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The future of sport

  • The changes we are seeing in consumer habits, attention and technology will accelerate. Digital will be at the heart of that change no longer as nice to have but as the primary way sport is delivered, consumed and talked about.
  • Digital will be essential to the very existence of professional sport and it’s time to get our collective heads around what that looks like.

Now is the time to think really hard about your business, its purpose, people and customers. The good news is that if you are working from home, as most of us now are, and if you stay healthy you have something precious to work with. Time.

Normally when sports people talk about the future of sports we talk about changing consumer habits, competition for attention and technology. And a lot about digital.

We occasionally throw in some economic analysis and a smattering of thoughts about climate change and global instability.

We never talk about comets, Californian calderas or solar flares – or pandemics.

Many of us are probably thinking, how our sports can pivot during or immediately after Coronavirus. Will sports that have social distancing in their DNA such as golf and tennis thrive? How about snooker and pool? Does your sport need a crowd? Can your athletes prepare and train in isolation? In France horse racing barely stopped throughout the second world war, can it carry on?

But there is a bigger picture beyond short term winners and losers. The extraordinary fallout from Coronavirus will not dampen the conversation about consumer habits, attention and technology, if anything it should accelerate it. Digital will be at the heart of that conversation no longer as nice to have but as the new modus operandi.

Digital will be essential to the very existence of professional sport and it’s time to get our collective heads around what that looks like.

Predicting the (digital) future

When I first started working as “head of new media” at London 2012 in 2006 I was regularly asked how I could possibly predict what technologies would be available and in use in six years time.

It didn’t stop me trying. We created a “new media roadmap” in 2007 in the form of a two metre long poster that we would throw out on the floor in front of potential sponsors.

Salvation came in the form of the Everett Rogers ‘diffusion of innovation curve’.

Developed in the 1950’s to explain the slow adoption of new varieties of seed corn its main finding is that it takes seven years for an innovation to reach majority adoption from the time of first release into the market.

This was the time it took in mature media markets for the majority of users to switch to colour TVs, touch screen phones and from 2G to 3G to 4G. Not much has changed. 5G is already “here” but in 2021, based on pre-Coronavirus data, only 10% of phones sold will be 5G capable.

Everett Rogers diffusion of innovation curve

However this relatively slow pace of change feels hard to believe. The way consumers use and adapt existing technology can change quickly whether because of the introduction of new fashions, new software or, as is currently the case, extraordinary new social rules and regulations.

Data: Sensortower, h/t Exponential view Instagram

The world was already on course to be smartphone enabled if not always bandwidth rich.

Smartphone penetration 2017 vs 2022

Audiences were already increasing consumption of digital media at annual rate of 11% driving media minutes up more than 25% over ten years:

Zenith optimedia global media minutes estimate 2019

Likewise ad spend was already migrating to digital platforms, fast.

emarketer global ad spend 2019

Digital ad spend in China, the UK and Norway is already 60% of all spend and other countries are expected to follow this trend imminently.

Yet sport, even or maybe especially at top level, has not been ahead of these trends. Why?

Sport has been one of the most attractive properties for broadcasters. TV delivers for sport, and vice versa. Rights holders with properties big enough to attract TV deals have been through an extraordinary and prolonged purple patch. Blue chip properties such as the Champions League have continued to generate increasing returns.

But broadcasters were already being challenged by changes in viewing behaviour, migration of advertising to online (where it goes mainly to Google and Facebook and not to video) and reduced willingness to pay. Coronavirus will accelerate those trends aggressively.

Sponsors value digital audiences, perhaps even more than broadcasters. The focus of most sponsor activation is digital. Most sponsors are looking for opportunities to cut through in digital and co-create content with rights holders.

But in truth very few properties actively value digital exposure in their commercial sponsorship sales process (this is a polite understatement) and it is generally not a key driver of price. The power of sports marketing to deliver brand awareness and brand perception and a measured impact on sales is often discussed. It’s rarely proven.

Only in ticketing, betting and retail can it be truly said that sport is “digital first”.

This must change.

Digital can deliver direct, broad and measurable audience engagement, and (yes) a clear link to sales.

A properly managed, addressable digital audience can provide direct value to rights holders as well as critical leverage in broadcast and sponsor negotiations and valuations.

Sports rights holders will have to get a proper grip of their digital potential and:

  • double down on relationships with existing fans. The more you know about them, what they’re doing and how they’re thinking, the better you can cater for them.
  • attract, engage and activate every potential digital fan. Through search, through social, through ad networks.
  • build digital products which reach fans wherever they are. And a data platform that you control which manages them all in one place.
  • maximise digital returns from fans and sponsors and reduce dependence on broadcast deals

Behind all this is performance data. There’s a lot of data around but most likely not enough of the right people in your business are looking at it, or using it, properly.

There is potential for a new business model, beyond the rights fee, with always-on digital content, audience growth and engagement and data at its heart which drives direct and indirect value from a large range of primarily digital transactions with fans: advertising, sponsorship, subscriptions, tickets, merchandise, betting, micro payments and so on.

Digital inventory is cheap and plentiful and dominated by Google and Facebook. The tough challenge is driving direct digital revenue from fans in every country that you can find them at price points that make sense.

The hiatus is a great opportunity for rights holders and teams to get really good at this, so they are ready when live sport returns to whatever normal looks like after Coronavirus.

In truth you can’t get a grip on all this without sorting out all the things sport is generally bad at:

  • alignment between organisational business objectives and priorities and digital delivery
  • clear governance  and coordination between stakeholders
  • delivery of digital as part of services delivered to the end users not a stand alone projects or siloed departments
  • testing and retest everything you create before during and after you create it, with real users

And even the best run, best organised sports businesses may struggle without a clear vision and mission or simply put, a purpose.

The purpose of sport

  • Professional sports do not have clearly defined purpose. They need one

In my experience the sports industry lack self awareness. We are incredibly bad at thinking about what sport, especially our favourite sport (which is not always the one we work in), is for and why people like it.

Too often our attitude is that if we can stage the best version of the sport we love then, simply put, what’s not to like? Build it and they will come. And mostly that approach magically works, just like the movies.

“If you build it, he will come” Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams

That’s not to say sports don’t have “vision” and “mission statements” and acknowledged sets of “values”. LOCOG (the organisation that ran the London 2012 Games) had a vision that was “to use the power of the Games to inspire change”. This was “pursued” through the “values”:

  • Inspiration
  • Openness
  • Respect
  • Teamwork
  • Delivery
  • Distinctive

Worthy. Vague. Impossible to measure. And live by let alone remember.

A consultant I worked with on a digital project for a major sports brand decided that the easiest way to get past the “purpose” question in any discussion about business objectives was not to waste time seeking guidance from senior management. He just created the default fallback: “stage sport event, deliver eyeballs, make money, fund more sport, stage more sport event”.

Again, it works and may work again. Especially in the good times.

But our lack of examined purpose has left sport as an industry vulnerable. We were already ill-equipped to face the threat of competition for attention from things other than sport.

  • The average age of TV audiences for sport has been north of 45 for over a decade.
  • We pat ourselves on the back for piggybacking the reach of social networks without properly thinking through what they will do for our business even though they are well aware what we do for them.
  • We mistakenly believe that deep relationships with communities who love to play and watch our sport, relationships often built up in days before we were even working in the sport, mean inevitable business success.

But now we face an actual existential threat greater than fortnite or Netflix or tiktok, more worrying than being seen as a bit boring, staid or unfashionable.

We may have to rethink everything. Work, education, how we communicate, what community means, who we trust, what we need to survive and what gives us joy.

After Coronavirus has done its damage professional sport will have to prove its value to the world. To paraphrase JFK: what can sport do for its fans in a changed world?

The legacy of Coronavirus is likely to be:

  • the powerful effect of the notion of sacrifice – give up something however small for the greater good
  • huge civic engagement which we are seeing already in the call for volunteers in the UK and US
  • a greater sense of our mutual dependence, at the very least within our own countries
  • greater empathy with loss. Even if you aren’t touched by the disease or death of a loved one you will all know the stories of people who have been
  • a renewed respect for healthcare workers and the healthcare sector

And possibly also:

  • a heightened acceptance for leadership roles for women in society (who comprise over 60% of entry level healthcare workers)
  • a greater appreciation for the great outdoors, nature and open spaces
  • a greater appreciation for simple pleasures
  • “a less achievement focused, less competitive, less judgmental world and…more social, family & community focused lives” Chris Ward, author of xxx

This suggests, for sport:

  • the potential for sporting events to act as a release valve for a worried and chastened world emerging from one of the grimmest periods in our collective history.
  • more focus on sport that is not played primarily for money
  • a demand for a celebratory, even carefree, approach to playing sport in professional sportspeople who instinctively understand pain of loss. Like the brilliant, cavalier, Australian cricketer Keith Miller who could draw on personal experience as a fighter pilot when explaining to journalist that “cricket isn’t pressure, pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse”
  • a continuation of the current trend for sport audiences to value strong personalities and fame more than performance but where the qualities that will drive that fame will look very different, less bling and more bring.
  • rethinking how to watch together without being present in a crowd.

Most of all we have to restore trust.

According to John Barry the main lesson from the Spanish flu of 1918, in which 50 million died, was that “those in authority must retain the public’s trust” and “the way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one.”

How do we build that trust? Not by piling more warm words on top of the lukewarm ones we already have. And clearly not by deploying more VAR.

An answer may lie in thinking not about “brand values” but impact.

Charities are developing the idea of impact models which attempt to assess what benefits a charity delivers its customers. These go beyond simple commercial metrics or even numerical targets.

Children’s cancer charity Clic Sargent delivers a brilliant, annual, impact report. It also happens to be superbly executed digitally and will take you less than a minute to flick through the summary.

The report contains real life stories from the community of people it supports and addresses questions they felt the charity should answer rather than focusing only on the highlights of the year. It includes a section called “hands up we’re not perfect” (imagine that in the Sepp Blatter era) and a film of members of its executive team sharing the things they wished they’d done better last year.

Clic Sargent’s approach may be too radical for some sports organisations and the people running them. But the point isn’t really accountability (something sports governing bodies rarely like to worry about) but improvement, and continuous improvement.

Impact is something you can measure without going public should you choose.

In theory, it’s simple:

  1. Identify the benefits of what you do through research into the views of the people who care about your organisation within and without.
  2. Write up simple statements based on those benefits that your fans can agree or disagree with (scored from 1 to 5) and which you can regularly test.

For example English Heritage, a 1 million member charity that looks after 400 historic properties in England including Stonehenge (I was a Trustee until a few weeks ago), went through an exacting research process lead by marketing director Luke Whitcomb to show how its work provided a public good.

It identified seven benefits linked to a central principle of “human connection”: escapism, gratitude, belonging, identity, achievement, legacy and personal growth. Simple statements which visitors to English Heritage sites can agree or disagree with based on the benefit such as:

  • The visit made me feel part of something bigger
  • The visit allowed me to connect with the past

Scoring responses from strongly disagree to strongly agree on a simple scale of 1 to 5 creates a performance score which is relevant and useful and better than NPS.

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