20 years of hits and misses
The Hits …
The Players’ Tribune
Derek Jeter’s venture debuted in 2014 promising unprecedented athlete insight by having players use the platform to speak directly to fans. It delivered, and both athletes and readers quickly warmed to the site. From essays to breaking news, athletes have used TPT to highlight their personalities and provide unique views into their lives beyond the field of play. Next up? The Players’ Tribune now is expanding the platform internationally.
At first, environmental efforts championed by the sports industry often came across as “greenwash,” little more than PR moves. But leagues, teams and venues soon realized sustainability efforts could provide significant cost savings and generate revenue. LED lighting, locally sourced food, recycling, water conservation, solar — it’s all found a place in sports. And for some of the newest sports facilities, LEED certification has become as important as sightlines.
Baseball historically has been the most tradition-bound of the major sports, and former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig famously was not a user of email. But from those unlikely beginnings emerged the MLB Advanced Media digital colossus that has been a first mover on many now-vital technologies, notably large-scale digital video delivery. MLBAM in turn lifted MLB franchise values and spawned the multibillion-dollar BAMTech spinoff now controlled by Disney.
Rise of the culinary experience
The sports industry has made itself fit for foodies, bringing in celebrity chefs and providing other food-centric attractions at major events to tempt the taste buds of guests and provide the ultimate garnishment to their experience. Whether it’s the culinary stalwart Taste of the NFL during Super Bowl week, or newer attractions like Taste of the Tournament during the NCAA Final Four, the trend has sparked a series of ventures ready to cook up the next great concept.
Who knew a driving range could be so cool? Topgolf reinvented the experience by adding a nightclub vibe that attracts a younger crowd eager to mix chip shots with, well, tequila shots. Topgolf has 38 locations in the U.S. and three more overseas, and with each new edition gives the golf industry hope for getting more people to play the game.
A new model for concessions
Steep concessions prices are a frequent gripe of sports fans. There’s got to be a better way, right? The Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta FC last year said “yes,” debuting a revolutionary approach to food and beverage pricing in the first year of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. With hot dogs costing $2, hamburgers $5 and Coca-Colas $2 (with free refills), fans gave the thumbs-up and actually increased their spending at the concession stand by 16 percent overall. Now the question is whether other venues will adopt a similar model.
March Madness Live
The live streaming platform for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was a success from its opening tip in 2003, demonstrating the power of live streaming and giving fans a way to stay connected to the games wherever they were, even at work. Who hasn’t used “the boss button” at some point?
The NHL went outside in 2008 and in doing so developed an instant hit. The Winter Classic features an outdoor game on New Year’s Day in a stadium or ballpark setting. The 2014 edition, held at Michigan Stadium, attracted more than 105,000 fans. The games have been so popular that the NHL has expanded the concept to hold multiple outdoor events each season. Fans gladly deal with the cold to be part of something big.
Battle at Bristol
Even P.T. Barnum would have been impressed when Bristol Motor Speedway played host to the Pilot Flying J Battle at Bristol in 2016. The track built a football stadium in the middle of the infield, hoisted an overhead scoreboard, and signed Tennessee and Virginia Tech to play. Sure, the views weren’t spectacular and the game — a 45-24 Volunteers win — wasn’t much better, but a record crowd of 156,000 fans couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to see college football played on the grandest of stages.
From 1998 until 2009, the sports documentary business was dominated by Ross Greenburg and HBO Sports. HBO expanded to reality television in 2001 with “Hard Knocks,” an annual series on NFL training camps it continues to produce, along with “24/7.” But in October 2009, ESPN launched its first “30 for 30,” which chronicled the Wayne Gretzky trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles. The series has since become something of a cultural touchpoint and demonstrated the endless appetite for ambitious and captivating sports storytelling.
… and Misses
Experimenting with on-air talent
“Monday Night Football” drew plenty of scrutiny in 2000 when it added comedian Dennis Miller to the booth in an effort to boost ratings. While Miller provided a few gems along the way, the booth never found the right chemistry, so the experiment ended after two seasons. In 2003, ESPN tried out conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh during “Sunday NFL Countdown,” but he was forced to resign after controversial comments about Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. The final non-traditional pick came in 2006, when Tony Kornheiser joined the “MNF” booth. He lasted three seasons before exiting, citing his fear of flying.
U.S. men’s soccer flames out
The U.S. men’s soccer team suffered perhaps the biggest setback in its history by failing to qualify for this year’s World Cup. The collapse led to the resignation of coach Bruce Arena and led Sunil Gulati to decide against running for re-election as president of U.S. Soccer. It also left soccer supporters and media partners wondering how many casual fans will tune in to the World Cup knowing the U.S. isn’t taking part for the first time since 1986.
Spalding tried to roll out a synthetic basketball for the 2006-07 NBA season, but players were having none of it, saying they didn’t like the feel and performance of the new balls. Only two months into the season, the league shelved the ball and returned to the old leather version.
Off track in Staten Island
In 2004, International Speedway Corp. bought land on Staten Island with eyes on developing a race track that would give NASCAR a presence in the New York market. But two years later, faced with challenging approval requirements and an inability to secure local political support, ISC abandoned the effort.
2004 USA men’s basketball team
The highly-touted U.S. men’s basketball team fell flat at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. The not-so Dream Team settled for the bronze medal after compiling a 5-3 record. The American team had claimed gold in 12 of the 14 previous Olympic basketball competitions it had competed in. That disappointment led to an overhaul of USA Basketball from management to player selection that has resulted in the Americans going 24-0 in the Olympics since 2004, winning gold at the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Games.
Malice at the Palace
The Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons were in the last minute of their game on Nov. 19, 2004, when an ugly melee erupted that saw players take to the stands and fight fans. The incident left the NBA with a huge image problem and the league responded with some of the harshest penalties in sports, suspending nine players, including Pacers forward Ron Artest, who was banned for the rest of the season.
Not so Master-ful performance
Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams got a bum rap when music star Master P’s agency, No Limit Sports, negotiated the rookie running back’s contract with the New Orleans Saints in 1999. Williams got a seven-year deal that initially paid him the league minimum of $175,000 a year and had an $8.8 million signing bonus. There were also a series of incentives for increasingly unlikely benchmarks — like rushing for 1,600 yards as a rookie or winning Super Bowl MVP — that totaled almost $68 million. The ink had hardly dried before Williams and Master P had parted ways.
Hanging up on ESPN
ESPN developed its own mobile phone in 2006 and backed the venture with a $150 million investment by the company. But the media giant quickly learned that the hardware business was challenging at best and was forced to shut down the effort after less than a year.
Spider-Man gets squashed
In 2004, MLB announced plans to promote the “Spider-Man 2” movie by putting a small logo for the film on bases during three days of games. Baseball fans love their tradition, and instantly rebelled, forcing the league to quickly alter the promotion and keep the bases clean. Your friendly, neighborhood web-slinger would have to stay off the field.
The fall of MVP.com
Despite financial backing from the powerhouse team of Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and John Elway, MVP.com never found its footing in the e-commerce world. The online sporting goods site launched in 2000, but shut down only a year later. Like many dot.com ventures at the time, MVP.com underestimated the challenge in gaining adequate traffic and saw its cash run out.