It’s a daunting new online frontier, and the global sports industry is determined to tame it – once it figures out how.
The question is a perennial one for everyone from the NHL to the International Olympic Committee to apparel giant Nike, Inc.: How to appeal to younger audiences, how to take advantage of technology and social media without upending the traditional broadcasting model?
And can the industry pull it off without eating itself whole?
Those, broadly speaking, were the unifying threads in a series of workshops and forums presented at SportAccord, a biennial gathering of the world’s sporting federations taking place this week in Quebec City alongside a raft of IOC meetings.
The Olympic movement’s main focus of this week’s gathering is the unveiling of the short-listed cities for the 2020 Summer Games, but that doesn’t mean the sporting world is casting a worried eye on the future and where the future audiences lie.
“Today’s youth won’t accept to be spoken at, they will only engage when listened to … if the products and experiences are inauthentic, we lose,” is how senior Nike executive Charlie Denson framed the challenge.
Looked at on a continental scale, the major sports organizations and the companies that outfit them, sponsor them and pay dearly for their broadcast rights are in a pickle; ratings for televised sports in North America have never been higher, but the $36-billion financial “ecosystem” from which rights are paid will be imperilled if no one can figure out how to harness the five-billion mobile devices now in use on a planet where three-billion people are under the age of 25.
“The mobile phone is the new computer … texting is the new talking,” said Denson.
The discussion involved familiar buzzwords like “interactive” and well-worn topics like highlight culture versus live-event culture, but for now it seems there are more problems than there are solutions.
One of the organizations at the forefront of the digital sphere is the NHL, whose chief operating officer, John Collins, sat on one of the panels.
And his strategy is deceptively simple.
“What we’re trying to do is to get hockey content out there and make it as ubiquitous as possible,” Collins said.
And therein lies a paradox.
Ubiquity means doing things like allowing YouTube to show highlights, and the league, in a sense, is competing with the traditional media that cover the sport and, on some fronts, with its rights-holders.
Though NBC Sports is an NHL rights-holder – and its parent company Comcast is an NHL franchise owner in Philadelphia – the league in some respects is competing with it.
As NBC strives to maintain the subscription and pay-on-demand model – “If it isn’t kept intact, there won’t be money to pay for rights,” NBC Sports Group president Mark Lazarus said – the NHL is making more and more content available online for free.
Collins drew back the curtains on the NHL’s recent experience and talked about why the league has charted a different course than organizations like his former employer, the NFL.
For all that, Collins said he doesn’t see television and digital as an adversarial, one-or-the-other relationship (“We’re very respectful of that [cable]ecosystem.”).
The problem with the rapid pace of technological change and a fickle audience that is averse to paying for content is that no one knows how long that will be true.
Besides, isn’t tension inevitable as everyone tries to harness change to their advantage?
Stefan Szymanski, a sports-management expert who teaches at the University of Michigan, opined in another panel discussion on the trends for the next decade that it probably is.
It’s also Szymanski’s belief that social media and technical innovations – like live data streams charting an athlete’s physical and statistical performance during games – are transferring some of the power to athletes.
“As sport grows, the athletes are going to demand more of the share,” he said.
Others like Michel Masquelier, president of the sprawling IMG Media sports and management group, see a closer intersection between sports organizations and their sponsors to specifically target an audience that is also a market – in short, the outright commodification of sports.
Peter Moore, the COO of Electronic Arts, said innovations like motion-sensing video-game consoles have already revolutionized his business, and the next game-changing moment could come via “the virtualization of sport” through holographic technology (most panelists on Wednesday agreed 3D isn’t the way forward).
Omid Ashtari, the youthful head of sports and entertainment for Twitter.com, suggested that the distance between fans and their heroes has been reduced to nearly zero by companies like his.
As for what the future holds, Ashtari smiled and said, “We weren’t here 10 years ago, so who knows what’s going to be around in another 10 years.”