Welcome to Miami: Sports and the Future of the Experience Economy

from GIPHY

Way back in 1998, B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore heralded the birth of the “Experience Economy” in the Harvard Business Review. They described an emergent shift in “the time-starved 1990s,” capturing a sentiment that is even more relevant today:

As goods and services become commoditized, the customer experiences that companies create will matter most.

Credit where it’s due, they were right: look no further than the pre-pandemic crowds at your local Apple store, the rise of mega music festivals like Coachella, and play based businesses like TopGolf or your local axe-throwing franchise.

But now, as the economy slowly starts reopening, experience-driven offerings remain a dicey proposition. A recent New York Times headline puts it bluntly, “Coronavirus Shut Down the Experience Economy: Can it Come Back?” The article includes a quote from the aforementioned Pine, who succinctly states what many of us are feeling at the moment:

Any place people want to gather is a place no one wants to be right now.

So where does this leave the sports industry? After all, sports are arguably THE original experience economy. (Ok, maybe the ancient Greek theatre is the original, but sports are close.) There are two parallel considerations for the sports world. First is the return of the existing product: how to get fans back to games in an environment where they not only feel safe, but enjoy the pretense of a return to ‘normal’? Second is the exploration of new revenue streams from existing facilities and resources: with revenues lost to reduced seating and shortened seasons, are there new opportunities to be had?

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Potential Buyers for the XFL: NOT Vince McMahon

I remain captivated by the potential resurrection of the XFL, the first non-major pro-league that I thought had a real chance of survival in its brief, pre-pandemic moment. Last week, it appeared that owner Vince McMahon was orchestrating maneuvers to reclaim the league himself, but that seems to have come to an abrupt halt. Reporting from the Athletic (paywall).

Vince McMahon has pulled out of bidding for his bankrupt XFL…Those revelations came in a series of filings Tuesday, in which the league founder McMahon blamed a creditors’ committee for hounding him out of the bidding by accusing him of rigging the process.

But hope remains for the league:

The XFL’s investment bank, Houlihan Lokey, the filing said, is currently in active discussions with dozens of potential purchasers, and that most potential purchasers have indicated that the potential for an XFL season in spring 2021 is important to them.

Much is up in the air, but that the league’s future remains viable–albeit on life support–says so much about the American taste for football.

Is Athletes Unlimited The Future of Women’s Pro Sports?

Photo by Rachel Barkdoll on Unsplash

The sports world is notoriously resistant to change, to the point where we often struggle to envision alternative business models, especially in the domain of pro sports. The impulse to stick to traditional models has arguably hampered women’s professional sports: shoehorned into the established men’s formats, women’s leagues become ripe targets for critique when they inevitably can’t match the spectatorship and revenue numbers that men’s sport has cultivated over decades. In time, I expect that things will continue to progress and that women’s leagues that mirror men’s will be viable in the long-term, despite the challenges they currently face.

But for now, maybe it’s time for a little disruption? Enter Athletes Unlimited, a women’s pro sport organization that seeks to completely upend the traditional model. AU launches a unique softball offering this August, with volleyball to follow next year, and more sports in the pipeline. What’s so different about AU? Here’s a summary via Axios:

Single market: Unlike most leagues, where teams are city-based, Athletes Unlimited teams will have no city affiliation and each season will take place in a single location.

Short seasons: Seasons will last just six weeks.

Dynamic rosters: Rosters will be selected weekly by captains, so players will constantly change teams.

Fantasy-style scoring: Athletes will accumulate points for team victories and individual performances and be compensated based on where they sit in the points-based rankings.

Player governance and profit-sharing: Athletes will be heavily involved in decision-making, and investors have agreed to cap their financial returns, meaning the vast majority of profits will go towards players.

I like all of this. Is there potential for it to come across as gimmicky? Absolutely, and striking the correct balance of novelty and competitive entertainment will likely be the key determinant in the organization’s success. I especially like the focus on developing athlete’s individual identities, something that traditional women’s sports have struggled with, given their minuscule media coverage. I expect that traditional players, like the WNBA and NWSL, will likely learn a few things from the AU experiment.

Of course, the ultimate challenge for AU remains the same as for all big-time women’s competition: how to overcome a marketplace that overwhelmingly frames women’s sport as a second-rate product? I hope that by shaking things up, AU stands a chance to challenge this entrenched bias and highlight the fact that most of us just want to watch good competition with players that we love and/or love to hate. I’ll be watching and rooting for their success.

Assessing Risk in Partially Full Stadiums and Arenas

While phase 1 of the return of live sports goes on without spectators, most organizations are developing plans for fans’ return to seats at greatly reduced capacity. But what if that may not be enough to mitigate COVID risks? Derek Thompson’s well researched piece for the Atlantic confirms that the greatest risk of transmission comes from airborne respiratory droplets. There has been a growing consensus around this fact, hence moves for reduced capacity. But this is a particularly damning fact for sports:

In a study subsequently published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report”, researchers emphasized that “the act of singing, itself,” might have contributed to transmission, because choir members were belting out more of the virus. Some people—known as “superemitters”—release more particles into the air when they speak, because they are unusually loud or slobbery talkers. But even normal gabbers can release an exceptional number of droplets if they’re singing or theatrically projecting their voice.

What’s the point of going to a game if we can’t root and cheer loudly? How on earth are we supposed to suppress our deep-seated instinct to shout ‘YANKEES SUCK’ at the top of our lungs? Spreading fans out can only go so far, especially in indoor settings. Here’s hoping for more research and better understanding before we rush to get butts back in seats.

A Buyer For the XFL: The XFL?

From Daniel Kaplan for the Athletic, Is Vince McMahon trying to covertly buy his own bankrupt XFL? (paywall)

Is Vince McMahon trying to buy his own XFL out of Delaware bankruptcy court? The XFL’s creditors seem to think so, and sources said XFL president Jeffrey Pollack has called venues in St. Louis and Seattle about reinstating the lease agreements.

This is:

  1. not that surprising
  2. pretty much a classic pro wrestling maneuver

Revising the Rooney Rule

As with most teenagers, the NFL’s Rooney Rule remains a work in progress. 17 years have passed since the league formalized its landmark diversity initiative and, for most observers, the results have been subpar. Minority athletes comprise over 70% of team rosters; only 4 of 32 teams (12.5%) have a minority head coach. This is unfortunately typical of top-down, structural diversity initiatives: they tend to cynically become box-checking exercises that don’t address entrenched biases and established pathways to the top positions. For example, there remains an assumption that head coaches flow up from the ranks of offensive assistants, positions that remain overwhelmingly white.

But what is a league to do, given the pressure to allow its teams to conduct their business operations freely? Last week, the truly atrocious idea of linking draft position to minority opportunities was kicked around…thankfully that seems to have been shelved. Now the league is focused on increasing the breadth of the original Rooney mandate, extending minority interviewing requirements beyond the head coaching slot. This is a good thing. Here’s a summary of what has been proposed, courtesy of Front Office Sports.

  • Teams will be required to interview two minority candidates outside their organization for vacant head coach jobs and one for offensive, defensive and special teams coordinator positions.
  • Teams will be prohibited from denying interviews with other teams.
  • Must include at least one external minority applicant for senior football operations and general manager openings.
  • Position pool expanded to include minority and female applicants for executive roles including president and senior executives.
  • All 32 teams are to establish minority coaching fellowship programs.

These are all wise steps in the right direction, especially as research demonstrates that increasing the number of minority candidates in hiring pools leads to more minority hiring. Spreading the focus down the organizational chart will help disrupt some of the pathways that have stifled Rooney 1.0; acknowledging that diversity in leadership off the field is essential is also a big step. Teams should ultimately have the final say in their hiring–mandating equality of outcomes would be a mistake–but these changes are welcome progress in addressing the equality of opportunity.

COVID and College Football

Click here for the interactive version of this map.

This guest post comes our way from Scott Jedlicka, an assistant professor of Sport Management at Washington State University. When he’s not tinkering with data visualization or playing with his baby son, Scott’s work addresses a range of issues concerning sports governance and diplomacy. Follow him @scottrjed.

As the majority of higher education institutions across America grapple with the complex challenges of resuming in-person instruction in a few months, one particularly vexing issue confronting many colleges and universities is the feasibility of playing intercollegiate football during a global pandemic. The sports world is only now beginning to reopen, with individual sports for which social distancing does not pose a major obstacle—golf, stock car racing, rodeo—leading the way. The conditions under which the resumption of major American team sports like baseball and football might be possible are complicated (at best), if indeed resumption is possible at all. Nonetheless, many college athletic departments are sustained by the revenue generated from playing football, and the economies of many college towns rely heavily on the spending that takes place during football weekends. There is definite urgency to find a workable solution.

Of course, the rush to restart the economic engines like college football may end up being a prelude to our “darkest winter in modern history”. As states begin to roll back shelter-in-place orders, despite many failing to meet federal guidelines for doing so, there is legitimate concern that American lives will be needlessly sacrificed on the altar of commerce and entertainment. In our effort to “get back to normal” (an effort in which football and other popular sports ostensibly play a key role), we may instead create for ourselves a much more dire and tragic—and certainly, abnormal—situation.

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The Pandemic as Accelerant: Some Thoughts on the Future of Sports

Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash

I recently saw an interview with the (always) excellent brand strategist and professor, Scott Galloway, who described the economic effects of Covid-19 as an “accelerant.” Of all the designations I have heard since this began, this one has really stuck with me. For example: the collapse of major retailers like Neiman Marcus was not brought on by the pandemic, but put into hyperdrive by its effects.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what will change in the sports industry going forward. Some likely changes will be wholly brought on by a new reality. I agree with my friend, professor Tommy Hunt, who thinks we’ll see a rise in participation in individual sports, like tennis and golf. Socially distanced live events and a reimagining of the stadium experience, are of course a direct result of the pandemic (although many elements, like the cash-free experience, are not new, but accelerating). But I’m particularly curious about what will be accelerated in the US sports industry, what small fires might turn full on scorched-earth, much sooner than we had previously anticipated. Here are a few, roughly ranked in order of likelihood, from the inevitable to the plausible.

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Links: Things I’m Watching and Listening To

The Sports Innovation Lab has launched a video, “ask me anything” series, featuring hour long discussions with a diverse slate of industry insiders. Most are directly engaging with the current pandemic situation. I can’t get their links to embed, so here’s the main page where you can scroll the episodes. I found April 28th and 30th editions (on venue safety and advances in digital broadcasting, respectively) to be quite interesting. Definitely on the more business/technical side of things, but sure to be of interest to industry folks.

In a more relaxing vein, I’ve enjoyed the two most recent episodes of the Ink in Our Blood podcast, produced by the Maraniss family. The legendary John Feinstein joins them to discuss “Why Sports Matter” and the equally legendary Jane Leavy features in a great discussion on the nature of sports myths. If you only listen to one, go with Leavy.