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Volume 20 No. 46


In what is becoming a comfortable rite of fall, I took in the 6th annual Michigan Sport Business Conference in Ann Arbor earlier this month. It’s one of my most enjoyable days of the year, as the day is packed with a strong list of sports business leaders, many of whom are Michigan alumni, and the students develop an engaging and informative conference. There is also an added fun tradition: a lunch where guests sit around tables and discuss the issues of the morning while scarfing down the famous sandwiches, slaw and potato salad from Zingerman’s Deli, fuel for the afternoon.

The event is co-hosted by the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and School of Kinesiology’s Sport Management Program, and I walk away impressed every year by what the students are able to produce, and this year was no different, with compelling discussions and solid networking all within the plush confines of the Ross School of Business.

It was a gray, rainy Friday, but the theater was filled with positive energy as the event kicked off with an exclusive look at the new Amazon series that follows the University of Michigan football team and coach Jim Harbaugh through the 2017 season. The Montag Group’s Sandy Montag, who pitched the idea and will serve as executive producer along with BTN Originals and Jim Jorden Productions, told students to refrain from recording or shooting images of the trailer, and the four-minute preview had students cheering, laughing and eager to see all of the eight-part series that premieres in January. The docu-series is further proof of Amazon’s interest in sports and will be watched by other properties and brands looking to tell their story.

Overall, here were my takeaways from the day:

Barstool Sports is by far the coolest brand on campuses. My colleague John Ourand told me of seeing the energy around the brand during a speaking engagement earlier this year at Villanova University, and what I witnessed at Michigan confirmed it for me. Barstool President Dave Portnoy (class of 1999) spoke, and not only was he the hit of the day in the students’ eyes, but he fielded the most questions and had the audience laughing time and again with his irreverence. He talked about reports that Barstool would soon have its popular “Pardon My Take” developed into a late night show on ESPN2. “If you told me five years ago that we would have a show on ESPN, I probably would have laughed in your face.” But when talking about the different points of view of the two companies, he said Barstool wouldn’t change its approach: “They know who they are getting in bed with.” After the panel, the line of students waiting to speak to Portnoy was the talk of the day.

Turner President David Levy closed the day with a fun one-on-one interview where he touched on a number of areas, including his desire to push his partner in Major League Baseball to offer more player access and inside the ropes content. With New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon and his son, Jeff, sitting in the front row during his interview, Levy expressed subtle frustration that MLB hasn’t been able to move beyond the stilted in-game manager interviews with any new ways to showcase players and their game-day personalities, adding “the access to players isn’t great. They don’t mic the players. Eighteen to 24-year-olds want access. … You have to change how you show the game.” He also doesn’t anticipate any NBA players kneeling for the national anthem, predicting players will show their advocacy in other ways. Staying on the NBA, he doesn’t see a time when former Laker Kobe Bryant joins his broadcast team at Turner Sports: “He wants to be behind the camera, not in front of it.” He also said “super teams” in the NBA aren’t a bad thing, “they allow strong ratings for me,” and said if the Knicks were ever good, Turner’s NBA ratings could be up 20 percent. Outside of the NBA, Levy is also bullish on the future of soccer, esports and MMA.

Palace Sports & Entertainment Vice Chair Arn Tellem sat for an interview with his longtime friend Steve Greenberg of Allen & Co., and he was frank in expressing concern over talent disparity across the NBA. “The NBA may be the most difficult sport to build a championship-level team because so much is dependent on getting a top-five pick.” He later added, “It would be better for the health of the league if the talent was more equally dispersed. I think that’s an issue.” Tellem also touted the Pistons’ move to Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit, saying, “You can’t save Detroit. You have to be Detroit. That’s what we are doing.” Esports was a dominant theme throughout the day, with Greenberg kicking off the day saying it was the space he is most closely watching in sports business, calling it “really interesting and revolutionary.” Later on a different session, Twitter’s Laura Froelich said, “We’re seeing an esports explosion. The conversation on our platform is larger than some traditional sports.” But there is still an undercurrent of concern with the amount of power and influence the publishers have in the space, and Ryan Nece of Next Play Capital expressed hesitation about the players and personalities, saying, “It’s hard to build the back stories of the men and women in esports. You don’t see a figure like LeBron.” So, esports dominates the conversation on growth and new opportunities, but there are still significant headwinds.

In a session on venture capital, Courtside Ventures Managing Partner Vasu Kulkarni predicted one major growth area: New data companies that will deliver gambling and gaming information in light of the Supreme Court hearing on the New Jersey sports betting case. He also said that his group sees between 400 and 500 pitches in a month, yet might invest in only one.

The positive energy lasted all day, but not the following evening as, while I was long gone, many attendees sat through a rain-soaked upset by archrival Michigan State in the Big House to end the weekend on a downer. But the students still should feel proud of the event they put on, and I look forward to returning next fall.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at

Ultimately, America is united in supporting the flag and national anthem and against police brutality and racism. Unfortunately, the country is letting miscommunication divide us. The players should take different tactics rather than engaging in protests with muddled meanings, which could be construed as un-American. The [Golden State] Warriors could have requested that, in addition to the photo-op with President Trump, that they have an official meeting to discuss issues important to them. NFL players could have hosted events such as “Police-Community Flag Football Games” or youth clinics to foster trust between the police and inner-city communities. These approaches would highlight the issues, advance the players’ objectives, foster national unity, and limit dissension.

Michael B. Abramson

Sport fan diaspora refers to the primarily voluntary dispersion of sport fans to other geographical locations, due to better economic (e.g., job acceptance) or educational (e.g., attending college) opportunities, lifecycle changes (e.g., marriage, kids, retirement), health-related reasons (e.g., to seek medical care or a change in climate), international migration, etc. Every year in the U.S., about 40 million people move. Nearly 75 percent of the U.S. population moves once every five years (U.S. Census Bureau).

Although people move away from their home towns, many retain their values, traditions, identity and sports preferences. This latter aspect can be directed toward a particular sport, conference or (more likely) team. We often witness evidence of out-of-market fans at sporting events, where there is a mixture of fans attending wearing apparel of each of the two teams competing.

“Fanatics (the online store that sells licensed apparel for the NFL, NBA, NCAA, MLB and NHL) has determined that the percentage of ‘displaced fans’ is significant. They’ve identified that 74 percent of NFL fans, 69 percent of NBA fans, 67 percent of NCAA fans, 63 percent of MLB fans and 54 percent of NHL fans root for teams that do not play in the state where they reside. Think about that: More than half of every major North American sports team’s fans are not local.” (Fain, SportsBusiness Journal, Feb. 4, 2013).

Today, we live in a world that is more socially and technologically connected than ever before, enabling out-of-market fans to keep in touch with their teams no matter where they live. Large flat-screen TVs, the internet, social media, cable and satellite TV, smartphones/apps, rising ticket prices, etc. have not only changed the nature of fandom, but also have helped bring distant fans into the fold.

The primary goal of our research was to produce quantitative information and graphical depictions that represent the extent of sport fan diaspora for the fans of the 32 NFL teams. We conducted a two-wave study with a national sample on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk that examined team preferences and locations for 1,568 sports fans for the 2015 and 2016 NFL seasons. We constructed a sport fan diaspora map based on the estimated distance between each fan’s favorite NFL team (football stadium) and the location where the fan now lives (using five-digit zip codes).

Each of the 1,568 respondents in the map below is represented by a line segment that signifies the distance between the fan’s favorite team (placed at the origin) and where they live now. The two dimensions represent East-West and North-South directions. We see both a wide directional dispersion of fans, as well as a sizable distance dispersion. To summarize these distances for the NFL teams, the median distance a fan lives from the stadium of their favorite team is 164.93 miles away. (The mean or average distance is 511.47 miles away, indicating the prevalence of large distances in the data.) As a comparison, the driving distance between New York City and Chicago is about 800 miles, whereas the distance between New York City and Los Angeles is about 2,800 miles. The concentric circles represent distance from the origin of the graph (i.e., the location of their favorite team). The blue, green and red circles represent the 25 percent, 50 percent and 75 percent interquartile ranges, respectively. As shown, over 25 percent of NFL fans live more than 775 miles away from their favorite team (outside of the green circle)! This data is consistent with Vivid Sports’ estimate that the average distance traveled to attend Super Bowl 50 in 2016 was about 1,300 miles.

The table on the right shows fan diaspora distance means, standard deviations and medians — in miles — for fans of each of the various NFL teams.

Based on an analysis of variance F-test, the 32 teams exhibit significantly different mean distances (p < 0.001). Note the rather large standard deviations (which indicate larger fan dispersions) and how they also vary by team. The differences between the mean and median also indicate the presence of very large distances in the data as the mean tends to be drawn in the direction of larger values more so than the median. The main takeaway is clear: Teams must rethink the way they understand and target fans, recognizing their fans’ dispersion patterns. Note that these types of analyses can be conducted for any team, league or sport.

Wayne S. DeSarbo is the Mary Jean and Frank P. Smeal Distinguished Professor of Marketing at the Smeal College of Business at Pennsylvania State University. Ashley Stadler Blank is assistant professor of marketing at the Opus College of Busines at the University of St. Thomas. Sunghoon Kim is assistant professor of marketing at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. Chris McKeon provided technical assistance with the illustrations.