TMR POV: Large Market Teams, Media Recycling When Fans Want Reinventing

Sports leagues, teams and media companies have historically been leading edge innovators. During a time when their fans need that sense of community and shared experience that underpins why sports matter so much, I believe most entities are failing miserably.

I understand the initial catch-your-breath moments of the impact of canceled live events and the triage necessary to assess contracts, business fallout and the business model fundamentals.

However, great companies adjust. Quickly. All you need to do is to look at Ken Dyson and how he’s cranking out ventilators when two weeks ago he was a vacuum company.

It’s not as if the big U.S. media companies, leagues and teams aren’t stocked with fantastic content creators. That’s what they do – create engaging content (some way better than others, but that’s a whole other conversation). Yet, night after night, media companies have flung up 24/7 programming of classic games or obscure library content. The entire workforce has figured out remote working and web-based video interaction and yet, we’re stuck–even online!–watching full games from 2005.

Content innovation is happening in virtually every other sector. And NASCAR is one of the very few sports brands that stepped up with an attempt to do something different with their esports iRacing offering.

Current and former NASCAR racers competed in high tech simulators, except now instead of prepping for a race, they’re playing the near life-like video game. FOX Sports tested it out with a live run on FS1. Nearly 1 million people watched and now the series is going on all FOX platforms for the rest of the “season.”

There are innovators right now, but they are the league’s and team’s individuals.

A screengrab of the Instagram Live COVID-19 Q&A by NBA Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry (top) with Dr. Anthony Fauci, Head, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on Mar 26, 2020

Players are creating ad hoc community video game experiences. Some are creating home workouts to share with fans. Steph Curry is using his platforms to try and save the world with the likes of Dr. Fauci doing educational seminars or leading separate fundraising efforts.

Sports leagues and owners? Making nefarious headlines about cutting salaries and layoffs and getting social media smackdown from fans for being tone deaf billionaires. Even the trade publications that cover the sports industry have figured out how to quickly produce live virtual conferences, outdoing their subject matters’ efforts.

I’m unclear if it is bureaucracy or cultural ego that it’s OK to pause truly engaging fans–again, 2-hour re-run games from 12 years ago does not qualify–but man, is there an enormous opportunity for individual athletes and upstart brands to seize the moment. It’s fascinating to me that leagues, who very well understand that players have become their own media brands and will soon hit a tipping point in usurping media value from league motherships, aren’t doing a better job of protecting their value.

Each passing day that athletes build their followings and engagement with original content creation tailored to the quarantined times is a day closer to the future when player unions wield more power in negotiations with leagues.

I’m scouring social media daily looking for content innovation and coming away empty most days in the sports space.

If you’re going to re-air a live game, why not bring in celebrities and participants who can host an interactive video watch party? If you’re a league, why wouldn’t you partner with your video game brethren to create accessible to the masses engagement and interaction? These are things happening organically already, built by the players and fans in a Wild West marketplace.

Kudos to entities like the Drone Racing League, which launched the Drone Racing League Academy on Mar 20 to meld its sports league with an educational STEM approach that appeals to a quarantined world looking for fun, innovative ways to have activities that have some meaning (or at least the parents are).

How hard could it be for major sports leagues to host backyard competitions–with proper social distancing, of course–that draw in millions of participants and contestants, or leverage brand ambassadors to offer coordinated lessons or fun games fit for the backyard?

What about corralling their players already engaged with fans under the team’s umbrella for a gaming competition teammate v. teammate or take on another team’s players gaining a multiplier effect?

There is simply a void of experimentation for the incumbents, who are giving the business message that everything is on pause and “let’s hope we get back to business as usual as soon as possible.”

The brand goodwill and inertia of success of many pro leagues will likely be just fine, but as the big league executives triage their 2020 P&Ls, they are missing a once in a lifetime opportunity to be the community provider for fans in need.

Jay Sharman is CEO of TeamWorks Media, a digital media-focused company he co-founded in 2000 predicated on the notion that purpose-driven organizations have the power to change both the world and their bottom lines through a well-told story.