From its earliest days – going back to the ancient Greeks, Romans and probably beyond – sport at the highest level has been at least partly about providing entertainment for the masses, via the medium of elite athletes competing to see who is the best at running, jumping, throwing or not getting eaten by a lion.
And the whole modern commercial model of professional sport is built on the fact that so many of us will willingly part with some of our hard-earned cash to watch the spectacle unfold (or at least pay with our attention).
Time and again, the big sporting moments dominate TV viewing and digital consumption. In a world of highly fragmented, on-demand content, sport’s ability to captivate huge numbers of people to watch in real time and discuss endlessly on social media, is hugely valuable to media companies and brands alike.
As Two Circles recently pointed out, the inherent unpredictability and drama of sport (plus the tribal devotion of its fans) gives it an edge over other forms of entertainment. In 2018, 92% of the most watched live TV broadcasts in the US were sport, and there is every chance that this figure will only increase in years to come.
This puts sport in a hugely valuable position in the global entertainment landscape. At least it does for the big sports that resonate with a global audience, hoovering up the lion’s share of attention and the commercial returns that come with it, allowing them to continuously reinvest in making their ‘product’ ever-more engaging and well marketed.
But other sports, even some of the bigger, well-established ones, have a challenge on their hands to avoid getting crowded out. Many sports have all the rights ingredients – great heritage, lots of people who take part, incredible athletes, intense competition and drama – but for whatever reason they just don’t connect with people in large enough numbers, outside of the occasional spike in interest driven by an Olympic Games or a World Cup.
Many of these sports are making efforts to reinvent themselves, creating new formats and new types of competition, designed to be shorter, more dramatic, more marketable and more relevant to a wider audience.
Often these new formats are being created by entrepreneurs outside of the official governing bodies or federations, investing in a sport that they feel is under commercialised and under marketed, like the new ISL in swimming (I love the honesty in the title above their showreel video) and Super League Triathlon.
Sometimes the governing body itself takes the risk of disrupting its own sport in an effort to reach new audiences, which cricket did with huge success with T20 (and I actually think The Hundred will do pretty well, simply because of the amount of research, insight and planning that sits behind it).
And while the purist, traditionalist, sports-fan side of us may not like it, this really is marketing at its most fundamental level: to create sustainable growth by understanding, anticipating and satisfying customer need.
If not enough people want to watch a triathlon that takes almost two hours to complete, repackage it into something shorter and sharper. If Gen Z consumers aren’t interested in golf tournaments lasting four days (and you want to engage that audience), come up with something new.
There is a balance to be struck here and I’d personally hate to see some of the traditional, longer form formats die out (I’m writing this listening to the Ashes on TMS), but no sport can afford to be complacent and just hope that more people will somehow ‘discover’ what they have to offer. They won’t – chances are they’re too busy over on Twitch watching the Fortnite World Cup.