Media Rights, Politics & Governance, Global

At Large: Unpacking PwC’s Sports Survey in the context of sporting change

The annual PwC survey of leading sports professionals reveals a sense of optimism about the future of sport, despite expectations of massive change ahead, and recent events show that some traditions have the resilience and adaptability to move with the times.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large: Unpacking PwC’s Sports Survey in the context of sporting change

The northern hemisphere summer is officially about to end. Monday 23rd September is marked this year as the point of the autumn equinox, when the nights start getting longer than the days, even if the shadows have been getting a little longer, a little earlier, for a little while now. 

It is a curious thing at this time of year, when the natural cycle hits a period of darkness and disintegration, that all of our public structures are renewed. Maybe it is that the old school year mentality never leaves us but September is always the point when the holidays have ended and purpose is restored. At least, that is what the conference halls full of industry execs are wont to tell one another.

And according to a report this week by professional services group PwC, those execs are feeling pretty sunny about the future of sport. Its sports business advisory unit spent the period between June and August getting thoughts on the future of sport from 590 leaders across teams, federations, leagues, sponsors, agencies, consultancies, tech providers and academia.

Respondents expected the growth of the industry to slow across the next three to five years, down to 6.4 per cent from 7.4 per cent over the equivalent period just gone. At the same time, though, more of them perceive the opportunities sport faces to be more significant than the threats.

Where there is a challenge to take on, there is often an equivalent upside. 65.6 per cent of those surveyed believe the shift away from traditional TV is a concern but 82.4 per cent see enhanced media capabilities and over-the-top (OTT) as a major potential source of growth; 59.5 per cent are worried by the access to and popularity of alternative entertainment formats but 72.9 per cent are enthused by sport’s synergies with gaming and esports.

Indeed, it is esports that a majority of respondents believe will see the fastest growth over the next few years. Urban sports, which look set to reshape the Olympic experience and enjoyed the first World Urban Games in Budapest at the weekend, charted at four, as part of a top ten rich in more established disciplines with continued expansionist ambitions and potential, like soccer, American football, rugby union and cricket. 

It would not be inaccurate to say that the sports industry is not always great at change. PwC’s own findings were that while 94 per cent of those surveyed recognised the importance of innovation, only 46 per cent actually have a concrete innovation strategy in place. Meanwhile, 56.6 per cent said the biggest challenge for federations was to improve transparency and good governance – a reminder that it wasn’t too long ago that sport’s fundamental perceived weakness was that it had made too much money, too quickly and didn’t have the corporate structures in place to cope. 

Now it feels like the key existential pressures are external, that evolving tastes will take fans in other directions. And yet, for all that, the resilience of major sporting events and traditions provide their own evidence of the adaptations that have gone before. It is always worth reflecting on what survives all this upheaval, and what is so resilient about it.

The end of summer here in the UK brought the end of another Ashes cricket series between England and Australia. On the surface, this was a contest between the fourth and fifth best teams in the world in a five-day Test format grappling with its own place in a faster and faster media cycle. In practice, even after a seven-week Cricket World Cup that had tested the stamina and appetites of players and fans alike, it showed just how much it has retained its to surprise and enthral in equal measure.    

I spent the start of this week at the One-Zero Conference in Dublin, an event dedicated to discussing exactly the kinds of issues of fan engagement and technological integration that are animating the respondents to PwC’s survey. Ireland, and particularly its capital, has worked hard to define its modern identity through a receptiveness to new ideas and its sharpening focus on innovation. 

Dublin will host games in Uefa Euro 2020 next year and will welcome the return of the Notre Dame college football team, while Ireland’s rugby union team heads to the Rugby World Cup in Japan among a small clutch of favourites as the number one side on the planet. Yet the biggest story in town was a recent pair of Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) football finals. Most notably, Dublin’s women had won the All-Ireland title in front of a record 56,114 fans at Croke Park, more than doubling the attendance from the same fixture five years earlier.

The GAA set of sports – football, hurling and camogie – have their roots in the Gaelic Revival at the turn of the 20th century, part of the cultural movement that helped consolidate popular support for independence. They are barely played or followed outside Ireland, least of all beyond the Irish diaspora, yet they remain a national obsession and are now demonstrating a capacity to change in a way that reflects the perspective of that fanbase.    

There is something in that. Whatever developments happen in media consumption and distribution there are parts of sport that outlast them, weaving into a shared history and experience. Seasons come and go, but some things keep coming back in subtly different forms.

So that is the challenge facing sports leaders: change, but make change work for the things that matter. Summer’s over, get back to it.