83: The Best of 2021 from Sports Pundit (and Happy Holidays!)
Thanks for joining me this year and for being part of this exciting community. Your readership is hugely appreciated!
As we've gained readers over the course of the year, here's a look back at five of my favourite articles. Please feel free to share with me the articles that have most interested you and to forward this to friends and colleagues who might enjoy.
Happy Holidays & here's to an exciting 2022!! 🍾 🥳
PFL has the blueprint for challenger leagues
Recently valued at $10 billion, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is a behemoth. Since its establishment in 1993, the competition has become synonymous with MMA. Under Dana White, the UFC has either acquired rivals or forced them into submission.
There is, however, a challenger that the UFC has failed to hush.
While still a long way from being able to compete pound-for-pound, the Professional Fighters League (PFL) believes it has the makings to become the No.1 challenger to the UFC’s dominance.
Here are some of the reasons why, and the lessons others should take from them.
Simplify the Format - The PFL has re-imagined MMA, featuring elite MMA athletes across six weight classes, with each fighter having two fights during the regular season.
Increase Access - The PFL is televised live on ESPN2. This is unique for a combat sport, which often uses a pay-per-view model. This goes some way to explain how in just three years, the PFL already has 25% of the audience of the UFC.
Equal Representation - The PFL offers an equal $1M prize in each weight class for men and women. This has led to a greater buy-in from fighters who respect the transparency and gender equality.
Embrace the Data - With fights taking place inside a ‘Smart Cage’, few in the sports industry have adopted data integration to the extent of the PFL.
Profile the Athlete - The compactness of the PFL means that it is able to build a profile around each fighter – which adds to the overall narrative.
With sport on its knees as a result of the pandemic, there is an opportunity for challengers to disrupt the status quo and do things differently — for the better.
#2 WOMEN'S SPORT
The Hundred: A win for women's sport
The Hundred got off to an almost perfect start last week. So close to perfection, in fact, that Manchester Originals’ captain Kate Cross admitted that “I don’t think I can come off a cricket pitch and be more pleased with a loss”.
The headline match was the most watched women’s cricket match in UK history, with a peak audience of 1.95 million. The peak time BBC Two broadcast drew in a high of 1.6 million viewers, with a further 180,000 live streams on iPlayer and BBC Sport online.
Furthermore, along with the TV spectators, there was 7,395 fans in attendance at the Kia Oval, a record for largest ever attendance for a modern-day women’s domestic match. Even more amazingly, this record was smashed later in the same week as 13,537 attended London Spirit’s match at Lord’s.
As summarised by Beth Barrett-Wild, Head of The Hundred Women’s Competition & Female Engagement at the ECB, “Give women’s sport a platform, present it properly, market it properly, broadcast it properly & great things will happen.”
Interestingly, a similar rhetoric was echoed this week by Miles Jacobson OBE, studio director of Sports Interactive, the developers behind Football Manager.
Explaining his plans to incorporate women’s football into the popular video game, he stated, “It’s something we should have done a few years ago. We’ve been wanting to do this for a little while and we’ve been sitting here waiting until it was financially viable, and we’ve realised it’s not going to be financially viable until someone like us gets of our bottoms and actually does this.”
#3 WEB 3.0
The Future of NFTs in Sport
Over the past year, dozens of teams, leagues, and athletes have minted their own NFT collections with varying levels of success. NBA Top Shot sold $500 million worth of NBA history, Formula 1 sold digital collectible car components, while WWE was… less popular.
Looking at these examples, we can safely assume that reputation and scarcity has played a big factor. If the basketball clips sold by Dapper Labs weren’t officially endorsed by the NBA, they wouldn’t be as valuable. Likewise, the scarce quantity of the drops has led to irrational behaviour and speculation.
However, with many of the projects we’ve seen in the sports industry to-date, there’s been a lack of utility. Except for the likes of Sorare and Animoca Brands, many NFT collections have failed to consider a use case.
As argued by Samuel Huber in this article for Forbes, “to truly emerge into the mainstream, NFTs need to prove their utility beyond pure collectible and speculative value.”
The answer to this utility layer, Huber believes, is hiding in plain sight, with countless users ready to engage in NFT gaming – quite possibly the next phase in the NFT revolution. As such, we’ve recently seen NBA player-backed Chibi Dinos partner with GameOn in a ‘first of its kind gamification.’
Taking this utility layer a step further, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has invested in Alethea AI, a company that is “wrapping avatars in AI that animates them, giving them conversation skills and knowledge,” transitioning NFTs to iNFTs (intelligent NFTs), which become something like chatbots that can be owned, trained, or sold.
Bat Sponsors could inspire other sports to win big
For decades, Indian cricketers have embraced a commercial opportunity to further monetise their prize asset: their bats. Why can’t other sports follow suit?
It’s not uncommon for athletes to earn contracts with equipment manufacturers. The process is beneficial to both parties – the player gets income and equipment, while the manufacturer gets advertisement.
For decades, this was the norm for cricketers, too. However, that all changed when Kapil Dev signed a contract with Power in the late 1980s. The legendary all-rounder was paid a hefty sum for using their logo on his bats and the association went on to have a profound effect on the bat-manufacturing industry.
As a result, the most popular players would instead sign two contracts – one with the equipment manufacturer and another with a sticker sponsor. This has led to non-endemic brands, such as MRF Tyres, becoming a household name across the sport - particularly in India.
Previously sponsors of Sachin Tendulkar, the tyre manufacturer signed an eight-year deal with India captain Virat Kohli in 2017, worth an estimated Rs 100 crore ($1.36m). Similarly, CEAT tyres sponsor Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane, and Hero Motocorp Ravichandran Ashwin.
With athletes facing financial challenges after a drop-off in endorsement deals as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and The Athletic reporting a declining interest from boot manufacturers to partner with footballers – new commercial opportunities must be sought out across the sporting world.
Indian cricketers and their bat sponsors may provide one of the more interesting solutions to solving this issue. Notwithstanding each sport’s own regulatory codes, could we see a similar philosophy implemented elsewhere? Tyre-branded football boots, a tech-company replacing a basketball manufacturer, or a mobile esports platform creating an apparel brand to win a kit contract…?
#5 Creator Economy
Why are the players talking to Ibai?
Following Leo Messi’s move from Barcelona to Paris, there was a significant signal change in the sports broadcasting world. The six-time Ballon d’Or winner’s first interview, the kind of prestigious event usually sold to the highest bidder, was instead streamed on Twitch by Ibai Llanos, a Spanish gaming personality.
Llanos has accumulated over 7 million Twitch followers since he started out streaming himself playing video games with his friends at home. He even attended Messi’s leaving dinner in Barcelona, following an invitation to attend from Sergio Aguero. However, it was only last year that Llanos turned into a mainstream cultural phenomenon.
As Spain went into lockdown, Llanos, who was creating content for G2 Esports, announced plans to host a virtual LaLiga tournament. In doing so he discovered several high-profile footballers ranked among his fans. He promptly invited them to play video games with him live on his channel, leading to further introductions.
The fact that Llanos, a 26-year-old streamer, has been able to attract the likes of Sergio Ramos, and Gerard Pique has not gone down well with some traditional journalists. ESPN’s Gustavo Lopez has rallied against the ease with which Llanos has become major competition for traditional media, “Why are the players talking to Ibai? This makes me nervous.”
Lopez is right to be nervous. Sports viewing is shifting steadily onto streaming platforms, and even overtaking traditional broadcast in regions such as the Asia Pacific. With this, we are also seeing a shift in the power dynamic from institution to individual – perfectly personified by Llanos.
Check out the full article I wrote for Sports Business.
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