Our Thinking

The five quotes that caught our attention at Leaders Week

Here are five takeaways that map out the industry's pressing concerns and indicate areas where rightsholders, sponsors and broadcasters may need external support in the coming years.
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Dan Smith
October 26, 2023
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Leaders Week London is always a great opportunity to catch up with familiar faces, meet newcomers to the industry, and hear from a range of people and groups across the industry on the key issues they’re facing. The insights gathered at events like these are useful for our team when assessing tech companies serving the space and identifying those that are able to solve these challenges.

There was no shortage of interesting discussion at the event. But I think there were five points raised in the panel sessions and keynotes that encapsulated the key topics discussed both on and off-stage. They also map out the industry's pressing concerns and indicate areas where rightsholders, sponsors and broadcasters may need external support in the coming years.

1. The cookie-less future

"The [removal of third-party cookies] is the biggest disruption to marketing since the rise of social media… The way people go about finding, engaging and commercialising sports fans is ending.”

Adam Azor, EVP global marketing, Sportradar

'The post-cookie world' panel on-stage at Leaders Week London, 18-19 October 2023.

The panel session with Adam Azor, Heineken’s Benjamin Blanco and Becky Kimbro of Spurs Sports & Entertainment felt like a wake-up call for many. In a talk entitled ‘The post-cookie world’, he explained that incoming regulations will essentially outlaw the use of third-party cookies in 2024, meaning rightsholders, brands and broadcasters will need to find new ways to target relevant audiences with advertising.

 As Adam made clear, this is a monumental shift. For the last 20 years, third-party cookies have underpinned targeted advertising across the media industry. In sports, they’ve been utilised in everything from sponsorship campaigns to new kit launches, ticket sales and fan engagement. At Sport Loft, we don’t think the industry has fully realised the scale of the coming changes.

The good news is that the tools and solutions to navigate the cookie-less future do exist. Adam pointed to data clean rooms (which aggregate and anonymise user information to protect privacy) as one such option.

We at Sports Loft meet lots of companies who emphasise the importance of building a clear understanding of fans, and we’re seeing various approaches to actually doing it. These range from new ways to target consumers using first party data, to innovative approaches for obtaining more granular and complete data, and on-device tools that ensure user privacy. Rightsholders need to engage with these new solutions now in order to be ready for the imminent changes to regulation.

2. The rise of the casual fan

"We’re seeing the rise of the casual fan. And that’s transformed the way we tell stories around sports – not only the live games but also what talent we sign… and how we tell those stories across the entire ESPN platform."

Rita Ferro, president of advertising, Disney

Rita Ferro on-stage with IMG's Adam Kelly at Twickenham Stadium for Leaders Week London.

In her talk with IMG’s Adam Kelly, Rita Ferro identified the rise of the casual fan as one of the key trends impacting the sports landscape today. According to Rita, attracting these audiences and serving them in a way that suits them (and keeps them coming back) is changing how ESPN approaches packaging up sport across all of their channels – from DTC apps, to broadcast to social media. 

It has an impact on the personalities chosen to present the action, the complexity of the analysis, the formats of highlights packages and the very look of the broadcast experience. Key to it all, she says, is crafting compelling narratives that extend beyond the confines of the game itself. 

We think technology plays a central role in delivering these narratives. Thanks to cloud production, broadcasters can offer multiple commentary options and “alt-streams” for these audiences. Next gen ad-tech means tailored messaging and content can be sent to those who are identified as casual fans. And star athletes can be utilised on social media to engage people away from game day, to build fandom and team affinity.

3. The new rules of marketing women’s sports

"Quite often the women’s game has been a victim of being a cut and paste of the men’s game. But they are a different audience and we have to serve them in a different way."

Juliet Slot, chief commercial officer, Arsenal

Arsenal's Juliet Slot in conversation with Vic Miller of GWI at Leaders Week London.

As Juliet Slot highlighted in her talk, women’s football isn’t just men’s football with women on the pitch. It’s a different game with a very different fanbase – one that needs to be served in a way that suits their preferences. 

According to Juliet, new lessons are continually being learnt as Arsenal Women play more games at Emirates Stadium and the team’s fanbase continues to develop. One early learning was that the catering crew need to stock less beer but more food. Another was that new fans need more information about the journey to and from the game. 

Other challenges that women’s teams face globally include building the profiles of their players, selling out the stadium without the historical base of thousands of season ticket-holders, answering the questions new fans have about matchday, and ensuring those newcomers feel welcome both in the stadium and on fan forums. 

The toolkit exists to serve these needs – and plenty of the technologies can be found within the Sports Loft member base. But in many cases providing the right solution will rely on a solid understanding of who the new fans are and what they want (as well as how much they’re willing to spend, joked Juliet). Therefore robust data and the ability to analyse it will be fundamental to the future of marketing women’s sports.

4. Broadcast takes inspiration from video games 

"When I was a kid, the coolest video game was the one that really mimicked the broadcast of a game. Now it’s the opposite – the broadcast world needs to take influences from video games."

Roger Brosel, head of content, LALIGA

Roger Brosel on-stage in his talk on the evolution of broadcast.

Broadcast is having to evolve. To attract younger fans, casual viewers and more diverse audiences, LALIGA is taking notes from the world of gaming, explained LALIGA’s Roger Brosel. As well as addressing their in-game graphics, the league has onboarded EA as a title sponsor, made their sports content easier to view on mobile screens, and has invested in behind the scenes content to get fans closer to the action.

Elsewhere, the NFL and NHL are experimenting with motion capture technology to stream cartoon versions of the live action in the style of Toy Story and other recognisable franchises. Others in the industry are  trying out different camera angles, first-person viewing experiences and live chat functionalities inspired by Twitch. 

We’re seeing the customers of Sports Loft members make sports viewing more interactive by adding quizzes, social media interaction and alternative commentary feeds. Others are building experiences inside the gaming platforms themselves. And with Apple entering the AR/VR headset space, we only expect more innovation to come from the broadcast space. We expect all aspects of sports broadcast – even the experience of choosing which match to watch – to borrow more and more inspiration from the gaming industry in the years to come.

5. Engaging Gen Z and Alpha

“For the first time in 20 years, the last twelve months have seen a marginal decline in sports consumption… If you’re under the age of 20, there’s a 10% less chance that you’re going to be an avid sports fan than if you’re over.”

Rufus Hack, CEO, Sony’s Sports Businesses

Rufus Hack on-stage at Leaders Week London.

Early in his talk, Rufus Hack suggested that the dip in sports viewership over the last year could be a potential signal of the industry's end to seemingly guaranteed growth. Chief among the reasons he identified for the decline are the lifestyle choices of Gen Z and Alpha, who spend less time watching and playing sport than previous generations. 

Drawing on the theory that if you don’t engage a young consumer with your sport or team by the age of 14 they may never become a fan, he suggested three ways rightsholders can better engage with younger audiences. These are to be fan-first, experience-led and community focused. We agree. 

At Sports Loft we believe that younger audiences need to be engaged where they’re already hanging out – that means using athletes to communicate with fans on social media platforms, having a presence on the leading gaming platforms, and building communities on messaging apps like Discord. Gen Z and Alpha are spoilt for choice when it comes to where they spend their time. We've long argued the value of "fishing where the fish are", when it comes to engaging with new and younger fans, and we continue to believe this to be true.

But what’s next?

These are just five of the topics that caught our attention at Leaders Week. But as we look ahead to 2024, we’re already starting to map out which trends we think will define innovation in the sports, media and technology space in the coming year. Keep an eye out for that towards the end of the year.

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