The Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, demonstrates how social media has profited exponentially by aligning the population at different extremes—utilizing content we ourselves create online to divide us further. Pre-COVID-19, these divisive efforts had considerable momentum; the virus has only accelerated them.
If ever there were a moment that our country (in fact, the world) needed the unifying power of sports, it’s right now. Every month we spend in isolation turns us inward and reinforces the thought that engaging with the people around us is dangerous. Sports can help us not only overcome the anxiety of gathering in a group but also return us to the interactions that help us heal and grow together as a society. But sports has never faced the obstacles it does now. The industry must get to work.
When we grew up, following our local team was practically a shared civic duty. Kids and adults alike engaged in highly topical “water cooler” discussions. It was an era of media (bandwidth) scarcity; we watched and listened to the games, read about them in the newspaper (remember those?), saw highlights on the 11 p.m. local news, discussed them at meals and as a shared family experience on our living room couches. Very little of that “shared world” experience still exists today. Instead, everyone carries an entertainment ecosystem in their pocket.
And yet, in 2020, nothing unifies Pittsburgh like the undefeated Steelers. Even when, because of COVID, we can’t gather together as much as we long to.
That said, sports needs to update its user experience dramatically. As leaders, we must:
- Reinvigorate sports’ place in the community. Tod Leiweke, one of the sports industry’s most accomplished executives, has made an impact in multiple leagues across North America, and the former Seahawks CEO is now back in Seattle with the NHL expansion Kraken. Back in 2010, when he was with the then-struggling Tampa Bay Lightning, Leiweke, his colleagues and team owner Jeff Vinik created a program that honored a local hero every game during the first timeout in the first period, including a $50,000 donation supporting the hero’s work. The Vinik family stepped up, providing $10 million in funding for the program, double what the staff originally requested. The program bound Tampa and the Lightning and is a powerful example of why our former boss, ex-NBA Commissioner David Stern, championed sports and community service—“doing well by doing good.” We need much more of this going forward.
- Prioritize getting young fans back into our stadiums and arenas. Rich Luker, founder of the original ESPN Sports Poll (now the Luker on Trends Poll), makes the point that if children attend a major or minor league baseball game prior to age 5, they will go to 58% more games per year, for the rest of their lives,than fans who do not attend their first game until age 14. He says the same logic applies to the other major leagues. Waiting is not an option. The Sports Poll 2020 is replete with examples of how our youngest fans, ages 12 to 17, spend their time not involved with sports. In its IPO S-1, the startup Roblox, essentially a YouTube for Gaming, lists not only more daily active users (31 million) than any sports site but also a uniquely engaged audience (averaging a stunning 2.67 hours daily on their platform).
- Revolutionize viewing of live game telecasts. Live events have traditionally commanded unmatched attention and escalating rights fees. They are the life blood of the industry. But, per the Sports Poll, live game viewing is no longer a priority for fans 12 to 34—simply unthinkable a generation ago. In fact, for the first time, sports is struggling to maintain relevance among young fans. Media companies and rightsholders must attack that directly. Using modern platforms like YouTubeTV, fuboTV and Twitch as examples, sports needs to embrace choice (announcers, themed feeds, packaging outside of the pay TV bundles, communal viewing, shorter formats) and make itself available on multiple devices. Sports should lead in innovation for large screen TV viewing (the recent quad screen viewing from the Masters on its own and the ESPN app is a recent example). Betting is a tactic here to lure adult fans,but not the all-in winning strategy to incubate grassroots fandom.
- Bring sports to where its new fans are. Essentially, sports must drastically improve availability and ease of discovery. Before, just being on the right TV network was sufficient: Sports event audiences were funneled to the next live event via inertia. Among other things, access today to live games needs to be a click away or, in the case of Snap and others, a swipe up. This fall, Snap is running a trade campaign for advertisers: “Millions of NBA fans are on Snapchat every day.” These NBA fans must be able to access NBA games there, too. Discovery should extend broadly: Fans should be able to find out about live games and be able to watch and participate with them via links from Twitch, the various social media networks, Apple and Amazon, but also game “metaverses” like Fortnite and Roblox. And thinking more broadly, Zoom and Discord, too. Wherever fans are. Today, top players have more social media followers than their leagues do; these athletes too must step up and promote links to live games from their social handles. “Rent” (user acquisition) costs and performance marketing strategies will rise to the fore. A new startup called Buzzer is an early example of a service tackling the issue. Naturally this will require rethinking and readjusting business models, so expect change to be slower than optimal from the new audience’s standpoint.
According to the Sports Poll, as recently as 2007, fans got their sports information from three leading sources—online, TV and newspapers, each with about a 25% share. Today, online has accelerated to 69%; TV has shrunk to 17%, and newspapers have practically disappeared (5%). In 2011, men 18 to 34 occasionally went to Google for sports information (5%); today, it’s their most used sports news utility (23%). Fans move to the best experience available, and quickly. Sports needs similar urgency across the board.
The new presidential administration offers true opportunity. President-elect Biden can push sports to unify a fractured country. Biden has promised an organized national response to COVID-19 and will oversee the rollout of the first vaccines. This will speed the reopening of outdoor and, potentially, indoor venues. The leading sports leagues are national operations and need streamlined practical solutions to operate universally across state lines and welcome back fans. Some U.S. venues have hosted numerous events, under structured conditions, with no indication of virus spread. A nationally coordinated effort to apply lessons learned from successful events would inform reopening discussions at local health departments around the country. Perhaps some of the lessons could improve the safety of all indoor public spaces.
In 1963, President Kennedy established the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. Wouldn’t it be powerful if Biden created a President’s Council on Community Gathering, centered around sports, with the sports industry taking the lead?
Over the past 50 years, changes in the environment have almost completely benefited sports and fueled their growth. No longer. Whether it’s the mere act of gathering together, how we watch the games from home, or the manner in which we get news about our favorite teams and athletes, it’s now changed utterly. The internet-led disruption of myriad other industries has finally hit sports. We must respond now.
Ed Desser is president of Desser Media, Inc. (www.desser.tv), a sports media consultancy. He was the senior media executive at the NBA for 23 years. John Kosner is president of Kosner Media (www.kosnermedia.com), a digital and media consultancy and an investor and advisor in sports tech startups. He was the senior digital executive at ESPN for 20 years. Together they ran NBA Broadcasting in the ’80s and ’90s.