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Volume 20 No. 46
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Playing futurist: Trends that could be sports biz mainstays

J ust the other day, a friend of ours sent an email asking what trends to cover comprehensively during their first class teaching in a collegiate sports management program. We responded and thought the outcome interesting enough to develop for your collective consideration. And, as authors, much like the late Stephen Covey, we even branded it!

Burton and O’Reilly’s Seven Mega Trends for the Sports Business World

Globality — If your league, team, product, athlete, brand or startup isn’t global or scalable via technology, it is inefficient and, in capitalism, inefficiency means you likely will suffer (first) before failing.

No one should be surprised by this first trend because it’s been the norm for more than a decade. But we still think too many North Americans believe they represent the entire world.

They don’t.

We also think it’s why smart leagues and teams, such as the NBA or Real Madrid, are pouring millions into places like China and India. If you are going to go fishing, do it in really well-stocked bodies of water. Check out soccer. The global game known as football. It is one of the few sports with increasing participation rates and growing fan bases.

Fans in Guangzhou, China, welcome Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors this month.

Esports — Another no-brainer but this one is apparently confounding numerous executives over the age of 35 who are screaming at subordinates and hollering words like, “Idiots.”

How can it be? Who would want to watch a bunch of kids play League of Legends, Call of Duty, DOTA 2 or NBA 2K?

Oh wait. Investors are spending tens of millions. Networks are adding content. Fan bases are growing. The NBA has launched a league. Celebrity players are emerging.

Evidently, all the hot, young, global, dynamic children of tomorrow (with disposable incomes) who will soon earn enough to buy tickets for your stadiums, download your content or click-purchase your products online are moving toward esports. This is the audience capable of blending gambling, augmented/virtual reality, no concussions and instant gratification.

Hmmm, this seems like a group our little industry needs to quickly embrace, better understand and monetize. If you think about industry emphasis on streaming in 2010, it sounds oddly familiar doesn’t it?

Intimate venues — This hasn’t fully arrived yet but better mind-blowing experiences (things companies like Aramark and Legends are working on) at intimate facilities with incredible food, interactive entertainment and better sight lines is imminent. The MLS’s push for soccer-specific, smaller stadiums may be the best example. And while pro leagues and teams have the most to gain, it may be UFC, WWE, NASCAR, the PGA Tour and others that step into the vacuum first.

Gambling — In the U.S., this topic still bothers our Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers, but gambling drives billions of yen, Euros, pounds and bitcoin all over the world so you might as well get used to it. Or you might want to realize you are stopping short (to quote a “Seinfeld” episode). As our financial friends often ask: ‘Why are you leaving money on the table?’

Certainly the fantasy gaming explosion of the last five years proved Americans might not want to call their casual game-engagement activities gambling but they sure want to use their dollars to bet on sports.

Integration of Custom Causes — Cause-related events are not new but ones where organizations and individuals can choose causes and build fundraising activities around a core sport are. A great example was held recently at one of our institutions for an eighth annual version. Dubbed the “Race For A Reason,” the multisport event (triathlon, run, walk, mud run) was a partnership of students, a professional race director, a regional timing company, based on the vision of Kevin Abrams and Bill Squires of the New York Giants, who sought ways to help raise money for Cystic Fibrosis (CF).

Although a portion of every entry fee went to a charity of the participant’s choice, it highlighted a large group’s ability to use an event as a platform to build a specialized fundraising campaign that worked. Again, not rocket science, but a “fresh” view toward leveraging sport and passion to benefit key constituents or multiple causes. This integration of varied properties can leverage economies of scale.

Reshaping the Media Rights Landscape — This is not just about traditional TV rights fees anymore. The NFL on Twitter is a great example of the new media landscape. So is Amazon Studios, Facebook, Apple TV and things likely to debut or get invented before this column actually appears on your tablet.

The traditional networks are losing their monopoly on sports content rapidly and the new power brokers of sport are coming from places other than 30 Rock (NBC), Black Rock (CBS) or Mouse Rock (ABC/ESPN). The big networks aren’t dead and they won’t roll over easily, but the future will belong to the shape-shifters who don’t rely on affiliates but instead deliver the goods directly. The game has not only changed, it is changing at warp speed. It will continue to do so whether you like change or not.

 The Rise of the Unexpected — As American football’s nadir peaks (if it hasn’t already) and basketball and soccer make their global play (something they’ve been doing for years), a small child (presented here as a metaphor) shall lead them.

Think of what Red Bull does. Or a small property experimenting with drone racing. Or Amazon creating their own content.

Our industry may think these things are still small. We think that “child” is coming and filling gaps created by an over-dependence on expensive stadium tickets. This “army of orphans” (Think of Bob Dylan’s great line in Thunder on the Mountain: “Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches. I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages”) will underwrite the collapse of empires that traditionalists hold sacred.

TV networks, cable networks, pro leagues, pro teams, star players … all of them have enjoyed their resplendent moments.

But market forces never sleep and new players are coming to claim their piece of the rock.

Rick Burton ( is the David Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University. Norm O’Reilly ( is the Richard P. & Joan S. Fox Professor and Sports Admin Department Chair at Ohio University. OU Press will publish their newest book, “20 Secrets to Success for NCAA Student-Athletes Who Won’t Go Pro,” in late 2017.