As 2019 draws to a close, the SportBusiness editorial team and figures from across the industry pick out some of the seminal moments from a year that included a Fifa Women’s World Cup, the conclusion of the sales cycle for the Premier League’s international rights and a new array of digital initiatives from major rights-holders.
Rights-holders try to get fans off the couch | Charlie Beall, digital consultant, Seven League
In 2019, rights-holders had the dawning realisation that the headlong rush for digital engagement threatens to undermine the very bedrock of professional sport: grassroots participation. Several leagues and federations responded by launching initiatives to get fans off the couch and become more physically active.
The NBA unveiled a new investment in HomeCourt.ai and Uefa announced a partnership with Formalytics to create a player card app for grassroots football. Both products allow anyone to use a smartphone to track and chart shots and drills using high-end image recognition and mapping software.
Uefa and Formalytics’ as-yet-untitled product is aimed at turning digital consumption into physical activity as part of its ‘digital to physical’ strategy.
Meanwhile, we’ve seen remarkable growth in participation sports like CrossFit, Tough Mudder and Parkour and the success of connected fitness equipment (Peloton, Tonal, Mirror, Hydrow Rower, Fight Camp). These are all activities with built-in digital community and personal measurement aspects.
As people increasingly track their own activity (through sleep and meditation apps like Calm, fitness and workout tools like Strava or Map My Run, and nutrition and dieting apps) more sports will leverage this kind of technology for both fan engagement and boosting participation.
We will see the creation of fitness-focused networks built around the concept of the networked body. Sports which offer ways for fans to track and gamify their participation will reap significant rewards.
Women’s football goes to a new level | Jason Traub, co-founder and chief executive, 23 Capital
One of the most significant global sporting events of 2019 was the Fifa Women’s World Cup. The tournament was a triumph, attracting record viewers and sponsorship endorsements. 24 teams, nine host cities, 52 matches and of course one trophy, eventually lifted by Alex Morgan and the US women’s national team (USWNT) in Lyon.
TV viewership for the event has increased steadily, but it was this tournament that arguably made the most impact.
Although the time difference for viewers resulted in numbers for the USWNT’s final victory fall compared to 2015, their quarter-final clash with France saw a peak of 8.24 million viewers, making this match the most-watched English-language soccer broadcast since last summer’s men’s World Cup Final.
62 broadcasters took rights packages, an increase of 25 on the previous tournament and estimates put total viewers over Fifa’s one billion target. In the UK, England’s semi-final defeat to the US was the most-watched broadcast of the year, bringing in 11.7 million viewers.
While there remains a considerable distance to travel before the women’s game achieves parity with the men’s, the success of this years’ tournament has ensured that both the women’s professional and amateur game will go from strength to strength.
The Premier League gets its man (finally) | Ben Cronin, SportBusiness
The Premier League saw in 2019 looking for a new chief executive and the exhaustive search continued to be a live issue as it prepared for its Christmas party nearly 12 months later.
The recruitment process first started to unravel when Discovery executive Susanna Dinnage reversed a decision to accept the job in January.
Shortly afterwards, the BBC’s Tim Davie also rejected the chance to succeed long-term boss Richard Scudamore. Things really took a turn towards the farcical in late November when the Guardian Media Group’s David Pemsel resigned before starting the job following disclosures about his private life.
It was fourth time lucky for the league’s nominations committee when it decided to promote from within, offering the position to interim chief executive and former commercial director Richard Masters in mid-December.
Pemsel’s resignation aside, the repeated rejections made one wonder whether the Premier League’s top job continues to be the prized role it is often claimed to be. Had Dinnage and Davie been dissuaded by the prospect of having to match the cycle-on-cycle media rights growth delivered by Scudamore in simpler times?
Bruce Buck, chairman of the nominations committee, said Masters impressed as interim chief executive but his biggest challenges arguably lie ahead.
Domestic media rights revenue dropped 7.8 per cent in the 2019-22 cycle while depreciation of sterling in the wake of Brexit masked relatively modest growth in the value of the league’s international rights.
The new boss will at least have been heartened by Amazon’s relatively glitch-free debut as a Premier League broadcaster which led to record numbers of sign-ups to its Prime subscription service. He will hope this will persuade the e-commerce giant to make a more meaningful investment in the next rights cycle.
Direct-to-consumer relationships become the norm | Gareth Balch, chief executive, Two Circles
In 2019, the most common question we received – from the world’s biggest international federations to football’s lower-league challengers – was how they could become D2C (direct-to-consumer) organisations that own, build, engage and monetise direct relationships with their fans.
For some it was to sell more tickets, for others it was to drive media subscriptions. And for many it was to give answers to brands for whom eyeballs are no longer enough, and engagement is everything.
A host of international federations, including the ICC, Fiba and Uefa – and global leagues and competitions like the NFL, Premier League and Wimbledon – have been on this journey for years, building ticketing businesses that have driven year-on-year attendance growth and creating partnerships that sponsorship veterans wouldn’t recognise.
But 2019 was the year this mindset finally became the rule rather than the exception.
There are too many examples of season-ticket holders complaining their club doesn’t care about them, brands saying they don’t get value from sport, and media owners unwilling to pay for sport like they once did because the value equations don’t add up anymore.
D2C sports businesses are able to tackle these challenges head-on. And because they will put fans at the heart of their businesses – listening to them and knowing more about them than ever before – this should be a source of great optimism for everyone in the sporting ecosystem as we enter a new decade.
China resets sports strategy | Lingling Liu, managing director, JTA China
This year saw China resetting its plan for the nation to be a leading sporting power in 2050, restructuring the Chinese Football Association and the Chinese Super League, and launching the collective Team China marketing brand.
All measures serve the three priority tasks for Chinese sport administrators in 2020 and a few years to come. The first priority is to perform well, and hopefully better than the host nation, at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Team China will have to fight an uphill battle against Japanese athletes in table tennis, badminton, and gymnastics, which China used to dominate. The second is to stage a successful Beijing Winter Games, whose PR effects would rival those of Beijing 2008. Thirdly, the country harbours an unspoken goal of bidding for and winning hosting rights to the Fifa World Cup, likely in 2030 or 2034. Any improvement on the hapless football played by Chinese teams in recent times will put China in a better bidding position.
Everything else is secondary to these three priorities. Sponsorship money will fall in places as these three tasks are delivered. The tendency is for Chinese businesses to snatch increasingly eye-catching deals with events, teams, and athletes in China, until the uncertain economic outlook chills them down.
Whether the build-up to Beijing 2022 will inspire 300 million people to ski and skate remains to be seen. But China’s real challenge is to implement inspiring sports curriculum in its rigid, demanding, and lethargic schools. Chinese kids are not given time for real sports. Without changing this, and with the birth rate starting to drop sharply in 2019, the vision of becoming the world’s leading sports power by 2050 will be an unfulfilled dream.
Airbnb’s TOP partner deal upsets French hoteliers | Matthew Glendinning, SportBusiness
Airbnb signed as an Olympic TOP partner in November in a deal that nobody saw coming but now makes (almost) perfect sense. The tie-up democratises the Games by making it more affordable for fans, athletes and officials, it chimes with the IOC’s sustainability goals by taking the pressure off cities to build new hotel stock, all the while providing a second income stream for athletes who can set up experiential tours for tourists. The final part is still untested, but could prove popular, especially in light of complaints about the IOC’s Rule 40 marketing restrictions.
The carving out of the hotel sector from the ‘Unique Accommodation Products and Unique Experiences Services’ designated deal also seems like a smart move given hoteliers are influential at the host city bidding stage – and would certainly not welcome an exclusive hotel partner. Not that there hasn’t been opposition. The Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is determined to regulate Airbnb because of its effect on rents and building occupancy rates in the city. Hoteliers in Paris have also threatened to withdraw their cooperation from Paris 2024.
IOC president Thomas Bach has said the Hidalgo’s regulatory plans are fair enough, and behind closed doors in Lausanne, the Olympic movement believes that the concerns in Paris are more political, than commercial, and won’t spread to other host cities.
Women’s soccer, esports and Amazon take centre stage | Ivan Codina, managing director SEA, LaLiga
Women’s football and esports took centre stage this year; and both deservedly strengthened their positions in mainstream and popular culture.
Female players gained global recognition and brands took an unconventional but much-welcomed approach to partnerships to maintain the same vigour and support after the Women’s World Cup.
More sports organisations continued to launch initiatives in esports, enabling themselves to reach out to a new bracket of potential partners on top of existing sponsors looking for a seamless extension.
And Amazon Prime’s differentiated streaming of the English Premier League was a landmark moment as it demonstrated all the key learnings of their two-year journey with NFL, thrilling consumers with interactivity.
Rights-holders go on the offensive against piracy | Lee Choong Khay, head of sport, Malaysian satellite TV operator, Astro
Regulators and league owners went on the offensive against piracy in Asia in 2019 with Astro’s efforts to tackle the problem in Malaysia a prominent example. As 2020 is a big sports year with the Euros and the Olympics, the company spent a lot of time and resources laying the groundwork against piracy as it continues to be a major threat to not only us but also the entire business of sports rights – something that will eventually affect sports fans if no action is taken.
The industry secured a key victory when the Premier League was successful in its anti-piracy efforts in Singapore and Thailand, claiming compensation for copyright infringement and seeing guilty parties handed jail time. Going into 2020, you can expect broadcasters and rights-holders to continue to take on piracy alongside regulators and keep up efforts to quickly remove illegal websites and apps.
Silver Lake’s City Football Group stake endorses club’s franchising model | Simon Chadwick, professor of Sports Enterprise, University of Salford
For me, the most important moment of the year was Silver Lake’s acquisition of a stake in the City Football Group. This marked yet another step in the maturing relationship between sport, entertainment and digital .
CFG chief executive Ferran Soriano has always been clear that he sees Walt Disney as benchmark for the development of football clubs. Hence, his vision has been of clubs becoming entertainment networks that can be franchised out across the world. CFG’s investment in digital platforms, such as Cityzens, allied to the Silver link investment confirms this trajectory. The US private equity investor brings not only money, but also competence in the digital and entertainment sectors.
The deal also brought the western model of sport face-to-face with the emerging eastern model: US private equity meets an English football club underpinned by Abu Dhabi investment and close links to the Chinese government through China Media Capital’s 13-per-cent stake.
The deal challenged established notions of what it means to be a football club (indeed, any sports club). It endorsed the franchising model that CFG has developed. It strengthened sport’s position as a generator of high-quality digital content. And it revealed something about value creation and supply chain management through sport.
A 10-per-cent Silver Lake stake might seem very little in financial terms. Symbolically, however, it was a profound deal that will challenge what many of us think about the industry.
Women’s sport can now stand on its own | Michael Broughton, Sports Investment Partners
2019 felt like a seminal moment in women’s sport. The growth of the industry was highlighted by the success of the World Cup in France. While it broke all sorts of audience records, it more critically seemed to tap into the zeitgeist. Broadcasters and sponsors in some parts of the world are realising that there is real commercial value in supporting the women’s game.
We have been in a game of chicken and egg where women’s events have been bundled together with men’s as a means to make them more visible whilst the commercial appetite hasn’t existed before. Now the likes of Visa and others have shown there is a return to be made from doing the right thing and are making a real push to support standalone women’s competitions.
You can expect more in the years to come. The W Series had its breakthrough, netball is growing and there is a general acceptance and embracing of women’s sports rights. Much is still needed to be done but the groundswell is there.