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Leaders New York 2015: Day 1

Kabaddi's potential in the United States, the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the unique business model for e-sports – Owen Evans reports from the opening day of the Leaders Sport Business Summit in New York.


Eric Shanks, President, COO and Executive Producer of broadcast giant Fox Sports (pictured right), kicked off the event by discussing the ever-growing importance of social media (50 per cent of  Fox's online traffic now comes via social channels), new broadcast techniques (exploring the widespread use of automated cameras and drones) and the commercial potential of developing sports in the United States, in particular Kabaddi.

Shanks said the ancient Indian contact sport was brought to his attention after a counterpart from STAR India, which is owned by STAR TV and Fox International Channels, told him 420 million people watched a new professional Kabaddi league launched in India last year.

However, the elephant in the room was the circumstances surrounding Fox's extension of its United States broadcast rights deal for the FIFA World Cup last week, which was extended to cover the 2026 tournament without a tender and therefore any competition from its heavyweight competitors. Added to that, last year Shanks criticised any potential talk of FIFA moving the 2022 World Cup to the winter. "You go into buying a World Cup and you believe it's going to be in the same time frame it's always been, clearly in America there's much more competition for ratings points," he said.

Time is a healer it seems, and Shanks appeared far less concerned about the potential clash a winter World Cup would bring with NFL (National Football League) coverage when I asked him what he thought of media reports that FIFA awarded Fox the rights uncontested to prevent a potential lawsuit in the future.

"Jérôme [Valcke, FIFA General Secretary] will say what Jérôme will say, but from our point of view we don't know what is going to happen yet, whether it will be in the summer or the winter," he said. "Let's get through Russia [the FIFA 2018 World Cup] first."


Ian Ayre (pictured centre), CEO of English Premier League club Liverpool, revealed some the numbers and methods that have propelled his side to the top end of the social media league. He told delegates that Liverpool has created more than 50 social channels in the last three years, and its plans for world domination also include launching 500 retail stores by the end of 2016.

While Ayre also said one-in-five matchday-goers at Anfield arrives from outside the country – and the importance of introducing performance-related pay clauses into player contracts – the most interesting titbit came on the subject of global fanbases. After Chelsea last week announced it has more than 500 million fans around the world alongside its new shirt sponsorship deal with Yokohama Rubber, Ayre said: "We did research that proved half-a-billion people around the world said they were Liverpool fans, but that number means very little".


Perhaps the most interesting session of the opening day was led by three speakers from non-traditional sporting companies.

Kids TV channel Nickelodeon, gaming video platform Twitch and virtual-reality company Jaunt (product pictured above) were on stage to discuss the new ways sport could engage with fans. Twitch vice-president of marketing, Matthew DiPietro, said the viewers of his online platform could not be considered "cord-cutters" any more, but rather "cord never-was-ers". Whatever that meant, it got a laugh, and with 100 million unique visits to Twitch every month, DiPietro's views on digital engagement were taken seriously by the more traditional brands listening from the floor.

"E-sports content is born online and it stays online," he said. "For that reason it does not fit well with the cable business model, as the social aspect is key."

Keith Dawkins, senior-vice-president of Nickelodeon, also pointed the conversation in the direction of different methods of getting kids into sport: "Leagues are always trying to find different ways to reach audiences from an early age, and Nickelodeon is a great tool for that.

"Also, you have to remember that most of the major players in our leagues now grew up watching our programmes, so when they see our reporters at press conferences they drop their guard and we immediately get more access."

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