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Joe Carr | Take an unfortunate situation and create opportunity

(Sam Mellish/In Pictures via Getty Images Images)

Action sports media company Thrill One Sports & Entertainment launched in January, just ahead of the pandemic which brought most live sport to a grinding halt. Chief executive Joe Carr tells SportBusiness how Covid-19 impacted on the new company’s event business and how its creative digital strategy has served to increase reach and deepen engagement with fans.

SportBusiness: So what does Thrill One do and what is its business model?

Joe Carr: We launched with the aspiration of becoming the premier media and events company in action sports. Even though the holding company is new, our underlying brands – Nitro Circus, Street League Skateboarding, and Superjacket Productions – have all been around for over a decade.

Nitro Circus has a rich history in live entertainment and is a category leader in FMX, BMX, and Rallycross. Street League Skateboarding is the sport’s premier professional league and our World Tour will serve as the Olympic qualification pathway for Tokyo 2021. Superjacket Productions is a full-service media house and the creator of MTV’s Ridiculousness. Our content cuts across sport, entertainment, and lifestyle and we provide a global platform for athletes to entertain fans and push the progression of action sports.

Our business model is similar to other sports leagues with the main revenue drivers being live events, sponsorship, and media – but we are also a bit unique in that we have a meaningful original programming business through Superjacket. This diversification has proven especially beneficial in the current environment with uncertainty around live events and mass gatherings. We’ve seen value in rolling up the three brands into one integrated company as we now have a scaled offering for both media and brand partners.

We’ve also benefitted from the cost efficiency of centralized shared services that underpin the portfolio of brands. Now that we’ve established the platform, we will look to acquire best-in-class properties and complimentary IP and put them under the Thrill One umbrella.

Joe Carr, chief executive, Thrill One Sports and Entertainment

SB: What were the major events to be rescheduled because of Covid-19?

JC: Like so many of our peers, we have had to reschedule the majority of our 2020 live event calendar in the wake of Covid-19. Key events include the Nitro World Games, due to expand outside of the U.S. for the first time this year, which were set to take place May 23-24 in Wales. We also had to postpone the entire SLS World Tour that was scheduled to take place between February and May ahead of the Olympics.

SB: How big a blow was that to a company launched only this year?

JC: It was obviously disappointing because we felt like we had pretty good momentum heading into the spring. But like anything, you try to find a silver lining – for us it was finally having the time to pause and determine exactly what we wanted our business to look like for the next 3 years. We accelerated some of the long-lead strategic items that would have typically taken 6-12 months during normal course business and knocked them out in 60 days. We worked through the organizational restructuring that you would expect after merging 3 companies. With live events on hold, we revamped our social and digital strategy and sped up our evolution into a content company.

The men’s quarter finals of the Street League Skateboarding World Tour Event at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London, 2019. (Sam Mellish/In Pictures via Getty Images Images)

SB: How did your content strategy shift because of lockdown?

JC: Like most sports properties, our live events have historically been responsible for the vast majority of our content and clips. Although we could no longer rely on that source of content, we were determined to keep our fans entertained and connected with their favorite athletes during the lockdown. We knew that our social followers would be home with plenty of time on their hands, so we had to figure out a way to up our frequency and output but maintain a baseline level of quality.

Unlike traditional sport, most action sport disciplines are individual in nature and started as a lifestyle long before formal competitions were created. In our case, the action never really stopped – the athletes simply moved indoors or to private facilities. For us, it was fairly natural to pivot away from structured live events and work directly with the athletes and even fans to generate short-form content.

We’ve witnessed strong gains in reach and engagement and a very positive response to our digital content since the lockdown began in March. It’s also encouraging that we are maintaining these gains as we move through the reopening phases of the pandemic.

SB: What new types of content have been produced?

JC: We move heavily into user-generated content (UGC), starting first with our own athletes. Most of our guys and girls generate the bulk of their income from performing on tour or at events, so this period has been especially challenging for them. In an effort to support our athletes and keep them engaged, we created an Athlete Content Network as a way of compensating them for creating exclusive, short-form content for Nitro’s proprietary digital channels.

Nitro also launched a #StayHomeGoBig campaign to encourage families and enthusiasts to submit videos of homemade action sports activities which garnered over 37 million impressions. We also created a ‘Bracket Challenge’ – a play on March Madness where fans voted on Instagram for their favorite trick from 64 of the best clips from the Nitro archives.

Street League Skateboarding worked to encourage skaters to stay home during lockdown with the #SkateInside challenge. This awarded a cash prize of $5,000 split between the contestant delivering the best trick landed in their home and the skate shop of that winner’s choice.

While most of our focus was on short-form, digital content for our social channels, we were lucky enough to have two long-form documentaries ready for release. Superjacket debuted Dude Perfect: Backstage Pass on YouTube and quickly generated 10 million-plus views. We also premiered Nitro and Travis Pastrana’s Race to Rebuild documentary on ESPN2 earlier this month.

SB: The #SkateInside Challenge seems a particularly creative approach. What particular issues were you trying to address and what is the importance of involving retailers?

JC: With SkateInside we tried to be as egalitarian as possible by requiring the trick to take place inside in the house and having it judged solely on creativity and not skill/difficulty. We had everything from animated videos to animal tricks submitted. I believe the winning trick was actually performed by someone sitting on a couch. It was equally important to stand in solidarity with local skate shops as they have been hit hard by Covid. We felt it was important to engage with the skate community and find a creative way to both give back and generate awareness struggling retailers.

SB: Overall, what has worked and what hasn’t?

JC: I think the biggest learning is that social content doesn’t need to be glossy or over-produced. The action sports community grew up on raw footage and at the end of the day fans just want to see epic tricks.

Some of our best performing clips of the lockdown were shot on an iPhone and submitted by kids in their backyards. The beauty of social content is that you get immediate feedback on what is working and what isn’t , so you can continuously iterate and improve. You need to know your fans but you also need to understand how they consume on particular platforms. We had a digital content series that we cut into multiple six-minute episodes for YouTube which under-performed relative to expectations. We realized afterwards that the underlying content wasn’t the issue, we should have just edited it into one longer-form piece.

Japanese skateboarder Yumeka Oda competes in the Street League Skateboarding championship semi-final in Brazil, 2019. (Nelson Almeida/AFP via Getty Images)

SB: What are the key lessons have you learned from this experience?

JC: You have to roll with the punches and remain optimistic. While nobody could have predicted the pandemic and subsequent fallout, all you can really do is take an unfortunate situation and try to create opportunity. I also think that you quickly figure out which colleagues you want in the trenches beside you when things get rough. Lastly, content is and remains king – especially live. When fans are so starved for sport that iRacing pops a big rating on linear television, you better appreciate why media rights values have trended in only one direction.

SB: How important have your athletes been. Are they centrally involved in developing ideas for content?

JC: All of Thrill One’s properties were founded by athletes and our athletes continue to be the driving force behind everything we do. They were essential to our response to the pandemic and we wanted to make sure that their needs were met during such a challenging time. That’s why initiatives like the Athlete Content Network are so important to the long-term health of both the company and the action sports community as a whole.

SB: They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…Given the new levels of digital engagement which have been achieved, do you feel Thrill One will be stronger when live events resume?

JC: While I would never say that Covid has been beneficial…we have been able to improve several facets of our business over the last 3 months and we will benefit from that greatly as live events come back online. While others may have been focused on liquidity and downsizing, we’ve re-energized our content business and overhauled our financial systems. I think our digital engagement and consumption has created pent-up demand for our live event product and has made our marketing efforts easier moving forward.

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