Investment, Video, Soccer, Global

At Large: What the Simpsons can tell us about OTRO

Following the dramatic arrival of OTRO into the over-the-top (OTT) sector, SportsPro editor-at-large Eoin Connolly questions the concept of the 'new idea'.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large: What the Simpsons can tell us about OTRO

Disruption may not take the form you think it will.

As November turned into December – you remember, it was quite recent – social media was abuzz with some mysterious new arrival: OTRO. No one knew quite what it was but they were pretty sure it was exciting. Images of an impossibly high-end collection of soccer players, from David Beckham to Neymar and Leo Messi and Zinedine Zidane, were circulated to make all of us aware that, well, #OTROIsComing.

The whole thing called to mind an extended gag from an earlyish entry of The Simpsons. The family are watching some bit of televised filler when a message explodes on to the screen bearing a single word: ‘Gabbo’. No explanation is offered for what Gabbo is, and the brief clip builds into a long campaign which offers no further detail whatsoever.

Still, the ever-pliable citizens of Springfield are whipped into a ready frenzy and they tune in, and turn out, for the life-altering reveal. At an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza replete with miniature flypasts, it emerges that the object of their devoted longing is a children’s entertainment show, fronted by a Howdy Doody-style dummy with a taste for demented vaudeville and a ventriloquist dressed for cocktails at some mid-century country club. This absurd set-up soon becomes a cultural phenomenon, setting the episode’s events in motion.

OTRO, it turns out, is nothing quite so unexpected or old-fashioned, but it is a reworking of an idea that we have been seeing a lot of recently. Styled as a digital fan club, it gives users access to exclusive content from the superstars involved for a US$3.99 monthly subscription. Its DNA is spliced from various bodies: a little from team-owned Dugout, athlete forum The Players’ Tribune and fan channel Copa90, and a little from MasterClass, the glitzy online seminar service fronted by luminaries like Steve Martin, Helen Mirren, Aaron Sorkin and Stephen Curry.   

The new platform has some serious pedigree, with backing from venture firm 23 Capital and input from long-term Beckham partner Simon Oliveira. It may not quite promise the revolution that its online tease suggested, but that hardly precludes its success.

A recurring lesson of disruption is that it’s often about executing familiar ideas in unfamiliar settings, constantly recalibrating the same routines

A recurring lesson of disruption is that it’s often about executing familiar ideas in unfamiliar settings, constantly recalibrating the same routines. That’s even part of the joke about Gabbo: Springfielders are sold a bizarre Gen X retread of a hoary old cliché; the writers skewer 90s marketing techniques through their affection for 50s TV arcana.

About a year ago Adidas released a series of official playing kits for soccer teams in its portfolio, including Manchester United and Juventus. The twist: those new shirts were only available as playable avatars on EA Sports’ FIFA videogame series. Now Adidas has reversed the process, releasing kits that were exclusively available in the digital world of FIFA 19 for retail as wearable gear.

Adidas have released the special edition kits only worn on the FIFA 19 series to the public, taking the digital world in the physical

That digital-physical feedback loop is one now set to repeat elsewhere. Merchandise giant Fanatics has signed a partnership with the organisers of esports’ Overwatch League. The agreement will make it easier for fans to show their support for the burgeoning stars of the competition. Yet it would not be too much of a stretch to imagine Fanatics-distributed products popping up in the Overwatch games as playable ‘skins’, and vice versa.

One of the comments that’s stuck with me through this busy year in the sports industry came, funnily enough, from a June event run to discuss the aforementioned Dugout project. While much of the conversation that day was about farming content and reaping data, Curation Corporation chief executive Nick Finegold instead floated the concept of ‘offline blindspots’ for major sports teams and organisations.

The argument Finegold made was that while soccer clubs could be applauded for pursuing new digital initiatives, they could be oblivious to potential opportunities out there in the physical world. One example he discussed was cookbooks, growing again as part of a stabilising publishing industry.

Poor food choices among young people affect most of the richest countries in the world, directly contributing to childhood obesity. Soccer players, by and large, have impeccably curated diets. By releasing collections of licensed recipes, clubs could harness the affinities of their fans for the cause of better nutritional education – encouraging kids to eat like their heroes – and create a new source of income in the process.

Licensing with a purpose: the possibilities may not be endless but they are compelling. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has already tried something similar in its own line of official gyms, an exercise that wasn’t exactly as lucrative as selling TV rights but which helped popularise the sport by reinforcing links between mixed martial arts and a new strain of active lifestyle. Furthering connections between merchandising and identity in sport, rather than churning out branded tat, is only really the same kind of constructive thinking that takes sponsorship past the ‘slap a logo on it’ stage. All it really involves is a different perspective.  

As technology moves so quickly, it’s tempting to view disruption as something propelling us into unchartered territory. But that’s pretty rarely the case. Often the skill in working through changing times is in recognising familiar patterns. Cells grow by dividing, plants from disturbed soil – all that kind of thing.  

There’s probably another way of putting this.

“There is no such thing as a new idea,” said that other icon of American satire, Mark Twain. “It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope.

“We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations.”