The rise of the Big Eventer is the sports business story of the last decade.
They are the marketing industry’s wet dream, the most sought-after audience group, featuring in every rights-holder Powerpoint deck and agency pitch. They represent the vaulting ambition of today’s sports industry, the claimed proof point of its growth potential. New people, new markets, new money.
But the Big Eventer story is also a trap, into which many a rights-holder will fall.
First, you must know how to spot one. Here’s some pointers:
Big Eventers are the sort of people who like fireworks.
Sport is something they do ‘as a couple’ and they get genuinely excited when the in-stadia camera picks them out and they can see themselves on the big screen.
They wear funny hats to Six Nations matches and at home they keep a wardrobe specifically for fancy dress outfits.
They think the music of Katy Perry is central to the enjoyment of a sporting event and they always stay to watch the trophy being handed out, laughing maniacally as the winning team jumps up and down on the temporary stage, and the ticker tape machine spunks its contents into the night sky.
But the most defining feature of a Big Eventer is their enormous sense of entitlement.
This is because Big Eventers live most of their lives on someone else’s tab.
They have the sort of jobs that have expense accounts and occasional invitations to corporate hospitality, where they eat chef-prepared food and drink expensive wine under the guise of doing business.
This raises their expectations of what attending a sports event should be like.
But when it comes to spending their own money they can’t afford to go in the posh boxes, and they feel slightly aggrieved by this. They miss the waiter service, chilled Cava and the free food and begin to sense that someone somewhere is having a nicer time than they are, and this spoils the sports occasion for them.
They find themselves picking fault in what they refer to as the ‘customer service’ now offered to them while the sport is going on.
This is the difference between Big Eventers and sports fans. Fans will come, whatever you serve up. They fetishise warm beer and cold pies because that’s not why they’re there.
By contrast, Big Eventers view the experience as more important than the sport: the context over the content. It’s the NFL at Wembley today; next week it’s Book of Mormon down the West End.
This has implications for how rights-holders view themselves and their role. The rise of the Big Eventer has changed the focus from the sport to the fan experience.
This means that the most important factor determining the success or failure of an event is the totality of the occasion. That is the new competitive landscape. The winners of this game will be those rights-holders that can afford to keep their offer ahead of expectations.
Those at the very top end will always be okay. The NBA can afford to be a tech hub, incubating clever start-ups to develop ever more sophisticated user experiences. This creates a virtuous cycle with considerable winner-takes-all effects. The better the NBA, Premier League or NFL fan is serviced, the harder it will become for other rights-holders to compete. The tech investment will make live occasions more attractive to marginal fans who’ll come in greater numbers, because they follow the crowd.
Spurs will get more fans not because of the team but because the day out at the new Spurs ground is better than a day out at West Ham.
Pleasing Big Eventers demands the sort of money beyond the day-to-day balance sheet of most rights-holders. They can’t afford it without outside funds, so they end up in bed with venture capital.
That’s when the fun starts.
There are some excellent, well-rounded VCs who know about sport, its nuances and idiosyncrasies and take a long-term view of its potential. Then there’s the other 95 per cent, short-termist spivs who see it as just another business category to be modelled into submission: three years and out, weather the fan outrage as just another PR storm – job done.
When the promised growth doesn’t arrive, the VCs will brief against the rights-holders for holding sport back, being ‘unprofessional’ and not business-like enough: the blazer cliché.
Meanwhile, the Big Eventers will be somewhere else, laughing at the fireworks.
Richard Gillis is a journalist, author and strategist. Follow Unofficial Partner on Twitter @RichardGillis1