Digital, Digital & Media, Future Trends, Sport Business | Jan 11, 2018
Lessons from Leaders Meet Innovation 2018.

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 11 January.

By James Emmett

Owners, technologists and senior executives from across the worlds of sport, entertainment, media 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.

If the owners of the Boston Celtics and AS Roma – together with the senior executives from SAP and Cisco – focused on the advancements of various technologies and what it could mean for the evolution of their own business, and of entire industries in general – more tangible examples of real world technology application, and open-minded management, were offered up by speakers from Instagram, the Philadelphia 76ers and the NBA.

Your toxic gun slipping under

243 million people on Instagram follow at least one sports account. That means that sport has a link to a third of the entire social network community. Popularity of the platform is on the rise. Direct connection between the athlete and the fan, but in a largely positive environment. Instagram has been proactive in its comment filter functionality, meaning so much of the toxicity associated with social media simply doesn’t exist on the platform. And positive environments are often healthy ecosystems in which to exist for all those in sport with a brand reputation to protect and enhance.

Keep it real

Instagram’s initial success might have been down to its sleek feed and its knack for making even the most amateur of amateur photographers feel like David Bailey. But the integration of video and the creation and promotion of ‘Stories’ has exploded the platform. According to the Caroline Drucker, Head of Strategic Partnerships EMEA at Instagram, there’s “an 80% year-on-year increase in video consumption on the platform”. And there’s more consumption because there’s more to consume. Authenticity is a marketing buzzword in sport and beyond, but the ease of use on Instagram – and the fact that words aren’t necessary – means that athletes take to it more readily, arguably, and more ‘authentically’ than other platforms. It’s a useful tool for delivering behind-the-scenes content, and while it is a one-to-many platform, it retains the intimate feel of one-to-one.

Making the old new again; and downtime useful

In the fight for social supremacy, functionality, and the step-by-step introduction of features that will fly, is all-important. And some of Instagram’s recent roll-outs seem ready-made for sport. “If an athlete is a stuck in an airport,” says Drucker, “why not use that time by using the ‘live’ function on Instagram to do a spontaneous Q&A?” Or, dice and splice current content – behind-the-scenes player interviews, for example – with archive footage that pre-dates the platform.

The process behind the process

If Instagram can justifiably describe itself as a pioneer in digital story-telling, HBSE CEO Scott O’Neil has every right to call himself a business raconteur, a vivid corporate story-teller for whom dynamic communication has always been a key part of his leadership style. HBSE’s NBA team, the Philadelphia 76ers, are feeling the benefits of O’Neil’s sweeping and compelling approach. If he himself goes by the mantra of living the brand, being the mission, then the rest of his organisation does too. ‘Trust the Process’ is a marketing maxim that has taken hold in Philadelphia as the historically underperforming team has been turned, slowly but surely, towards success. But it’s also an internal corporate motto that everyone at HBSE has bought into.

First thing’s first: get out in front

The Sixers finally have a promising team this year, but for longer than anyone cares to remember, their on-court record has been consistently poor. But despite the lack of success, the business has consistently topped many of the NBA’s commercial metric league tables. The reasons for this are manifold, but working hard and being first are chief among them. Since O’Neil’s arrival early on in the ownership of Josh Harris and David Blitzer, the Sixers cemented a reputation of innovation. Having given public dues to the Munich-based player tracking and data company that helped the team manage Joel Embiid’s workload recently – a company O’Neil says he’s proud of have jumped first on – he was happy to talk about the pros and cons of setting yourself up as a pioneer: “We like to be first. The PR is incredible,” he explained. “It sends a message to innovative companies that we do want to be first; it sparks dynamism in the office; people think we could change the world. The risks are that you could stumble and fall, bet on the wrong horse. But we pick you up and we try again.”

NBA leads the way

Trying, failing, trying again and being empowered to pioneer, is, according to O’Neil, “Adam Silver 101”. The 76ers CEO, a former executive at the NBA and Madison Square Garden, had kind words about current league commissioner Silver. As Omnigon Chief Commercial Officer Dave Nugent, interviewing O’Neil onstage, pointed out, the NBA stands in apart from its major league counterparts in its willingness to stand up for what it believes in – both commercially and on social and cultural issues. And its players are empowered. “The league has taken on drugs, race relations, aids – every social issue that has hit America, the league has taken on,” said O’Neil. “The league recognizes the huge following its teams and stars have, but it also recognizes you choose what you do with that following.”

The Netflix of sports properties

Being first is important to the league, or at least being an early adopter, is important to the league, as well as to its teams. Amy Brooks is the living embodiment of that NBA priority. As Chief Innovation Officer, she sits at the centre of the league’s efforts to develop, to grow, and to improve. As luck would have it, Brooks had made the journey to London too and gave an impressive overview of the innovative work being done by NBA teams across the country – a roll-call of out-of-the-box thinking and one that, much to Brooks’ satisfaction, recently had the New York Times describing the NBA as the ‘Netflix of sports properties.’

Fan experience at the core

With 30 franchises all working hard on developing new content strands and fan experience initiatives, exploring new platforms and technologies as they do so, Brooks has a glut of best practice to help demonstrate NBA’s widely-acclaimed leadership position when it comes to innovation. Among those she highlighted: a mobile app which, when held up by Milwaukee Bucks fans, plays the sound of jersey partner Harley Davidson engines revving; teams employing facial recognition technology, which sends a clip to a fan’s phone every time they appear on the jumbotron; and a Boston Celtics incentive giving fans the opportunity to win prizes by correctly predicting various game scenarios.


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