This past week, I attended the Sports Leaders Conference in London at the
Chelsea FC stadium.
My agency, Situation, specializes in entertainment
and sports marketing, so I was interested to hear how my
colleagues from around the world are feeling on the current
state of the business. Long story short, I’m very happy I took
The organizers did a masterful job of curating the conference
by tackling the most pressing issues sports marketers face
today — ranging from the growing eSports market to the rapidly
changing content distribution models to the differences between
our current fans and the next generation. (Yes, it was a lot to
If I had to sum up my takeaway from the event as a whole, it
would be this: Change may occur slowly, but so will the
preparation required for changing the habits and norms of the
clubs and leagues striving to remain relevant for decades to
come. While it was clear the room couldn’t exactly predict
consumer behavior over the next decades, the conversation from
the experts on the stage focused squarely on the importance of
exploring new territories now. Though the speakers and
topics were varied, there were four clear questions that drove
the conversation across the board.
1. How do we recruit the best talent to ensure we’re
well armed to tackle the complexities of our changing
While there are plenty of perks when working in the sports and
entertainment business, it’s no walk in the park. People work
tirelessly in a fast-paced world they have very little control
of. I know this first-hand as I spend significant time and
effort designing a workplace culture that is centered on my
employees’ needs. I would argue it’s the single most important
strategy that has kept us growing over 15 years!
That’s why it was a breath of fresh air to hear from Scott
O’Neil and his work with the Philadelphia 76ers, the New Jersey
Devils, and his passion for taking care of his people. From
incentive programs, to charitable hours, to clear training
paths for success, his passion for creating an amazing
workplace is inspiring. But beyond inspiring, my hunch is that
he also knows that to succeed in a space of rapid change, he
needs to retain and recruit the best talent.
2. Who controls the narrative?
From the athletes’ perspective, there is clear interest in
understanding content distribution as it relates to their
personal brand. They have more power and control over the value
of their brand than ever before, but how will that evolve over
time? I was particularly interested in what Maverick Carter had
to say through his venture Uninterrupted – a new platform that
gives athletes a direct vehicle for controlling their message.
(A savvy marketer, I highly recommend you
listen to an interview with him on Recode/Decode.) He
should know the importance of it – he oversaw LeBron James’
many infamous media announcements over his career. As more
athletes become brands themselves, the conversation about
equity in the fan relationship between the athlete, the team,
and the league is a conversation that I’m following closely.
3. How do we define our brand experience?
The conversation around eSports is one that has many marketers
at the edge of their seats. They hear about massive growth and
the opportunity to extend their brands to new territories. But
I can’t help but feel that when eSports comes up, 90% of people
look like deer in headlights. How are we going to monetize
this? How are we going to make sure this doesn’t cannibalize
our live audience? How does this impact our viewership?
Most marketing executives in their 40s and beyond simply aren’t
native to eSports, have very little understanding of the
complexities in the gamesmanship, and don’t have an innate
sense of what drives this audience and its surrounding culture.
We heard from a range of excellent speakers on the topic but I
had one major takeaway from it all – it’s here, it’s real and
it’s only going to grow. So, start exploring.
4. How can we ensure the live experience remains
relevant in a technology-driven world?
I was excited to hear the vision of new Major League Soccer
club Atlanta United FC. Aside from building one of the most
ambitious new stadiums in the country, they communicated two
core principles that particularly resonated with me. First,
they strategically built the stadium in the city, in the heart
of the community – not outside the city or in the suburbs. It’s
admirable that they took this route – which is clearly much
harder to accomplish – but will pay off exponentially in terms
of their relationship with the community. Second, they
prioritized affordable concessions. They are proactively
choosing out of the gate to make the experience for
the community and priced appropriately. In a marketing world
full of jargon, the idea of cheaper hot dogs may ultimately
prove to be the most effective, gutsy move that will not go
unnoticed by fans. Major League Soccer is in the midst of rapid
growth for good reason – they masterfully view their fans as
the product. It’s satisfying to see them double down on this
strategy in what I’m sure will be another successful sports
Along those lines, we also heard from the Cleveland Cavaliers
and the amazing work they are doing in their communities. In
one of the biggest underdog stories in NBA finals history, the
Cavs continually make investments to connect their community
(not just those in the stadium) with the game. From viewing
parties that raised money for local charities to inviting local
vendors to participate in the festivities, the Cavaliers scored
big with their community by bringing them along. I like to
believe that those good deeds played some karmic role in their
miraculous come back. Good things happen from good gestures.
As I said in the beginning, I’m happy I took the trip. Kudos to
the organizers of the event for a classy, informative
conference. Next year, I’d love to hear more about ticketing
and the balance between maximizing revenue per ticket without
isolating the team’s most dedicated fans. There are still too
many empty seats across too many stadiums, and that isn’t good
for our pockets or the fan experience.