We’ve hosted over 50 “office hours” sessions so far this year at Sports Loft for some of the leading organisations in the sports industry. After meeting three of the five companies that he was going to see that afternoon, one senior industry exec raised a question that we hear a lot – “Who are going to be the organisations that will drive the adoption of these technologies? Is it up to the agencies and the brand to identify them, and then use the technologies in activations and encourage the rightsholder to use them? Is it up to the rightsholders to identify these technologies and then offer it to the brands?”

His question neatly encapsulated the relationship between rightsholder and sponsor but it could just as easily be applied to the broadcaster – rightsholder relationship as well. In effect, whose job was it to be pro-active? I’ve seen this dynamic a lot in the past when consulting rightsholder side. I remember once being told by a rightsholder that it “wasn’t our job” to be taking activation ideas to a brand client, that was up to the brand and their agency, we had to sell them the rights and then help them activate what they wanted to do as long as it was within the contract. In this particular instance, the rightsholder was entirely passive and if the brand hadn’t been pro-active, a multi-year contract could have come and gone with little achieved. Maybe the rightsholder got lazy because the brand was doing all the legwork, but that’s not the case everytime. It’s certainly not been uncommon to hear rightsholders complain that their brand partners “never activate”.

If we accept that the majority of brand budgets are going to be squeezed in the coming years, then this “passive” approach surely cannot continue. Rightsholders are going to have to pro-actively take ideas to their brand partners in order to show that they are delivering value and the rightsholders who will continue to attract the brand budgets will be the ones who are innovating and can show a genuine return for their partners. Agencies won’t be able to rest on retainers – they are going to have to work hard for those retainers, pro-actively taking new and creative ideas to their clients (and this will often mean new technologies). Brands are going to need to think creatively, often doing more with less – and new technologies will be one of the first places they turn. Content distributors (whether broadcasters or new platforms) are going to be in an arms race to attract and retain fans with the best experiences. Investors and ownership groups will want to see the properties they have bought maximising their existing commercial opportunities and creating new ones, invariably that will mean utilising new technologies.

So where does that leave the tech companies who want to sell their innovative technologies into this rightsholder / sponsor, or rightsholder / broadcaster dynamic? At Sports Loft we are seeing that the most pro-active sports organisations, agencies, brands and content distributors are already looking for the technologies that will help them be successful in whatever a post-COVID world looks like. These are the organisations that we think are most likely to be successful in the coming years but that doesn’t mean that they are sat there waiting with cheque books open. The tech companies are really going to need to understand the different objectives and challenges that, for example, the brand will have as opposed to an agency, rightsholder or content distributor. They are going to need to know which are the sports organisations that have the mindset to be open to innovation and can support potentially disruptive ideas. And it might mean that the fastest way to get their technology adopted is to identify on a case-by-case basis whether it is the brand, agency, broadcaster or rightsholder who is going to be most pro-active.

Updated: 4 days ago

I’m often asked about the criteria for companies to become members at Sports Loft. My answer has always been that it has to be a company that we are truly excited about – an

answer that admittedly sounds very subjective. So it felt that it was about time to try and articulate why we found certain companies exciting. That can really be split into two parts – Firstly what general company traits do we look for (many of which often sound like clichés). These are things such as a superb team, an idea that could be truly disruptive, a market size that will make investors take note, a product that is solving a genuine problem etc… and secondly, what specifc areas within the sports and media industry are we most excited about – and this is what I’m going to focus on in this post.

We have identified 7 areas in the sports and media industry that we feel are going to change significantly in the coming years (much of which will be driven by the macro effects of COVID), where innovative tech companies can shape the future of the industry and where Sports Loft’s network and expertise can help them. These are the areas where we will focus our activities.

1) Half of Premier League clubs spend more than 70% of their revenues on player salaries. The players are in most cases the most valuable assets that a club has. Whether that is sustainable is a different matter, but if you are going to spend that much money on your players you are going to want to maximise the return that you get for that money. We look for technologies that can help those players prepare and perform better, help players spend more time on the pitch and help teams make better decisions. In effect, technologies that can help the team (whatever sport) get maximum return from the players that they are investing in.

2) COVID has shown us how important community is – from zoom calls bringing people together for work to friends watching soccer matches together and runners comparing their times with their friends. We look for technologies that can bring people together around their shared sports and media passions.

3) Sports organisations are going to be driving commercial revenues in an increasingly challenging environment. Up until now, many commercial departments have operated on a pretty basic level, but that is going to need to change and they are going to need to become much more sophisticated if they are going to be successful. We look for technologies that can improve the commercial operations within sports and media– eg ways to think about partnerships so that they demonstrate genuine business cases rather than relying on antiquated equivalent media value metrics, ways to gather and use 1st party data, ways to value fanbases and more innovative ways to approach ticketing.

4) The coming years are going to see a significant growth in the number of entities distributing content to fans – whether this is teams and leagues developing direct-to-consumer offerings, tech companies buying sports content as new commercial models develop or new content platforms emerging to challenge the current broadcasters. We look for companies that can help this variety of content owners a) genuinely understand their fanbases and how to market directly to them b) create and distribute high quality content at low cost and c) deliver products that fans will want to engage with and keep coming back to.

5) Participation has long been the poor relation of the professional game, but look at the lockdown stats – running is up, cycling is up and tennis courts are fully booked. At the same time, we expect to be able to measure our performance and compare with our peers, whilst Peloton, Zwift and others have shown that we can do our sports physically on our own. Equally, there is a huge opportunity for clubs and brands to engage with fanbases through coaching and skill improvement. We look for companies that can help participants really understand their performance in their sports, compare with others and really change the way they talk about their performance.

6) “Like a good waiter, this tech and content must rapidly not just know our tastes, but be there when needed and be invisible when it isn’t” – DuBose Cole, Vayner Media. We think this sums up the next stage of personalisation rather well – moving on from trying to push us something through re-targetting ads and beginning to anticipate a need and give us a solution at the right time. In the sports and media sector, where we are deluged with content , there is a huge appetite for additional information and there is masses of data about the audience (even if little is currently done with that data), little has been done above the basics.. We look for companies that can bring the next generation of personalisation techniques to the sports and media industry.

7) In the past 18 months, we have been repeatedly pitched startup focused on fan engagement - but it has been yet another quiz capability or polling game. They had become very repetitive and few stood out. COVID has changed that – with matches being played behind closed doors, the underlying product is weaker and fans are looking for new ways to engage – and once they find platforms and products that they like, they aren’t going to be go back to a linear, non-interactive experience. We look for companies that can deliver ways for broadcasters / teams / leagues to engage fans at scale, can get fans to keep coming back to their products and genuinely enhance the fan experience.

Many of the companies that we will work with at Sports loft will fit into more than one of these 7 focus areas, and that is fine, but they must fit into at least one. We’ll keep these under review, but if you run a startup and feel that you fit into at least one of the categories then please do get in touch. Equally, if you are at a sports organisation and that the areas we focus on resonate with you, then please get in touch as we are probably talking with some great technologies that can help you.

As part of the Sports Loft Member Series, presented by Northridge, Drew Barrand talked with Covatic CEO, Nick Pinks.

Nick describes Covatic as being able to understand "the physical context of an audience member. What are the users actually doing. Do they commute? Do they stay at home? What is their pattern of life? When do they have a window of time to consume content?”

Drew and Nick talk about the background to Covatic - “We started with the challenge of how are broadcasters going to be able to engage on a personal level when they have a really limited understanding of who their audiences actually are, when their competition have so much information”, the opportunity for their product in a growing direct-to-consumer world - "if you know the context of the user and if you can relate it to everything you know about how people watch your content, then you've got the ultimate direct-to-consumer proposition" and the importance of privacy - "You can’t just harvest everybody’s data. You can’t harvest who they are. There’s a very valid GDPR and privacy angle”

They also talk about how COVID has impacted their business operations - "“In many ways it has brought us closer together. We’ve seen a really good progression of engineering excellence” and how it is has created new opportunities for the Covatic product - “In the “new normal”, our clients don’t know what their audiences are going to be doing. How and when people consume content is going to be very different. We are already seeing that the peak times are not the same as before.”

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