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When you think of a sports fan, what do you picture? Face paint? Tailgater parties? Fists raised in victory or heads shaking in agony?

These classic hallmarks of fandom still ring true — but they aren’t the whole picture anymore. To be accurate about today’s sports fans, you need to add another image: fingers and thumbs tapping on screens.

That’s right: Fans get as much out of processing the game via different online channels as they do actually watching it.

That was the big takeaway from my visit to the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit. At the summit, industry leaders gathered to talk about how technology is changing the way we practice, play and consume sports today. Rather than offering an extension of traditional office “water cooler talk,” many of the speakers challenged the most fundamental notions of success in the sports industry.

What Do Sports Mean to Us?

“Sports has a different meaning in people’s lives now,” said Bleacher Report CEO Dave Finocchio’s in his Summit session. “It’s a 24/7 activity to be shared, and that fuels interaction and conversation. It’s the backbone of how people relate to one another, and that becomes more important, in a lot of cases, than simply watching the game.”

For young fans especially, sports content is a social tool. And it means a lot more to them than entertainment; they curate content as a means of self-expression. The videos they share and comments they make are primary pieces of their online identities, representing who they are and how they want to be seen as much as what they want to add to the conversation.

Marketers and content creators seeking out this audience need to keep this in mind. Between every game, during every commercial break, people look to their devices to join the discussion. Brands should learn to do the same thing. Those gaps are where they can really connect with fans and become part of the experience itself.

That’s exactly how Finocchio found success with Bleacher Report. He saw it coming and was among the first to give fans what they want.

It’s About Delivery

Ten years ago, Finocchio predicted the shift in “what sports means to us.” So he created a web presence that provides endless fodder for conversation on all things sports.

One of his key insights was that online platforms can do more than drive traffic to a homepage. They can focus instead on filling fans’ social streams with clips and stories that get them talking. Because that’s what fans want: content that they can use to interact with fellow fans. If Bleacher Report delivered that content reliably, at a high volume, then fans would grow to trust it and instinctively turn to it when they were looking for the latest highlights, news or commentary.

Finocchio’s foresight was spot on: Today, Bleacher Report’s Instagram account has the second most video views globally.

The Tale of the Tape

Connecting with sports fans is a sport in itself. You have to recognize changes on the field and maneuver to hit your targets where they are.

The age-old act of talking about sports has a new home. Rather than turning to a friend on the couch or hanging out at the water cooler, fans are chatting with their thumbs and phones — before, during, and after the game. And if fans are constantly talking, then smart brands will constantly feed them stuff to talk about. That means being quick, agile and ready to fire whenever there’s an opening.

Or, to put it into 2017 sports terms:

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