Every year the world stands witness to the dramatic plays of the sports industry-and 2015 certainly didn't disappoint. History was rewritten, odds were defied, ground was broken, and even the surreal ensued-as we will never forget the summer the nation spent debating the ideal gas law with cosmic significance, (thank you New England Patriots).
But if we let the air out of our own emotions and fanhood, and look objectively at the world of sports as a business, the numbers are startling. The sports industry is now estimated to be worth somewhere in the region of $500-600 billion worldwide-with impressive growth projected for the foreseeable future.
The commercialization of what were once cherished pastimes has become a big business, and an indelible cultural force with the strength to unify continents. Looking globally at this industry and its progression into the future, several game-changing trends emerge. If you're in this business, thinking of entering or investing, these can't be ignored.
In a stereotypically male-dominated industry, the world of sports business is in for disruption. Women as both athletes and fans have elevated their stature, and the sports business community is paying attention. A few stats...
- The NFL released a new campaign, "Football is Family" and for the first time, solely featured women and children - no men and not a pink jersey to be found. (The TV spot can be viewed here.)
- Women's World Cup Soccer became the most-watched soccer event in US television history (surpassing the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup)
- The NFL 's first female referee, Sarah Thomas, met the NFL's first female Assistant Coach, Jen Welter on the field
- Sports Illustrated's coveted "Sportsman of the Year Award", was appropriately renamed "Sportsperson of the Year" upon receipt of this year's winner, Serena Williams.
- And Yahoo's annual report of the most searched athletes of 2015 was dominated by women.
This "on the field" influence, can have a major rippling effect off the field. And if so, both the buying power and reach through successful female-targeted initiatives can be astronomical. As every sports property tries to allure both the current and next generation of fans, prioritizing women is paramount.
If you thought video gaming was just a juvenile avoidance for taking out the garbage, think again. I must admit, having studied this trend while in China on business last year, I was shocked to see how reputable and dignified eSports is, both as a career, and as a major for college students. However, upon studying the facts, it didn't' take long for both me, and the U.S. to catch on:
- According to esportsearnings.com, over $64M in prize money was awarded in e-sports in 2015.
- Two Universities - Robert Morris University in Chicago, and University of Pikeville in Kentucky, both made headlines as the first institutions to incorporate eSports into their varsity athletics program offering scholarships to top players. And since then, a total of five schools - Maryville, Southwestern, and Columbia College have joined the pack.
- Coca-Cola & American Express have jumped on as major event sponsors
- Multiple television networks have branched out with eSports coverage - including Disney & TBS.
eSports is not only exploding, but it's poised to become the most popular sport in the 21st century.
3. Fan Engagement.
These days, being a fan is a full-time job - and a demanding one at that. We expect to be connected to our teams and all content relative to our teams, in real time across all devices and platforms. Social media has propelled these expectations, as a key driver for desired intimacy and connectivity with our favorite players.
As 83% of sports fans admit to checking their social networks while watching live games, sports properties are feverishly experimenting with ways to create a deeper engagement with fans and bring them closer to the action than ever before. Fantasy sports and weekly Google Hangouts with players are great examples, but in 2016, innovation will go much deeper:
Technology found in GAME Golf allows professionals to track their swings and share with fans on social media
NASCAR's implementation of a "digital cockpit" includes in-race interaction between fans and drivers
Intel announced a partnership with ESPN at CES on the upcoming X Games in Aspen, promising real-time data on jump heights, speeds, and in-air rotations during the games, through the use of tiny Intel hardware modules built into snowboards.
And in the wearables category, Foxtel's Alert Shirt bridges the tech world with the physical world, enabling fans to experience the sensations of their favorite athlete during a game, (think feeling a players heart racing, and the force received from a tackle)
Feeding the insatiable appetite of fans is a rite of passage for every sports organization. Consistent optimization and competition between the leagues and teams are expected to progress to ensure the deepest bonds (and demands) of fanhood are sustained.
4. Mobile Ticketing.
Countless trees will continue to be saved as the sports teams phase out the hard ticket. While many fans express displeasure of losing the unexpected collectors item (you never know when history is going to be made), a mobile first mentality will prevail. A company founded on this mobilized vision, Gametime, was previously featured in my column. Full article here.
Aside from the environmentally friendlier promise of mobile ticketing, the value of the data exchanged digitally through ticket transactions presents a greater opportunity to learn more about fans, creating a marketing edge. This does, however, forge a new revenue stream for teams and leagues to develop special designed "print-at-home" collectors items for that unexpected no-hitter.
5. Concussion Research & Technology.
"If just 10 percent of the mothers in America decide that football is too dangerous for their sons to play, that is it. It is the end of football, kids, colleges and, eventually, it's just a matter of time, the professional game."
This is a quote from the Golden Globe-nominated film, "Concussion" starring Will Smith. Dramatic? Maybe. But the facts can't be ignored. And after a decade of denying the link between on field concussions and brain impairment later in life, the NFL is no longer ignoring them either.
In a 60 Minutes special called "Football and the Brain", which aired in November, studies show players are 5 times more susceptible to dementia if they sustained 3 concussions. Considering NFL players can average 650 hits to the head per season, attaining that number is quite probable (especially considering 39% of athletes with catastrophic head injuries continue to play).
New technologies that are helping to identify what happens to the brain after trauma include accelerometers embedded into mouthguards that measure and correlate impacts to confirm that an event has taken place, and a highly sensitive eye-tracking procedure that can be done in under a minute to assess brain function and performance - and there's even an app for that! Newly launched Braincheck Concussion conducts brain health testing via its app to help parents and coaches to monitor their athletes.
As the NFL tries to reverse engineer the sport to meet the science by changing the rules, reinventing equipment, research, and advanced diagnosing and preventative technologies, breed new opportunities in this industry.
6. Virtual Reality (VR).
Don't have the means or time to travel to watch your favorite team on the opposing coast? VR is going to change all of that. And fast. The NBA has already made history when the league kicked off the 2015-16 season as the first league to broadcast a live professional sports game in VR.
As every industry tries to uncover ways to tap into this multi-billion dollar projected market, sports is already ahead of the curve.
College and professional football teams started by using VR as a training tool by putting players in an interactive 360-degree environment without having to be on the field
College programs have started to use it for recruiting -think slipping on a headset to take an official visit on campus without ever leaving your home.
And the New England Patriots gave fans a sneak peek inside the Pats locker room from Gillette Stadium parking lot before they took the field to take on the Philadelphia Eagles this NFL season through Google cardboard viewers.
As more leagues and teams experiment with simulated, 360-degree environments, VR is poised to revolutionize sports by bringing every aspect, and angle, of the game to you without ever needing leaving the couch.
7. Athletes As Investors.
With the startup world being as prolific as it is, athletes are looking beyond traditional endorsements deals and seeking longer-term opportunities to further monetize their "game after the game". Over $1billion in venture deals for sports-related startups have been invested over the past year.
Savvy business people such as New England Patriots' Tom Brady inked a deal with Under Armour that included equity (an investment which is since up almost 800%).
Other athletes such as Steve Nash and Carmelo Anthony both run their own venture funds. Even teams as a whole, such as the LA Dodgers are looking to position themselves at the forefront of sports tech innovation through the launch of their accelerator program - Dodgers Accelerator - a 12-week program in partnership with R/GA that seeks startups "at the intersection of sports, technology and entertainment" .
As emerging companies seek capital, consideration to the interests, passions, and pockets of athletes will become more mainstream.
8. Smart Stadiums.
Every year the electronic giants at CES promise advances in technology and home theatre systems that create a "better than live event" experience right from the couch. Having lead global communications for LG electronics in the past, I can attest first hand that this progression put a dent in the ticket sales of live sporting events.
To compete with the couch, advancements in technology, sustainability, and fan engagement will progress in the build of new stadiums and arenas-and you will have access to it all from the palm of your hand. As 70 percent of fans bring their mobile device to a stadium and use it during a game, owners will look to control the fan experience and entertainment, directly via smart phones. Levi's Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, Super Bowl 50 (and situated at the center of the tech universe), is now the most high-tech stadium anywhere in the world. As 70,000 fans tap into the Wi-Fi and 4G networks, access via their app to services such as a virtual guide to your seats, watching replays during the live game, ordering food and drinks delivered to your seats, and even a guide to the closest bathroom with the shortest lines are offered.
As more sports property owners focus on their #1 objective - "butts in seats" (second only to wins), enhancing the in-stadium experience becomes crucial.
While Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations make it difficult to deploy drones in venues filled with fans, the wheels are in motion. Drones were already incorporated into coverage of the U.S. Open and X Games by capturing angles that would otherwise be impossible. Additionally, the Sacramento Kings are exploring the use of drone technology to survey available parking spaces in their new arena, and even provide unique in-arena camera angles.
As the FAA keeps a close eye on the integration of drones in live sporting events, individual exemptions demonstrate progress in a technology that will dramatically change the narrative of sports.
10. BIG(ger) Data.
As coaches and fans look for a predictive edge in the score and performance of athletes, a surge of data will be prioritized by sports properties. Predictive analytics to transform the outcome of sports was popularized by Michael Lewis's book and the feature film "Moneyball", (one of my all-time favs). Paul DePodesta (the main character in the film famously played by Jonah Hill), was just hired last week by the Cleveland Browns, as the newly created Chief Strategy Officer in a desperate attempt to reverse the fortunes of their ailing franchise. Data has also played a significant role in reducing injury levels in professional rugby games due to wearable sensors that monitor the intensity of activity and impact of collisions. Even an athlete's hydration is being monitored through the launch of the first "Smart Cap", launched through a partnership with Gatorade and Smart Design to retrieve and send data back to a software program after each sip and sprint from a player.
For sports scientists, nutritionists, and medical personnel, data collected will drive sports in a direction unimaginable. However the entertainment value of sharing these data creates a host of new possibilities for both TV and social networks. As this sophisticated weapon seeps into every sports organization around the globe, the shared desired will prevail... (to quote the film), "we'll change the game."
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