The Big Short | The evolution of short formats in sport

  • Sports are increasingly looking at shorter formats to appease spectators and broadcasters
  • Shorter formats are changing geographies and techniques in sports
  • Innovative formats can cause friction between governing bodies

Most sports have tried, at some time or other, to introduce a new or innovative form of their discipline. For some, this is about reviving interest among younger audiences who may be losing interest in the traditional format. For others, it’s about modernising their brand image. In certain situations, the goal is to create TV- and sponsor-friendly competitions. Then again, it can be an attempt to open up the sport to new territories that are ill-equipped to participate in the more orthodox version.

Matthew Pryke, a partner at legal firm Hamlins, has extensive experience in this area, having been instrumental in the launch of the Tiebreak Tens format of tennis. His view is that this kind of innovation is crucial to the well-being of a sport – even if doesn't always sit well with traditionalists and powerful vested interests. “Audiences and broadcasters are driving change and sports governing bodies need to respond to that,” he says. “Appealing to the next generation of fans is absolutely essential to the long-term health of the sport, even if it raises questions about how existing stakeholders will fit into the new model.”


The classic scenario that illustrates Pryke’s thesis is Twenty20 cricket. Although it has been a big success in terms of drawing crowds and generating revenues, there’s no question that the introduction of this family and TV-friendly format has had an impact on one-day and five-day cricket. While the latter is still regarded by purists as the sport’s gold standard, the psychological shift in approach that has taken place among T20 batters has put five-day technique under pressure. So has the money available in T20. The West Indies Cricket Board, for example, has been in a long-standing dispute with star players like Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo, who have turned their back on five-day cricket to focus on high-profile T20 events instead.

The money flowing into T20 cricket has also changed the geography of the sport – with states and counties ceding some of their historic authority to cities. Cricket Australia, for example, is currently wrestling with the issue of how to balance the needs of city-based T20 competition the Big Bash League with those of the state sector of the game, which generates a lot less revenue but is seen as the bedrock of five-day success. A similar issue is now looming on the English cricket scene, says Pryke, with the planned introduction of a city-based T20 event.

Cricket’s national governing bodies have also had to adapt to the pulling power of India’s T20 competition, the IPL, which has sucked in international talent and revenues – raising fundamental questions for sports administrators. How, for example, should a global federation react if a sporting innovation – while welcome – redirects TV and sponsorship revenues towards a national federation or a privately-backed competition? And what about national federations, which may find themselves being expected to support innovations that are actually going to line the pockets of their fiercest rivals?

Paul Vaughan, a sports marketing consultant who was previously CEO of England Rugby 2015, says rugby union is now facing a similar scenario to cricket thanks to the emergence of Rugby Sevens. “Sevens has been growing in popularity for a while but it really hit the headlines when it became part of the Olympics, with Fiji winning the gold medal at Rio 2016,” he says.

Vaughan’s view is that Sevens is a boon to the sport, “because it opens the door to nations that can’t produce a top level 15-a-side team or which don't have the physical size to compete at the highest level. Look at Kenya’s world ranking in Sevens, for example. For the same reason, Sevens is a great way to get more women and younger people involved with the sport.”

Vaughan’s assessment is echoed by governing body World Rugby, which reckons fan numbers grew by 17 million in the UK, France, Japan, Australia, Germany and the US after Sevens’ Olympic inclusion. World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont says: “Sevens at the Olympics was incredibly successful at reaching and converting new audiences. The high-octane and competitive tournament won the hearts and minds of fans around the world and provides an incredible base to build on. Sevens is introducing people to the game [because] it is easier to organise and play. There is a huge appetite from elite level right down to playing socially in the evenings or on the beach.”


The challenge, of course, is that the success of Sevens could erode the appeal of 15s or shift the centre of gravity away from the handful of nations that dominate the sport. Beaumont’s view is that Sevens and 15s will complement each other and that the former will help the traditional format. However, T20’s message is that it might prove more complicated than that.

To underline this point, the US is currently ranked 17th in the world at Men’s 15s but sixth at Sevens. Canada is 23rd in 15s but 12th in Sevens. In other words, there is scope for a more North American-centric commercial model to emerge within the sport, especially when you note that Canada and the US also rank third and fourth in terms of women’s combined Sevens and 15s rankings.

As with cricket, the rise of Sevens may also have an impact at club level. In a recent report on the future of rugby, HSBC – a major sponsor of the game – speculated that it won't be too long before the sport introduces club-level Sevens competitions along the lines of cricket’s Big Bash and IPL. While it is possible that many of the existing stakeholders would be beneficiaries of this, it is also possible that a club-based Sevens competition may change the global balance of power in the sport or undermine interest in some of the traditional elements of the game.

Pryke acknowledges such concerns, but argues that global momentum is a nice problem for a sport to have. “My view is that formats like T20 and Rugby Sevens can complement traditional versions of the game – and in some cases provide the impetus for improvements,” Pryke says. “But even if the primary impact is to open up the sport to women, younger audiences and new markets then that is a clear benefit to the sport as a whole. The key challenge for all sports is to ensure that individual rivalries don't stop them from moving forward, so they need to take stakeholders with them by pointing to the positives.”

Of course, part of the challenge for rugby and cricket is that they are dealing with such larges sums of money. But for most sports, innovation is not so much a threat to the existing world order but a way of ensuring relevance and adding fans. There’s no question, for example, that the introduction of beach volleyball to the Olympics in 1996 has provided a long-term boost to the sport of volleyball, especially in the US. Fashionability and glamour have clearly been key to the success of beach volleyball in the eyes of the consumer. But part of beach’s successful integration is that it has also been demonstrated to be a good fit with the traditional sport, rather than a challenge to its skillset. The unstationary nature of sand forces athletes to become more explosive and promotes agility, so that beach volleyball is now viewed as beneficial in coaching the traditional form of the game.


Rowing is another sport that is seeking to achieve a similar transformation. “The sport has very strong events like the Oxford v Cambridge boat race and it features prominently at the Olympics,” says British Rowing’s director of innovation, Helen Rowbotham. “But it does have a stereotypical image. While heritage is extremely important in the culture of our sport, we believe this can be preserved whilst evolving and embracing innovation. Rowing doesn’t have to be a one-format sport.”

At the heart of British Rowing’s strategy are plans for a city-centre sprint rowing event called the Summer Sprint Series. “The format is two-lane racing over 350m, with both a men’s and women’s race, all rowing in eights,” says Rowbotham. “Races last less than one minute and are fast paced, high energy, exciting and engaging. The plan for this broadcast-friendly format is to start with three events in cities across the UK and, with a fresh, urban feel and festival atmosphere, broaden the appeal of rowing and attract new audiences, whilst acting as a catalyst for the growth of sprint rowing.”

While shorter time frames and smaller teams often sit at the heart of format innovation, Rowbotham’s comments suggest that part of the job also needs to be about creating closer connections with the audience. “Making formats shorter means they are easier to watch, understand and engage with,” Rowbotham says. “But we also want to bring the audience closer to the action, whether this is on the riverbank or through use of technology. We are looking at how we can make it easier to understand and get fans ‘up close and personal’ combined with increased use of data. This could translate into digital communications and how the second screen is used, for example being able to choose your own camera angle, hear what's going on inside the boat and understand the dynamics of the sport through live data.”

While radical upheavals in revenue share are not such an issue in rowing, Rowbotham says it is important to make sure that British Rowing’s innovations are in step with what other stakeholders are planning. “We work closely with our international federation, World Rowing, as well as other rowing nations,” Rowbotham adds. “For example, we've taken learnings from Germany and their Rowing Champions League sprint format. We've ensured that we have taken the rowing community on the journey with us, undertaking a considerable consultation process.”

Rowbotham believes there may be some scope for people to trade up from sprints to sliding seat rowing. But she doesn’t see that as being a crucial consideration. “Strategically, we used to view indoor rowing in gyms as a stepping stone towards rowing on water,” Rowbotham says. “Now we focus more on promoting indoor rowing as an activity in its own right, but one that has a connection with the sport of rowing. A lot of indoor rowers will never row on water because they don’t live near water.”


The way in which sports introduce innovation varies considerably. While some innovations are top down, basketball has found itself adopting and advancing 3×3, a format that actually grew up on the streets of major cities in the 1980s. Today, the sport’ global governing body, Fiba, sees 3×3 as a major vehicle for promotion of the game, with secretary general Patrick Baumann commenting: “The 3×3 concept has all the elements and skills required for basketball, it has inspired and will continue to inspire many great players. At the same time, it is the easiest and one of the most effective ways to bring youngsters to basketball, keep them and promote our game.”

“What I love is that 3×3 is so authentic and organic,” adds Fiba director general Frank Leenders. “We didn't invent it, it’s a huge urban sport in cities like Manila, Shanghai and New York.”

For Leenders, the appeal of 3×3 is that it is a short format that can be played in any location from street corners to shopping malls. “It’s also more unpredictable,” he says. “You’re less likely to get one team running away and dominating the score.”

If there is a challenge for Fiba, it is governance of the format. “3×3 is not about being part of a club or a league or a federation – its philosophy is about being free,” he adds. “Some people within the pyramid structure may not like that, but at Fiba we are supportive because it’s our responsibility to grow the game.”

What this means in practice is that Fiba behaves more like a facilitator than an authority when dealing with 3×3. “We have an app called 3×3 Planet which allows you to sign up and play without being bound by any structure or membership,” Leenders says. “That is much more in keeping with the culture of 3×3 and also allows greater focus on individual abilities.”

This facilitative philosophy enables an innovation-friendly approach to sports management. But it also has implications for control and – in the long run – revenue distribution. This is evident in track and field, for example, which has just witnessed the launch of Nitro Athletics, a new athletics-based sports entertainment series devised by Usain Bolt in partnership with national federation Athletics Australia.

Launched in February, the competition saw stars of Australian and international athletics (including Bolt) compete across three nights at Melbourne’s Lakeside Stadium. In addition to traditional events, Nitro included power, endurance, technique and teamwork disciplines across sprints, distance, field and para-athletics events. With mixed events and relays also on show, the aim is to reconnect with fans, says Athletics Australia president Mark Arbib. “Nitro Athletics is the sports entertainment product track and field needs to move athletics beyond the existing format of one-day athletics meets,” Arbib says. “It will be the catalyst that will change how athletics is presented. It’s a game-changer for athletics and Athletics Australia. We want to start the global reinvigoration of athletics here in Australia.”


Echoing Fiba’s progressive attitude, IAAF president Sebastian Coe has responded positively to Nitro. “We need brave, bold ideas that engage fans in events,” he told the BBC. “Nitro Athletics is a great example of what can be done and what needs to be done to revolutionise how we present our sport and how our fans connect with the sport and the athletes.”

This endorsement caught the attention of Emma Mason, an associate partner in the sports and entertainment team at legal firm Squire Patton Boggs. In a recent blog, she observed that: “International Federations typically fiercely guard their international competition programme and, by their constitutions or rules, require their member associations (and in turn their athletes/players) to only participate in competitions that are organised or sanctioned by them. While you might expect an International Federation to experiment with novel concepts or events (see for example the International Triathlon Union’s successful mixed team relay concept), it is unusual to see a member association doing so.”

Mason argued that there is a potential for conflict between stakeholders because Nitro’s backers want it to be international. “If such a global series were to be launched, this would be in conflict with the typical IF position,” she said.

“Such support from an IF for an event being organised out with its control is unprecedented. Arguably, if Nitro Athletics is a success, the IAAF’s support for the event could encourage and embolden entities distinct from traditional IFs in other sports to consider putting their monies behind novel sporting competition formats. For fans and the athletes, a choice of events, increased engagement and a new look to their sport may be welcomed. For IFs, rival events may be a cause for concern.”

Of course, the most likely outcome is that the IAAF and AA will hammer out a mutually beneficial arrangement. But Mason’s observations are an indication of some of the complexities associated with format change. In the worst-case scenario, for example, IFs that are too laissez-faire about bottom up innovation could find themselves embroiled in a UCI v Tour de France-style schism. To this also needs to be added the potential impact on sponsors and broadcast partners. Here, the risk is that new formats will undermine the value of rights paid for – or open new channels for competitive brands to pursue.

Again, Pryke prefers to take a positive line, pointing out that disruption is the new norm in most forms of entertainment. “There are powerful new players interested in what sport can do for them – such as Amazon, Twitter, Facebook and Apple,” Pryke says. “If a sport can come up with new formats that appeal to younger audiences that’s obviously a good position to be in.”

As a footnote, it’s worth observing that – in this endlessly inventive era of entertainment – there can never really be an end to the process of format innovation for sports. Take the example of snowboarding, which revolutionised the winter sports sector from the early 1990s and 2010. For the last few years, however, the sport has been in decline, both in terms of participants and equipment sales. The sector’s response has been to introduce free-skiing and a new snowboarding discipline, Big Air, which will be added at the 2018 winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. The message here is that sports need to be constantly probing new ways to connect with consumers.

EXTRA: Shorter tennis

Like cricket and golf, tennis has a challenge with the amount of time it takes, both in terms of overall tournaments and individual matches. With the increasing length of match rallies, it’s not unusual to see Grand Slam matches run for four hours.

While there’s no immediate prospect of this changing, tennis is starting to introduce shorter formats like Fast4 and Tiebreak Tens, which can complement the elite end of the game.

Fast4 is a concept launched in Australia that is now being used by the UK’s Lawn Tennis Association. Its main difference from traditional tennis is that sets stop when one player reaches four games instead of six. But there are also other time saving measures such as dropping the Deuce-Advantage pivot.

LTA head of participation Rob Dearing says a lot of the focus at present is on widening participation at the youth end of the game and among amateur adult players. “Time is a challenge for a lot of people, so innovations like Fast4 make it easier for people to keep up their tennis commitments,” he explains.

The changed format is one that fits well with the overall ethos of the game. “A lot of coaching is based around getting kids to concentrate on crucial points,” he adds. “And the nature of Fast4 is that it encourages those higher focus levels.”

In Tiebreak Tens, players compete in tournaments that consist of nothing but first to ten point matches. As a result, an entire tennis event can be wrapped up in three hours. The introduction of the format has had a number of interesting effects, according to Matthew Pryke, who has been involved in the commercial development of the format. Firstly, because events are limited to a single day, it’s easy for star players to fit them into their schedule (if the prize money is right). Secondly, they make it possible for a wider range of players to win, as has happened in London and Vienna events recently. And thirdly, they can allow professionals to extend their playing career.

Both formats appear to be getting buy-in from key players in the sector. In the case of Fast4, for example, LTA sponsor Aegon is backing a tier of events aimed at good amateur players, Dearing says. “They’ve been very supportive of our efforts to innovative,” Dearing adds. In Australia, meanwhile, Roger Federer lent his name to the format when he played Lleyton Hewitt in a Sydney exhibition match ahead of the Australian Open. “Tennis needs to be entertaining,” Dearing says. “So, I’m all for elements that can add a festival atmosphere to the sport’s big events.”

EXTRA: Big impact

HSBC’s report into Rugby Sevens is predicting that rugby will double its participation from seven million to 15 million in the next decade. And it predicts most of that growth will come from Sevens. Significantly, it also predicts 40 per cent of the 15 million total will be women, underlining the importance of Sevens in gender balance. Back in the present, World Rugby says the World Rugby Sevens Series commercial programme currently delivers £55m (€63m/$67m).

Rugby World Cup 2019 delivers £210m, but there’s clearly room for this gap to narrow in coming years.

A recent survey by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association in the US showed almost 500,000 women between the ages of 13 and 25 have started playing beach volleyball since 2007 – an 85-per-cent increase. What’s more, the sport was recently named as the NCAA’s “fastest-growing sport ever,” with 60 colleges introducing beach volleyball programmes in recent years.

Australia’s T20 competition, the Big Bash League, is poised to make big bucks. For the first five seasons, it generated Aus$154m (€109m/$116m) in revenues and cost Aus$187m to grow. That is expected to turn around when the next TV rights deal is done. By contrast, state cricket generated Aus$33m in the same period and cost Aus$156m to run. So there’s no question where the balance of power lies. In England, there are plans for a new Big Bash-style city-based event from 2020. Although supported by the counties, it will mean a major shake up in revenues and control.

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