Investment, Media Rights, Multiple sports, Global

At Large: SportsPro Live and the future-focused mindset

After two days of frenetic and fascinating activity at the O2, editor at large Eoin Connolly looks at the underlying lessons of technology’s influence on sport.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large: SportsPro Live and the future-focused mindset

That’s a wrap, as they say in the movies, the sandwich business, and the gift counter at Selfridges. SportsPro Live is done for another year, with the O2’s Cineworld complex an unexpectedly appropriate setting for an event that conveyed the spectacle, drama, excitement and mild peril confronting the sports industry as technology becomes an ever more pervasive influence.

As noted by Richard Ayers, founder of digital agency Seven League and moderator of one panel on digital transformation on day two, sport has met what has come for one industry after another since the internet age began.

We sort of act like digital transformation is a new thing. And it isn’t

Richard Ayers, Seven League founder

In the 22 years since Ayers himself was part of the launch team for the BBC Sport website, digital disruption has worked its way through everything from the news media to retail to music, film and television, taxis and hotels and plenty in between. Some businesses have been hollowed out, others have flourished, some have got fairer and cleaner, others less so. But none have been able to avoid profound change.

Industries have tended to change because they have had visionary leadership, or seen an immediate threat to revenues. It’s likely preferable to be in the first category.

In their closing presentation, Sports Innovation Lab co-founders Angela Ruggiero and Josh Walker were clear that sport and fandom have been transformed for good. Digital technology isn’t just creating new platforms or cosmetic adornments, it’s fundamentally shifting behaviour. At the same time, they said, sport has a deep cultural value we would be well advised to protect.

It’s a challenge to be relished and for all the technical capabilities that are required to incorporate some of the jaw-dropping advancements within sight, taking it on is really about attitude. Mind open, brain on: organisations that are alive to new possibilities but understand what matters at their own core are those that will thrive.

On that note, it’s probably worth exploring a few recurring elements of that mindset that emerged across the two days under the dome.

Sports Innovation Lab co-founders Angela Ruggiero and Josh Walker spoke at length about the new age of the fluid fan

Win or learn

One of the very earliest things delegates found out at SportsPro Live 2019: the first company Liberty Media sold a display ad to on the Formula One website was Grammarly, a software plugin that corrects errors as you type and makes running suggestions on how to improve your writing.

What Liberty, or any other company managing a significant transition for that matter, wouldn’t give for something that did the same job on their business strategy. They’ll all have to make do instead with iteration – or trial and error, as we used to call it. It’s been said that you win or you learn, and an awful lot of the new conventions of this industry will be set by just trying things.

That could be in experience, rule-making, or sponsorship messaging. In the OTT space, itself a response to consumer-led disruption, NFL Game Pass chief executive Sam Jones and Now TV’s Marina Storti both talked about adaptive and reactive approaches to pricing, either through a freemium model in the former’s case or by tinkering with access to daily, weekly and monthly packages for the latter. It’s hardly a revolutionary idea elsewhere but constructive failure has a big role to play in sport’s future.

Creativity matters

If the production team at Red Bull Media House can find a sensor small and robust enough, they will attach it to the body or equipment of an extreme sports athlete. Recording biometric data has yielded some compelling results for the Austrian group, which is exploring the idea of robot safety companions for divers and climbers, and even early warning systems that dissuade people from participating if health or sleep indicators suggest a performance risk.

Yet when the Austrian group tried to represent this on screen during a motorcross event, they found the viewing experience was too busy. That, as chief innovation officer Andreas Gall revealed on day one at The O2, is when the team realised some information is best absorbed differently. They chose to represent heart rate not visually but through sound, and the result is electrifying.

Whatever tools are now at sport’s disposal, they won’t be of as much value as the creative thinking employed to use them well. Thomas Robson-Kanu, the Wales international soccer player who heads up blockchain-based platform Sports Ledger, offered one such example. The media obsession with blockchain has centred around its role in cryptocurrencies but its real potential is in rationalising improperly balanced markets – such as, maybe, professional soccer’s notoriously leaky transfer system.

It’s about community, not audience

After the sale of a majority stake to Eurosport owner Discovery in January, cycling platform operator Play Sports Group is among the most influential companies in the OTT age. The two parties are working together on a new global network that should end up combining lifestyle programming, product reviews, ecommerce and live rights – Discovery’s own GolfTV is a precedent, though the balance of output may differ.   

Play Sports Group founder Simon Wear says that he didn’t set out to create an OTT platform, and didn’t necessarily want to build a series of digital video channels. What he envisaged was a business that served cycling enthusiasts – one run by their peers – and the projects he ended up working on were those that were most effective in the current media environment. Wear’s background is in magazine publishing, the long-time home of specialist interests. That’s probably no accident, and he is not alone in that regard in the OTT sector.

The pastime of sport has always been about communities but the business of it has defaulted to supplying passive audiences in venues and on television. That is all about to change, as interactivity and choice become the baselines of modern media and commerce. The true value of understanding esports isn’t in the idea that competitive video gaming becomes a mainstream sports discipline but that it provides a functioning model of a digitally native community.

There are already examples of sport incorporating its best assets, such as the Watch Together platform trialled during coverage of the NFL Draft, and their prevalence is about to explode.  

Data has to count

There is little left that can’t be measured and companies can unearth all manner of insights from the right data sets. If that information isn’t accurate, though, you might as well be digging in the wrong place.

Red Bull, again, discovered early in its experiments with geo-modelling that consumer GPS products weren’t sensitive enough for its needs, basically rendering them close to useless. It worked instead with a startup called Kinexion, whose devices are so much more effective they can be used to track and register the movement of players in-game on an individual basis.

Generating the right information only becomes more important once artificial intelligence and machine learning come into play. There is endless potential for systems that have been fed quality data to revolutionise and democratise broadcast production, coaching, scouting and marketing. Those given rubbish won’t produce much of anything.

Andreas Gall, chief innovation officer at Red Bull Media House, gave a glimpse into the future of biometrics in sport technology in an exciting presentation

Consider the physical pay-off

English soccer had a hole in its bucket. Most payments at the grassroots level – memberships and especially match fees – are paid in cash. Most people carry less and less paper money as they use cards or smartphones to pay for things elsewhere. So more and more of these payments weren’t being made at all.

The Football Association (FA) is enacting a straightforward but revolutionary solution, partnering with PayPal to build a digital payments solution for the lowest levels of the game. It’s a reminder that there is a whole universe of digital products whose purpose isn’t to provide a virtual replacement for a physical one, but to improve a real world experience.

That much is true of the design of venue experiences and plenty more besides. As FA marketing director Georgina Lewis explained on day two, digital products can offer valuable extensions to physical services as well. The FA now offers a mobile app version of its SuperKicks skills programme for primary school age children, which gamifies the lessons learned on the pitch and keeps kids engaged with the sport once they are back indoors.

Purpose is everything

“It’s fashionable to say Gen Z,” joked European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley on day two. “Just to say it.”

Change, he added, is hard – so it’s important to be doing it for the right reasons. Golf has an issue with access. Courses are expensive to build and run, and not cheap to play on either. The length of an 18-hole game is at odds with the demands of 21st century life. Responses to these problems are invaluable, whether that’s through virtual urban experiences like TopGolf or the coordination of courses around six-hole games.

Still, the sport’s older fanbase is not necessarily an albatross around its neck. Golf’s hold over the C-suite, 45 to 60-year-old demographic is hugely significant at a time where so much wealth is concentrated in the hands of the older generations. Replenishing your community with lifelong adherents is important; tearing down everything to serve those who can’t support you financially might be a little rash.  

The same is true in every sport. 34 per cent of those buying tickets to this summer’s Cricket World Cup in England and Wales are expected to be first-timers, but that tournament will only truly be valuable if it supports the community that already exists. Those newcomers need to join a community, not replace it.

That is the underlying quandary for the sports business amid all this innovation: how do you harness possibility and enhance your world, rather than seeing it disappear?