Today’s guest columnist is Angela Ruggiero, founder of the Sports Innovation Lab and a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
For more than four years, our team at Sports Innovation Lab has studied the sports industry in an effort to truly define innovation. We’ve built software to track the market and analyzed data around traditional and non-traditional revenue streams, in order to identify the teams that are best servicing what we call “fluid fans.” These innovative organizations are not only building a better fan experience; they are creating enterprise value.
In our latest report, The Top 25 Most Innovative Teams in the World, we applied our research and analyzed the voluminous data and information in our system, looked at other industries, and isolated the most innovative categories required to create breakthrough fan experiences at the team level. We identified revenue diversification, technology focus and organizational agility. We then rated teams in each of these three categories to come up with respective innovation scores, thereby creating the first innovation-based ranking of its kind. The Sports Innovation Lab is putting a stake in the ground with our data-driven methodology (versus the usual subjective process). Our research is focused, therefore, on those teams that are investing in growth opportunities, outside of traditional revenue streams, and are in a position to win the fluid fan today and in the future.
Based on our methodology, international soccer clubs scored the best, comprising more than half of the list, with Manchester City leading the way. Many of the clubs are part of ownership groups that have multiple teams around the world, have a women’s arm, own their own OTT platforms, play in stadiums that are a part of mixed-use developments, invest in their internal teams, and offer their fans a chance to own part of the team.
But this project isn’t about a static ranking of well-known performers. Our research offers a strategic roadmap for our industry. It is also one that identifies rising innovative stars that are worth learning from and emulating, such as Athletes Unlimited and UFC. This research is about providing a roadmap to win, in what we call “The Age of the Fluid Fan.” Our three-pronged analysis is based on the following categories:
Revenue Diversification Revenue diversification means sports properties are able to go beyond game-day ticketing, concessions, linear media rights and traditional sponsorship categories to drive fandom. Some of these new revenue categories include: mixed-use development venues, sports betting partnerships, owned OTT channels, youth academies and owning a women’s team.
Technology Focus This category hones in on leveraging specific technologies to empower certain fluid fan behaviors—including showing up to more than just live events and sharing on social media. This is about investing in the technology that drives the catchall “engagement” bucket, which we break up into specific fluid fan behaviors, such as access, bet, connect, learn, play and share.
Organizational Agility The most innovative teams are agile enough to invest in talent and staff for the future, leverage data, learn from adjacent industries and launch new ventures.
There are clear trends in how the most innovative teams operate. First and foremost, they think globally. They understand that the fluid fan is here, that these fans are the path to growth, and that they can be anywhere in the world. These teams understand that operating like an events business isn’t enough, and they have begun to act like media and data companies, setting up their own digital platforms to collect first-party data on their fans. They have invested in women’s sports, sports betting, esports and youth opportunities to diversify revenue opportunities. Their venues are open year-round and offer fans entertainment options to come early and stay late, again increasing revenue opportunities. These teams are invested in finding new technologies and new methods for interacting with their fans.
How do the top 25 stack up compared to all the teams in the top 10 leagues?
In this analysis, we limited our scope to teams that play in the 10 highest revenue grossing leagues. But we know that generating revenue is not always synonymous with innovation. To account for this, and the fact that metrics don’t always capture the true essence of the impact, we created the Rising Stars category. These properties are innovating despite being outside the top 10 revenue grossing leagues, and have built the foundation to set the future standard in the industry. All the properties below are Rising Stars:
- Their use of a new fantasy-style model to redraft teams each week
- Their athlete-owned, multiple-sport, socially conscious management system
- Offering inside access to players and innovative social media content
Premier Lacrosse League
- Their touring model creates a festival-like experience for fans
- Major investment into social media and off-the-field content
- Youth activities around their events, as well as training and youth camps
- Their decision to lean into simulated races in the early stages of the pandemic
- Creative partnerships with BetMGM and Scanner to offer fans new immersive experiences
- Boosting new data streams and providing them to fans to help educate and inform
- The push to hold live events during the pandemic, including their creation of Fight Island in Abu Dhabi
- Creating cryptocurrency collectibles with their partners at Dapper Labs
- Increasing and augmenting their social media through partnerships with Snapchat and Grabyo, and expanding their global presence when they released their Fight Pass in Japan
As an independent market research firm, Sports Innovation Lab is focused on continuing to push the industry to think differently. This list is more than a list. It is a strategic framework for how our industry can continue to grow and ultimately be a force for change in society. There are few things that bring people together like athletic competition, and it behooves us to think outside the box, innovate and thrive to maintain sports’ relevance in society.
An Olympic gold medalist, Ruggiero has held several leadership positions at the highest levels of sport, including the Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee and chief strategy officer of the 2028 L.A. Olympic bid. She holds a BA and an MBA from Harvard University.