Global Edition

Spoilt for choice (or by choice?)

5.57pm 9th April 2020 - Opinion

Stephen Proctor, Chairman, Sports Marketing Surveys Inc and Sports Marketing Surveys USA looks back on the last few decades in sport and gives us his view on what lies ahead.

They say time flies when you are having fun – it has done for me. I have always felt that many people would pay to have my job and the enjoyment I have had from it over the past 35 years. Looking back at this unprecedented time, the future is harder to see even than when I came into the sports industry for the first time, fresh from 10 years as CEO and Chairman of a 2,000 person strong transatlantic manufacturing company but utterly ignorant of both the market research industry and the business of sport.

Here are some of the highlights:

Looking back, the most striking element of change, which to me is the most important, is the huge choice now available to anyone even remotely interested in sport, including both traditional sports and esports.

The original setting

In 1985, there was no Sky TV, no esport, no mobile phones, no sms (short messaging systems in this case) no internet, no social media, no e-mail.

Sport was shown on BBC or ITV if at all, with a relatively small sports section in the daily press, and coverage by speciality magazines. 

The Premier League did not exist. The 1985 Ryder Cup was not even broadcast on U.S. television. The European Tour that now operates in 29 countries in Europe, Africa and Asia, then had just 30 events in total.

The drivers of change

What has driven the increase is choice during this period, particularly in terms of new ways of watching, following and discussing sport.

1990 Sky Sports was launched.
1992 Text messaging began in the same year as the Premier League.
1995 Internet became commercial.  The Golf Channel made its debut.
2000 Nokia introduced the first practical mobile phone.
2004  Facebook launches.
2006 Twitter is created.
2007 Apple introduced the iPhone.

All of these are communication systems that would go on to become widely available. All have contributed to a huge increase in our choices on how to watch, follow, or consume sport as individuals and as communities.

At the same time they have had the effect of shortening consumers’ attention span.

Why has this happened?

Surely because we can now, within a short time span, dip in and out of multiple events without missing the highlights of any. Despite no longer having to watch the full event, we feel we have experienced them and that we are able to intelligently discuss any of them with friends and colleagues.

The other key choice now open to us, is how to balance watching and playing. Societal norms have shifted, and simultaneously, leisure time seems to have become scarcer rather than more plentiful.  

In the 1980s with relatively little sport to watch, most coverage was on the BBC, with ITV featuring a Saturday ‘World of Sports’ programme covering minority sports, including ten pin bowling and go kart racing! This meant more time to play or attend live events. To this day the Premier League recognises the potential impact of broadcast sport on sports participation and live attendance in its ongoing ban on broadcasting 3pm kick-offs within the UK.

Perhaps none of us really realised the extent of this phenomenon. The truth of this shift was vividly displayed in the first days of the coronavirus epidemic. My experience of those first few days, when sports events vanished from airwaves and screens, was of packed golf courses (now closed), runners and cyclists taking to the road, and parks crowded.

Choice has also impacted in other ways.  Many sports brands have merged or disappeared.  Four brands dominate the tennis racquet market, whilst the number of brands supplying golf equipment has also decreased.

Offsetting this, there has been huge growth in sports apparel brands, in part because of a general trend to more casual clothing and athleisure wear, much of which is equally at home in the leisure as in the sports environment.

With change has come more sophisticated marketing. In 1981 most sports brands were managed and often founded by sports enthusiasts, frequently those who had achieved high levels of success in the professional game.  They did what they loved. Now, whilst companies are still run by people with a keen interest in sport, they often also bring experience in FMCG and other commercial sectors.  Sport has remained a friendly business, but now with a much more commercial approach.

This is equally true of events, venue owners and federations.  The growth of organisations, such as the IOC, F1, FIFA, The Premier League, and the European Tour has been remarkable and with it has come a major shift to a big business philosophy.  Justified of course, by the huge sums of money now involved in all major sport, and the responsibility in many cases for promoting their specific sport.

But I am digressing. What have been the key changes in the past 35 years?

What is the future?

The last few years in sport have seen the acceleration of three clear trends.

  1. Participation in individual sports and in fitness activities has grown at the expense of team sports. Speed is of the essence. T20, best of three sets, shorter format golf have all grown.
  2. Consumption /following of sport has shifted more to mobile devices, which in turn focus on highlights and action replays.
  3. The growth of esports. This is expected to generate £2,300,000,000 (2.3 billion) of revenue in 2022. Will this reach the Olympics? The subject has been much discussed, but in 2019, the IOC reached an agreement with Intel, one of the Games’ partners to deliver a World Open for esports in Tokyo alongside the Games. Esports is increasingly sitting alongside, if not in the same room as traditional sports.

Will Coronavirus change everything? 

Certainly, the short-term impact is dramatic and we should not expect full recovery until 2022, though the deferral of events into 2021 may create a uniquely busy sports calendar. There is no reason to suspect those three trends will not continue, whatever happens with Coronavirus.

How long will it take to rebuild the infrastructure of the sports world and the very badly dented finances of many of its brands, events, venues and federations?

Will coronavirus accelerate the growth of esports – probably yes, but the profile of sports fans and esports fans is substantially different so there is unlikely to be a mass migration.  

How quickly can the hospitality organisations, the fitness clubs, and specialty tour operators restore their finances to enable them to carry out their normal functions?

How will the broadcast market react? It is a sector already under pressure from the twin trends of rights holders setting up OTT services to reach fans directly, and consumers resenting the need to pay for multiple, often costly providers to access all their team’s matches.

To me, the congestion in the sporting calendar looks set to bring a strong bounce back in 2021, but it may be at least 2022 before we are fully back to what, until a few short weeks ago, we regarded as ‘normal’.

Societally, will there be massive long-term changes, including more working online, less travel to meetings and conferences?

I do not believe so. Current trends will continue, and may be slightly accelerated. But there is no substitute for face to face interaction, nor for personal and business relationships.

A vaccine will be created and the problems overcome, as they have been with so many other illnesses, flu, measles and many others.

Arguably the biggest impact on our way of life and sporting behaviour remains terrorism with its huge impact on travel, on sports events and on all other events or venues at which significant numbers of people gather.

This has led to huge security operations, created new industries, generated high levels of employment, dramatically increased costs, and seriously inconvenienced the entire developed world.

Sport is all about challenges, but it also contains some extraordinary personalities and institutions who are perhaps better equipped than ever to rise to these challenges. I believe our industry will prove very successful in getting back on its feet and will find new opportunities for the sports world to operate better than ever.

Stephen Proctor, Chairman, Sports Marketing Surveys Inc and Sports Marketing Surveys USA.

Sports Marketing Surveys have relaunched their web-presence with a new logo at www.sportsmarketingsurveys.com – within their report shop are some free-to-download reports around golf and other sports. Please visit and check out these free insight surveys.

Wishing everyone a Happy Easter – www.sportsmarketingsurveys.com

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