South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) is easily the best conference I’ve ever attended. The variety, the industry experts, influencers, A-listers, and brand activations are incomparable. It’s what has compelled me to be present for the last five years, and this year, representing Jackson Spalding.

Each year, I meticulously comb through the various sessions to figure out who I want to see during my time in Austin. For me it’s not solely about the notoriety of the speaker, it’s about the insight I can capture and use in my daily work flow. This year I wanted to focus on brand building, augmented reality and sports marketing trends.

Below I have provided a snapshot of the key learnings from my favorite sessions.

SXSW insider tip – if you search for the panel by name on the SXSW portal you can listen to the audio recording of the complete session. You’re welcome!

The evolution of sports commentary will not be televised, but it will be streamed (via social).

Digital technology and social media have paved the way for new voices to cover major sporting events and news. It’s not just Bryant Gumbel, Marv Alberts, Robin Roberts or other broadcast staples who are commanding your time and attention around breaking sports news. Additionally, athletes are providing real-time access through social media and leading cultural conversations about social issues. One league in particular – the NBA – is championing those efforts and it’s no surprise since Adam Silver’s relationship with the players is regarded as the best in any professional sports league.

Yes, they (NBA players) do more than just shut up and dribble.

The sports industry is no longer a linear path. Now athletes, coaches, agents and other contributors carve out a complex roadmap to extend the reach of their brand. If you are a fan of Michael Jordan and are Gen X, think about all the places you saw his face. If you are a fan of him and are Gen Y you still have a connection because of how he nearly single-handedly established one of the most globally recognized sporting brands – Jordan Brand. Today, athletes are exploring less traditional paths to create brand longevity. James Harden has his own brand of candy, Russell Westbrook has his own luggage and Lebron James has a deal to make movies. The sky is truly the limit if authenticity remains at the forefront.

Jordan Brands epic Augmented Reality takeover of the 2018 NBA All Star game set the tone.

Relevancy is the name of the game and that’s exactly what Jordan Brand created through augmented reality. It was the very first time the brand had been adorned on the all-star jerseys, and they wanted to ensure they made a splash. The masterminds behind the activation chose to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Michael Jordan’s All-Star Slam Dunk Contest dunk from the free-throw line. Through partnerships with Snapchat, Darkstore, Shopify, and R/GA, select consumers could recreate Jordan’s iconic dunk with their smart phones via a Snapchat lens. Consumers also had the ability to scan special Snapcodes to unlock an e-commerce experience that provided exclusive pre-release access to purchase a select pair of Jordan’s with same-day delivery. As a longtime fan of the sneaker culture, nothing can outweigh the experience of getting shoes you order within hours, especially of the exclusive variety.

NBA’s big data footprint and the eSports evolution is shifting the player and fan experience.

The NBA is growing and I’m not just referring to the height of the players. The global powerhouse is currently comprised of the NBA, WNBA, G-League, and in March they will add a fourth, the NBA 2K League. And yes, the eSports athletes will get paid with contracts just like NBA players. Nearly every professional sports league is considering or has already integrated eSports to extend the footprint of their sport. The times have changed and eSports is a major factor.  One of the best players to set foot on the court, Clyde Drexler, mentioned that although the game has evolved, today’s super stars could compete in his era but would have to adjust. The data the game tracks can show you where a player is most accurately shooting, which side of the rim they finish the best on, or if they pass or shoot more often during a fast break. That information can all be viewed on a tablet at the athlete’s  disposal.

The key themes I uncovered at SXSW include the power of authenticity; AI, VR + voice platforms are now; the NBA is the benchmark for excellence among pro sports across the board; never be afraid to fail; and be anti-apologetic. Here are my takeaways:

  • Authenticity has withstood the test of time, and when you don’t align yourself as a sports marketer it comes off as forced.
  • At one point in time, social media and digital were the wave of the future, but now AI, AR/VR, voice platforms and eSports are all elements to consider incorporating into your marketing strategy. These are the tools fans and consumers are embracing much more.
  • I attended several sessions tied to professional basketball due to personal interest. I quickly realized part of the reason is because of how they connect to the fans and consumers to establish various points of brand engagement both personally and professionally (endorsements).
  • Never be afraid to dream or fail big. At the end of the day, you can miss out on a chance build a timeless brand or moment if you let fear drive you.