Leaders Meet: Innovation, the future-focused annual half-day event organised by the NBA and Leaders, took place this year at BAFTA in London on 17th January.
By James Emmett
Owners, technologists and senior executives from across the worlds of sport, entertainment, media, transport, retail, and technology gathered to discuss the rapid convergence of their respective fields, and the next wave of innovations that look set to transform sport and our experience of it in the future. ‘The future of…’ was the theme of the day, and there was plenty to chew on as the event drew to a close at lunch.
Madison Square Garden’s self-declared position as ‘the World’s Most Famous Arena’ refers to both the New York venue’s global reputation, but also the heft and star power of its regular celebrity visitors. Like all NBA arenas, MSG aims to offer a fully immersive entertainment experience, from the moment you purchase a ticket, to the moment you leave the venue. But, according to MSG’s SVP of Business Operations Kristin Bernert, ‘Celebrity Row’ is a USP for anchor NBA team the New York Knicks – and there’s a deliberate strategy in place to ensure that a regularly refreshed roster of celebs are then to see and be seen on the front row at Knicks games. “We have a VIP Services Group,” Bernert said, “And their job is to reach out to celebrities in New York and develop relationships with them.”
2. Where there’s a will there’s a Waze
The parallels between the sports industry and the world of transport might not immediately spring to mind, but a little lateral thinking, and some deft questioning, and they’re readily identifiable: customer experience, use of data, reliance on ticketing revenue, product differentiation in ultra-competitive markets, and brand and community building – all are areas undergoing innovation in both sport and transport. Matthew Wood, SVP Long Haul and New Markets at Norwegian, believes the airline he works for is the biggest disruptive force in aviation since “Southwest and Ryanair”.
The business model is simple: in an industry that has tended to put business interests above consumer demands, just put the consumer first. At Norwegian, that means transparent, simple, and competitive pricing, and a focus on delivering new routes that’s backed up by data. “We saw data showing that so many people were flying from Barcelona to London, then on to New York, but there had never been any direct Barcelona to New York route,” said Wood, “And why not? Because Iberia and BA are part of the same group and they make more money on the London route.” Meanwhile, UK Country Manager Finlay Clark and the team at Waze have been busy harnessing the power of their community. “20,000 people edit the Waze map every year as a hobby,” he explained of the passion the route-finding technology platform has unearthed and inspired. “Some of them do four hours of map editing a day. We take them to meet our partners. Some of the key transport operations people for Rio 2016 were Waze map editors.”
Sam Farber, the NBA’s Digital Media VP, skipped briskly and enjoyably through a wave of innovations that the NBA have adopted recently or intend to adopt in the near future. Video continues to drive growth in engagement with the league and its stars, with Farber reporting four billion video views for NBA videos across social this year, and a further 4.4 billion video views for fan-generated content.
“People were scared about what would happen when fans take IP and put it out on their own channels,” he explained, “but we thought it was important to empower fans to take content and create communities and it’s worked.” For Farber, social is not a zero sum game, “more is more” – the more platforms, the more engagement, the better for the league. Recent broadcast innovations that have seen feeds designed specifically for vertical mobile screen usage – including a zoomed view – have seen engagement numbers double, and experimentation with the developmental G League and its partnership with Twitch has brought about a clear insight: “Users on Twitch can opt to provide their own commentary. We found that our fans were generating multiple more viewing hours than we were on our NBA channel.” The potential there is huge. “You could have one on fantasy, or statistics, or gambling. People could more or less choose their own adventure when watching a game. “
Work continues, Farber explained, on innovation around voice, bots, AR, and the recently maligned VR – which earned a staunch defence. “The tech will improve immensely there. There are 150 million to 170 million VR users around the world. Lots of people complain about the industry not taking off, but that’s not insignificant. This year should be big.”
4. Tech still moves the needle in broadcast
Sky has gone through a significant transformation in recent years with a new ownership group in Comcast, and a recognition that it now serves markedly different audience groups. “Disruption has changed customers expectation of what they want to pay for, and what they want to pay,” explained Sky Sports Digital Media Director Dave Gibbs. “We’ve invested in talent, tech and the business model. We’ve completely changed the proposition: you can get the whole whack – SkyQ, SkyGo, every channel – or you can have just F1, or just golf, and if you don’t want a contract, you can pay as you go.” But it’s Sky’s investment in UHD technology that is, says Gibbs, convincing customers to upgrade to SkyQ.
For global OTT challenger DAZN, tech is also pivotal to its ambitions to be up and running in 20 markets by 2020. It’s currently in seven, and solving tech challenges in all of them as it goes. “Playback is a huge focus,” DAZN Chief Product Officer Ben Lavender said. “We don’t want to see buffering spinners. There are big pipes in some of our markets, but in places like Italy, the broadband infrastructure is less mature. If content is king, then distribution is queen, and that has to be right. We’re investing heavily in the workflow – reducing steps of getting the broadcast from the ground to the fans, making sure we get the highest quality content in so we can compress and squeeze it as much as possible. We have Phd scientists tweaking every encoding parameter to get it lower and lower to have high quality and high speed.”
5. Win-win-win through partnership integration
Manchester City COO Omar Berrada is justifiably proud of the Premier League team’s partnership with SAP. Not only does it deliver sponsorship revenue against his bottom line, but the two organisations have forged three distinct, value-adding areas of integration too. “On the business side, we use HR, and finance systems from SAP to become more efficient – and we’re very pleased with it,” said Berrada. The second area of collaboration is in the use of SAP’s analytics platform to create fan engagement products; while the team’s performance department have reaped great rewards from employing SAP software to convey tactical instructions to players.
6. Sports betting not a gamble in the US
Ted Leonsis, Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, is always good for macro view of the future of the sports industry distilled into a catchy sound-bite, and he didn’t disappoint here. An outspoken advocate for a change in the US sports gaming legislations, Leonsis has developed his thoughts on the direction that innovation in sports gaming needs to take. “I think gaming and gambling is bad nomenclature – it makes it sound like chance,” he said. “But it’s not – it’s picking or trading – you see information and you use it. People will be betting because they’re thoughtful data gatherers. It will be the biggest industry imaginable if we don’t screw it up. But we are capable of screwing it up. There’s probably $10 billion gambled on the Super Bowl in legal venues, but there could be another $80 billion being gambled in the shadows. Tony Soprano doesn’t care about your addiction. We need to get that $80 billion into the light, and the only way we’ll do that is by having fair odds. If we create odds designed to channel money to the leagues/lotteries/governments, why would people do it? They’ll stay in the shadows.”
7. The ‘Aston Villa’ model is the future of retail
Eyebrows were raised in April last year when an innovative new technical partnership was announced between second-tier English soccer side Aston Villa, sports retail giant Fanatics, and menswear brand Luke 1977. The three-way kit deal essentially saw Fanatics extend and expand its distribution deal to take over kit manufacture too, leaning on Birmingham brand Luke 1977 for design nous and local credibility. The arrangement, explained Fanatics Ecommerce and Omnichannel Director Ben Esser, was a rip-roaring success. “We managed to boost product assortment by 40% and sales were boosted 90% that year,” he said. “It allowed us to activate and control the entire value chain from design through to ecommerce. I think we’ll see many more deals like this going forward.”