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Volume 21 No. 26
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Change is coming: How sports can embrace, grow with it

Ever heard the untrue story about the fat frog in the frying pan?

It’s the metaphor where the frog finds itself in soothing warm water and fails to react to the unseen hand turning up the stove’s heat. When the frog finally realizes there is a problem — the water has gotten too hot — its capacity to jump from the boiling skillet is supposedly gone.

It may not sound relevant to sports industrialists at first but one of us was recently teaching at Kufstein University in Austria (home country for Red Bull headquarters) and telling our bilingual students about Ernest Cline’s fascinating book (“Ready Player One”). In Cline’s futuristic fiction, various 21st Century “real-world” societies have crumbled and the new world order operates from the virtual utopia of the OASIS.

That’s the digital universe where video gaming has already met virtual reality and billions of earthlings spend the majority of their time numbing themselves via the pursuit of competitive sports glory. Around them, the world’s cities and sporting institutions are failing.

It is, of course, far-fetched (which likely drew famed director Steven Spielberg to Cline’s material) but the movie debuted last month and global audiences are instantly able to see how 2045 is depicted: A futuristic world quite a bit removed from what we accept as commonplace in 2018. 

We tell you this parable and reference this film because our concern is growing for the numerous organizations who might be “fat frogs” today. For the NFL and International Olympic Committee. For the NHL and FIFA World Cup. For the NCAA, NBA, NASCAR and UEFA. For just about every contemporary sports organization (lean or large) for that matter.

It is an almost certainty the “water” many of those sports properties are sitting in has been pleasantly warm for quite some time. Some might even say tepid.

The owners and athletes have generated billions while the administrators (league commissioners, CEOs and coaches) have made millions. Television audiences have grown (in general) and so has sponsorship revenue. Merchandising and concessions are big business. Ticket sales are decent and increasingly pricey. The secondary market keeps exploding for high-demand contests. Streaming and social media activity continues to rise steadily.

Properties must pay closer attention to the social nature of live events and in-stadium experiences.
Photo: getty images

In short, the last 50 years have given us one heckuva party. It’s been good.

But trust us, change is coming. It is in the air. And to borrow bits of phrases from others, “the coming revolution will be messy.”

We’ll grant you, it serves no purpose to sit here and holler “wolf” while Rome, Rio or Raleigh burns.

It is perhaps more beneficial to offer suggestions that recognize we are collectively creeping toward George Orwell’s “1984” or Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” To steer clear of those literary dystopias, it would be better to suggest ways we can all keep sports vibrant and growing toward a sustainable (and rewarding) future.

To that end, we offer some heartfelt suggestions for the powerful to consider:

1) Regardless of your corporate mission and the stakeholders you serve, make sure you are protecting your content. So far, in the cord-cutting age, we have done a great job in maintaining revenue and signs are good (e.g., Disney purchase of Fox RSNs for top dollar) that the slow death of cable will be bad for sports. In fact, perhaps it will put us in a better spot with more valuable content, packaged in an attractive way to viewers who want it on any (and all) hardware devices.

2) Pay attention to the young ones and start investing in them. The Who might have sung “The Kids are Alright” but the better lyric may be the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song (with Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar) “Teach your Children.” Although attention spans are shorter and participation in sports less, the young generations of today and tomorrow will seek experiences, fulfillment and engagement different from those of their parents. Those activities are all things sports can provide. Yes, it’ll be tough. Yes, many of our leaders do not relate to these generations. But, as the song says, we need to teach our “parents” well if we hope to remain relevant to them.

3) Gambling is part of modern sports and a phenomenon shifting faster than traditionalists or conservatives understand. Whether it is fantasy sports or esports odds-making, fans everywhere (including the U.S.) gamble extensively on our real and virtual games. Yes, there is a very scary downside to gambling (and its addictive nature) but given the fact gambling is growing, why shouldn’t more organizations consider benefiting from it?

4) Build up the social fabric of your live events because gamers are getting social engagement online via feeds like those provided on Twitch. Stadia where only rich patrons can assemble are not sustainable. In simple terms, digital is no longer special. Social media is not an add-on. These are channels like any other. Treat them as such.

5) Drastically consider altering the in-person experience to smaller stadiums, segmented experiences within venues (family, couples, groups of men, etc.), where each group has a very different and a very specific (and appropriate) experience.

Yes, these are five complex suggestions from us and perhaps we’ve provided an overly harsh view for elite sports’ future. But, the point is to draw attention now to major issues. In 2018. To get folks wondering if a tipping point is lurking around the corner (closer than many think) and to stir the pot. To help the frog jump.

Before it’s too late.

Rick Burton (rhburton@syr.edu) is the David Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University. Norm O’Reilly (oreillyn@ohio.edu) is the Richard P. & Joan S. Fox Professor and Sports Admin Department Chair at Ohio University. Their new book, “20 Secrets to Success for NCAA Student Athletes Who Won’t Go Pro,” was published recently by Ohio University Press.