and that will certainly happen.
We have to focus on the product first. A good product and good content will naturally lead to better business partnerships and better relationships and potentially more revenue. We certainly didn’t go about this with a singular focus of making money. Damon Phillips, our Senior Vice President and GM, has been a great leader in this from the start. He just wants to push innovation and put out the best product. He’s certainly never said to me, “Hey Mark, how are we going to make money off this?” He said, “How do we make this a fun experience for the fans?” And naturally, [with] my years in the business, I know that when we make something that fans like, sponsors will come along.
Are there any engagement metrics that you could point to that support how successful the broadcast has been so far?
The numbers are a little skewed because it was on our Plus channel, which is not distributed as widely, but the first broadcast had about 800 participants and about 4,000 questions were answered. We had 14 questions that night, and we’re trying to ramp that up even more. Ratings were up that night, and the streaming numbers were actually up that night too. The first test was good, but it’s hard to put a number on something that’s totally different and totally new. Some of the people that were here for the first broadcast had a lot of great feedback, and we’ve made some tweaks already. We’re going to make some more today, make more tomorrow. Hopefully we see the numbers grow—that’s the goal.
There are some brands that seem interested in what you are doing. How do you guys find new opportunities to integrate these partners who are trying to reach fans through your platform?
We have a really good relationship with the MGM National Harbor, which is the local, closest casino [in our area]. They’ve been a great partner for a couple years, and when they heard about this opportunity, they were certainly interested, and they have come on as the presenting sponsor of “Predict the Game.” They do not have sports betting right now because Maryland does not currently have it, but again, they are a great sponsor and this isn’t all about betting—it’s about exposure for us, for the brands.
We actually had Papa John’s come on for the last broadcast as well. We’ve had a lot of brands see the press about the launch of this who are really interested, and we’re open to talking to anyone about how we can incorporate their brand into what we do. It’s an ongoing discussion, and we will certainly do everything from a production side to integrate sponsors and brands if it makes sense.
Do you guys coordinate with the Wizards on social during these broadcasts?
Yeah, so for the second game, we tweeted out the “Predict the Game” questions each quarter, and the team retweeted that and helped promote that so they’ve been involved in that way. Moving forward, I think we’re going to collaborate with the team on the questions themselves so they can add some insight to the questions we ask. So far, the NBA has been very supportive of this as well. They don’t put any restrictions on what we’re doing. They want to see this succeed. They want their fans to engage with this. They want the buzz around the team and the broadcast and the whole brand to increase, and this is a good way to do that.
Your network is the only network currently producing these broadcasts. What would you say is a new benchmark you’re setting in fan engagement and when do you think that other networks start to dip their toes in this space and follow suit?
We’ve been talking about how to get involved in this space as the NBC Sports Group for almost a year. We did it here first because we really wanted to push it. I mentioned Damon Phillips really wanted to push the innovation, so he let us go on that. But the team is also a great partner. We didn’t have any sort of pushback from the Wizards—they encouraged us to do it.
Launching it here was a natural fit for us, and we are constantly sharing our learnings with the rest of the NBC Sports RSNs—Philly, Boston, Chicago, Bay Area. There’s been a lot of interest from other leagues, other teams, other rights holders. Everyone is in it for the same reason—they just want to provide an engaging product for the fans. If they see this works, they’re going to [implement] it. That’s what creativity and innovation is all about—taking good ideas and building on them. We’re not doing anything revolutionary in my eyes; we’re taking a natural next step, and we’re pushing it as much as we can, and hopefully someone else can take it even further.
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