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Matt Vandrau | Six predictions for the sports industry in 2023

Matt Vandrau, group CEO of CSM Sport & Entertainment, reflects on some of the pertinent lessons from 2022 and makes six predictions about 2023

When I saw Kevin Sinfield, the former rugby league titan, finish his seventh consecutive ultra-marathon, raising funds for motor neurone disease and his good friend and fellow great Rob Burrow, both men reminded me of the sport and entertainment industry’s defining characteristic: resilience. Through a pandemic, a war, economic uncertainty, or greater scrutiny, the sport industry evolves and emerges.

In acknowledgement of this essential trait, I have picked out some reflections about 2022, together with some predictions for 2023.

1: Audience insights will become even more valuable

Our industry is like no other in the way it creates rituals and communities, shaping behaviours and enabling deep connections with its fans. This speed and depth of relationship is an alluring one for brands who are always seeking new routes to new customers.

I believe the sports industry can pioneer a new approach to performance marketing where rights-holders are rewarded based on their direct impact on brands.

The tightening of regulations around data – including talk of the removal of cookies – places more emphasis on brands building their own audiences to market to. It is why optimising engagement based on audience insights is going to be a key differentiator for agencies this year. It is why sports sponsorships are also emerging as a means of marketing efficiency for brands. To put this into context, when compared to industry benchmarks, we see an uplift in marketing performance of 127 per cent on average when brands leverage partnership IP. I anticipate more and more brands exploring the potential of sports sponsorship, and the opportunity to access new audiences.

 2: The gap across the Atlantic will continue to narrow

The metaphorical waters between North America, the biggest market in the industry, and the rest of the world, are narrowing. The NFL has been crossing the Atlantic intermittently since 2007, and created notable waves when it took regular season games to Munich last year. More than two million people clamoured for just 75,000 tickets. This level of interest in the NFL, coupled with the NBA gaining fans through popular and accessible series such as ‘Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty’, is a pattern of global interest in North American sports which I expect to continue.

Back in 2019, MLB came to London for a highly successful, sold-out weekend at London Stadium as the Boston Red Sox faced the New York Yankees. This year, it returns once again. For MLB, London Series will be a high point in an ongoing campaign to grow the game across Europe.

It is a two-way street with Las Vegas joining Miami and Texas on the F1 calendar, the football World Cup landing in 2026, and twin Rugby World Cups in 2031 and 2033. However, the sport which really shows that the gap has narrowed is cricket. The inaugural Major League Cricket season starts in July, the ICC T20 Men’s World Cup arrives the following summer, and the sport is in contention to have a spot at LA 2028. The biggest market is certainly opening its doors and the world is jostling to get through.

3: ‘Sleeping giants’ in India and New Zealand will boost speed of growth in women’s sport

While the destination of women’s sport has never been in doubt, the speed of change and size of the potential has defied a few, surprised many, and delighted all.

In the English summer the Lionesses ‘brought it home’. Chloe Kelly – wheeling away, arms and shirt aloft, showing any future star that there is no limit – was certainly an ‘I was there’ moment. A few months on, when England triumphed over a defiant USA team, again in front of a sell-out Wembley crowd, you couldn’t help but imagine these two teams taking the sport to new heights at next year’s Fifa World Cup.

It has also woken up two sleeping giants.

First in New Zealand, where the Rugby World Cup – the first iteration of the tournament without the gender prefix in the title – was a love story between the sport and its most famous nation. As with the best love stories it was not linear, with a NZRU scheduling mishap pitting the All Blacks and Black Ferns in concurrent matches indicative of the distance still to go to absolute equity in thinking. However, the final at a sold-out Eden Park, where the home team thrillingly beat the best team in the world in the Red Roses, felt like a watershed moment for the sport.

Second from the slumbers is India, with an announcement that this year will be the long overdue, but highly significant first iteration of the Women’s IPL. The Indian franchise competition has changed the sport irrevocably, and the fortunes of numerous male cricketers. The Board of Control for Cricket in India will have watched closely the record-breaking figures and outstanding quality produced by The Hundred and its bold approach – providing equality of platform and promotion – to the Men’s and Women’s competitions. Given the proven model, the size of the market, the appetite of the audience, the scale of investment, and the pathway for players, the introduction of the Women’s IPL can take the women’s game to new heights.

4: The Middle East will remain in the middle

In December I was fortunate enough to attend the Fifa World Cup in Qatar, a tournament now etched in sporting folklore thanks to its greatest ever final. What I took from my visit was a nation which, like any good sports team, understands the simultaneous need to evolve and to chart its own course. This combination of evolution and revolution is true across the region, and nowhere more so than in Saudi Arabia where the scale of its ambition for its NEOM city is unlike anything I have seen before. The football was a success, the Asian Winter Games arrive in 2029, and I expect the Olympics and Paralympic to follow suit. The region is flourishing.

 5: Crypto collapse will reinforce the need for due diligence

Before May last year the union between sport and crypto was prosperous, with FTX’s spend reported at $100m (€92.4m), Crypto.com at $144m, and Socios.com at $132m. Yet the collapse of FTX, and loss of its partnerships, is a reminder to rights-holders that however alluring the offer, it should not negate the need for thorough due diligence. All existing rights-holders with significant crypto relationships will be watching nervously as brands are forced to withdraw. Such rights-holders will include Atletico Madrid, who celebrated its largest-ever shirt sponsorship at €45 million per annum with WhaleFin, a brand who recently had to end its association with Chelsea Football Club.

 6: Resilience will allow the industry to continue to flourish

The pandemic shut stadiums, shrank investment and severed jobs. It was a major threat to the industry, and to businesses like ours. I never doubted that sport and entertainment would bounce back, but at what cost, and by how much was uncertain. Necessity breeds invention, and I believe changes to our working practices – creating cross-geography unity – have fundamentally improved our business.

The pandemic reminded us simultaneously of the fragility of our planet and the human need for meaning through experiences. The experience of live sport has always generated huge meaning, and its return has been a resurgent one. It is because of this that the industry – despite current economic climes – is flourishing and will continue to do so.

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