You might have been able to join us for SportsPro Live last week but if you missed it, you would not be too surprised to read it was A Bit Different This Year.
Different in terms of the delegate experience, no doubt. Most definitely different in terms of the hosting experience, which involved more sitting at home being subjected to close-ups of one’s own face than usual. It took no less work and focus for colleagues to bring the whole thing together, but the tasks at hand were unfamiliar.
There are upsides to the remote arrangement. Attendees have no concerns about travel time or costs. Nor do speakers, who must also clear a much smaller portion of their diaries to take part. The result of that was perhaps the highest-calibre, most international agenda to date, with figures from the US major leagues able to join in even with their seasons at critical points.
Expectations are reset in these circumstances. The presence of the screen lends itself to greater personalisation. Some will have taken the time to surf the agenda, maybe even as a backdrop to a working day, dipping back into recent sessions on demand or stitching together a bespoke running order. Others will have made the more deliberate call to sign into roundtables and networking sessions, maybe to learn something, maybe to share something.
Inevitably, there are trade-offs. All of us have come to understand the different wavelengths at which remote work operates. Accidental and serendipitous encounters are harder to bring about in a virtual environment, and the improvisational build-up of personal exchanges is difficult to simulate at distance. The queues are shorter at a virtual conference for catering and the open bar, though many will have been served out of their own kitchens.
Events like this are further exercises in adaptation for an industry unmoored from its normal points of contact. Sport thrives as a mass live happening, a swirl of energy and emotion and entertainment, and it cannot be that in 2020. What we have instead, amid all the turmoil, is a series of experiments in long-range communion.
There are adjustments that look more like advances. The way sport is brought to air is going to change. Extended remote production was already an objective for broadcasters – there were clear financial and environmental imperatives for it, and it works some flexibility into the lives of hard-pressed teams. Its techniques have hit prime time earlier than anticipated – even ahead of the arrival of key technological infrastructure – but there are many in the sector quietly delighted with the results so far.
The act of watching sport together from afar is at a different stage of development. With so many physical forums off limits, there is a clear interest in shared viewing platforms and a proliferation of new products. The grammar of it all, though, is still being worked through.
Take Twitch, which has been piecing together a dedicated sports vertical over the past few months. Twitch will share some sports rights with its parent, Amazon; it has trialled a few live events and had the odd dedicated package carved out from deals with the likes of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). But Twitch is not a broadcaster in the recognised sense.
There’s a fun essay about Twitch in Joel Golby’s modestly titled 2019 book Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant, where he shares his tale of getting a little too into watching faraway streamers explode some digitised heads. He compares it not with falling in behind a soccer team – sport is covered lovingly and sardonically elsewhere – but with therapeutic teenage hours spent at the home of an expert gamer friend, watching him dispatch an earlier generation of avatars with ease.
There are users, he surmises, for whom Twitch acts as a ‘long-distance friendship simulator’. For others, it is a source of mindless relaxation, not unlike watching ASMR clips or those YouTube unboxing videos. Twitch has described itself as ‘a leader in multiplayer entertainment’. Whatever it is, there is going to be a place for sport among all of its many streams but organisations must give communities time to form and curate output that works in its specific context.
Given the pressures on existing rights models, there is an understandable temptation to hope new players operate like old sources of money. That, unsurprisingly, is not going to happen. It is a truism to state that the digital economy is built around the individual first but the implications of that radiate a long way out.
For decades, rights holders have been selling to media companies who have stacked live sport on top of other televised entertainment. Now, they not only have to consider a marketplace where subscriptions are bundled and unbundled, but keep tabs on who is doing the bundling and how.
A case in point: last week brought the launch of the Apple One multi-part monthly subscription. Its components are an upstart TV service, music, mobile games, paid news, a personalised fitness tracker and cloud memory storage. Over at Amazon, sport is an added bonus for those paying extra for next day parcel delivery. This will all take some getting used to.
Still, sport came into this year knowing that change was coming, and knowing it would be daunting. What has set 2020 apart, of course, is more unsettling. It would be just great if this were a thought exercise to sort through the essentials of sport’s traditional elements and get a grounding in virtual spaces. That is not what is playing out.
Out in the world this week there are lots of things we do not know. Some countries are reopening stadiums, several others are closer to locking down again. Teams and governing bodies are facing enormous financial challenges, with even some of the shrewdest and healthiest warning that there is only so much more of this that they can take. Here in the UK, with doors now set to be closed to fans through the winter, more than 100 sports and fitness bodies have written to the government in search of a UK£1.5 billion emergency funding package. The stakes are very real.
Sport is going to come back to a fuller form eventually, shaped by recent events but also ready to re-establish its best qualities. SportsPro events will, too, maybe carrying new traces of that remote access and digital flexibility into a more optimistic era.
We look forward to that, and to a time when change is something all of us can consider on our own terms.