Finances, Investment, Politics & Governance, Boxing, Multiple sports, Soccer, Global

At Large | As sport’s models change, shared benefits will be key to future growth

The economic pressures of technology and the pandemic have altered the balance of power in the sports industry but collaboration, rather than extraction, will be the way to find new sources of value.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large | As sport’s models change, shared benefits will be key to future growth

Investigators have a neat phrase to cut to the core of an unsolved case.

“Cui bono?” Or in English, “Who does this benefit?” 

That can be a pretty useful question in assessing deals and commercial models, too, delineating the incentives of those involved. And as sport anticipates some of its biggest changes in a generation, in some cases rethinking the way it has done things for decades, this is an exercise it will be worth getting used to. 

Here’s a straightforward recent example. Who benefits from a European super league in soccer? Probably not, you imagine, the teams outside it. Fans don’t want it, judging by a statement from Football Supporters Europe this month which called it ‘an unpopular, illegitimate and dangerous scheme’. Players don’t need it, given how well, relatively speaking, sporting and financial rewards are aligned in the world’s wealthiest sport. 

Broadcasters are sceptical, at least in that they worry about shutting off big sections of an enthusiastic audience. Sponsors will follow eyeballs and engagement but also want positive associations. So that leaves the owners of the clubs involved, who get a little more competitive security, and a cohort of potential investors, who can be fractionally clearer about what they are paying for.

The lines are not always that sharply drawn, not least in a sector where there are so many interested parties involved, all seeking differently measured outcomes. Still, there is a certain wariness around change in sport that is not always a reflex defence of tradition. Much of the industry’s past success has come through extraction: putting a paywall around lifelong passions.  

Fans may not necessarily equate change with exploitation, and most can point to the attendant benefits of commercial growth – better standards, better experiences, bigger and denser networks of like-minded people. Yet many have got used to being the consumers or the product, depending on whether they are buying a ticket or subscription, or serving as a target for sponsors. Less often, it can seem, do they get a say in the fate of their own communities.

So fatalism can come from being taken for granted. It can also come, separately, from being taken for fools. Weaknesses in governance have outlasted financial upheaval, and even been exacerbated by it. Too many are never addressed in time.

Who really benefited from the ‘systematic corruption and unethical conduct’ uncovered by the International Biathlon Union (IBU) earlier this month? It revealed that its former president, Anders Besserberg, had continually overlooked evidence of Russian doping, apparently because of an ‘extensive provision of favours by the Russians to Mr Besseberg, particularly in the form of free hunting trips and the services of prostitutes’.

Who does it serve when a man like Daniel Kinahan – not convicted but named in Irish court as a leader in a US$1 billion Irish crime syndicate, linked to drug and arms dealing and executions – can amass influence and pursue credibility at the highest levels of boxing? Where is the robust oversight that stops that happening? Who, in the absence of it, is surprised when people hold their noses, shrug their shoulders, or disengage? 

These conversations are worth having now because sport is on the verge of remaking itself if not entirely, then more thoroughly than it has done for a fair old while. A presentation circulated this week by the Two Circles agency, 'The Bounce Back', suggested that Covid-19 will have pushed the industry into its first annual macro-level loss for 70 years in 2020. If nothing else, that is a long stretch of convincing companies that whatever they were trying was working.  

The medium-term outlook, pending the end of the worst of this crisis, was more positive. Two Circles expects growth to resume through the rest of the decade, and points to historic and contemporary evidence of pent-up demand. In the five years after World War Two, for example, attendances at matches in England’s Football League rose 52 per cent on the five years leading up to the conflict. 

Currently, it added, there is increased demand for a reduced supply of tickets to events – both those with limited capacities right now, and those scheduled to take place after public health restrictions, hopefully, can be eased. That corresponds with similar interest in holidays and other live entertainment. In other words, people are eager to get out and get together, even if they cannot yet be sure, in many places, when that will be possible.  

On the other hand, Two Circles also points to an unprecedented challenge for an industry as seasonal and grooved as sport. The pandemic has interrupted habits, however temporarily, and introduced new ones. Attention has been redirected. Retaining fans will be a more involving, more expensive task than it was back in 2019, even if there are more potential converts ready to try new things.  

Combine that phenomenon – and this is not a new observation – with the longer-term vulnerabilities in traditional media and sponsorship rights models, and it is clear that sports businesses need a fresh approach. 

Technology will have its own implications. Some will be additive. On the SportsPro Podcast this week, Greenfly co-founder Daniel Kirschner explained how its video and content platform had helped knit together stories lived remotely – when the LA Dodgers won the World Series, and across the campaign trail with Joe Biden – and channelled the energy of disparate crowds. Even as in-person interactions and mass gatherings return, that will remain an alluring concept.

Elsewhere on these pages, meanwhile, is a list of 20 sports technology companies to invest in now – early-stage purveyors of ideas and products that open a window to the future. A few will link parts of the industry to make new business models add up, like Buzzer, which uses mobile notifications to alert fans to key passages of play in games and directs them to the appropriate media outlet.  

Others make a more democratising offer, bringing opportunities to smaller rights holders, teams and media companies that previously required greater scale or heavier investment. These might harness the possibilities of AI or the baseline of potent consumer tech but the goal is to be smarter, cheaper, and better connected. 

It is easier to envisage some of their uses today. A consequence of the past year is that the theories of a digitised life have been accelerated into practice. From virtual coaching and connected fitness to networks that open access to sports spaces, solutions have emerged that can make not just content development but experience development a growing part of the industry, harnessing participation and viewership in very different ways. 

That will not take long to create new sources of value and shifts in emphasis. It has already encouraged an influx of new stakeholders, from private investors and SPACs to the tech giants and the likes of Peloton. Each of these has its ambitions and its specialisms. Their entry at a point when organisations within sport want to own, not rent, bigger pieces of the value chain, only complicates that question posed at the top of the page.

Still, it is a question that needs a good answer. More collaborative models will not solve all of sport’s problems but they can help tap into its unique power. If its strengths lie in cultural value and community, it makes sense to lean into that.

After all, if you see no benefit in something, and you have the choice, you can always walk away.