At Large: 20 questions for the sports industry in 2020

At Large: 20 questions for the sports industry in 2020

2020: the year of hindsight. Am I right?

Well, no, obviously. Leaving aside the longstanding difficulties around actually being able to see into the future, there are an unusual number of unknowable things about the sports business just now.

So while the festive glow fades and the news cycle that sustains this column whirrs back into action, here are a selection – 20, which seemed appropriate – of the questions the industry will probably want answered, and might even get answered, in the months to come.

What mark will Tokyo 2020 leave?

The biggest event of the year may be seen in time as a watershed before more radical interpretations in Paris and Los Angeles, but this summer’s Olympics and Paralympics have a broad significance of their own in everything from Japan’s place in the sports industry, to delivering for an unprecedented mass of sponsors, to Rule 40 and athlete power and the arrival of five new sports. Despite budget overruns and undercurrents of corruption in the build-up, Tokyo can be expected to deliver a high-class spectacle.

Is Euro 2020 an anomaly or a glimpse into the future?

Born of necessity amid a lack of viable bids, Uefa’s pan-continental plan for Euro 2020 has sparked curiosity ever since it was announced in 2012. The 12-city, multi-nation concept for soccer’s second-biggest tournament might be a model for globally sited events or it might present headaches and lack a core. Ambitious cities like Budapest, Bucharest and Dublin will come into the mega-event fold but it could be post-Brexit London – the host of seven games including the final – that pushes hardest to own the occasion.

When will sport adapt to its environment?

Smoke and haze from disastrous bushfires are palpable at the inaugural ATP Cup men’s tennis tournament in Sydney as well as the third Test between Australia and New Zealand’s cricketers at the SCG. It’s a sobering start to the year and, sadly, just the beginning of such things. Sport is going to struggle to evade reminders of the climate catastrophe and will increasingly have to do things about it, or because of it.

The ATP Cup and Australia’s third Test against New Zealand have got underway against the backdrop of a bushfire crisis

What would be at risk in a global economic slowdown?

Back in November, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) painted a gloomy picture of worldwide economic prospects for 2020 with growth set to slow as key markets recalibrate. That might not be cause for panic just yet but the industry will be thinking about where its most vulnerable points lie.

How does women’s sport maintain momentum?

2019 was another massive year for the growth of women’s sport with the Fifa Women’s World Cup at the heart of it and calls to build more sustainable platforms with consistent support. The Tokyo Games will be a boost for a number of disciplines while it will be worth monitoring the performance of cricket’s ICC Women’s T20 World Cup in Australia, where the Women’s Big Bash League has set a high standard.

What kind of year will it be for the super-agencies?

Wanda Sports and Endeavor spent the latter half of the last decade building empires, aggregating other agencies, pulling in investment and buying up promoters and rights holding bodies. 2019 was slower, with an underwhelming IPO for the former and an abandoned float from the latter as each sought new sources of cash. Does 2020 bring a different strategy or another trip to the well?

Is there a big VC play on the horizon?

CVC has already started investing in rugby union through deals with England’s Premiership Rugby and the Six Nations Championship, and may want to spend further to bring more stakeholders into line. Venture capital has been linked with big changes in club soccer and the wholesale takeover of other sports. Its influence could yet be seismic.

Is sport getting to grips with esports?

In the past few years, some traditional sports bodies and teams have alternately viewed esports as an existential threat to physical activity and a new discipline to be co-opted. More recently, savvier organisations have used the space as a way of understanding digitally native audiences, partnerships and content distribution, and as a legitimate avenue for investment. As debates continue over which kinds of esports ventures are actually viable, and the mutual influence between conventional sport and gaming deepens, we should start to see more evidence of which approaches are profiting.

How many new digital broadcast players will survive?

The push into digital broadcasting has involved a lot of new ideas, some of which will pay off and some of which will not. Given the cost of sports rights and the more concerted attention on OTT of the most powerful media companies, it seems a fair assumption that a few digital upstarts will find the going tough and that mergers, acquisitions and dissolutions lie ahead in a still fluid marketplace.

Will we see the next streaming breakthrough?

December’s deals taking the Uefa Champions League to DAZN and Amazon in Germany suggested we’re moving closer to more game-changing agreements involving OTT services or tech companies and big, exclusive sets of rights. They may not happen in 2020, given the timing of various major cycles, but the discussions to make them will be.

2019 saw DAZN make more moves for premium sports rights

Is OTT the new free-to-air?

Direct-to-consumer broadcast products have been associated with protecting revenues in the shift away from more familiar outlets but a number of free services are now appearing, from rights holder-led efforts like the FA Player to incoming women’s soccer channel Wnited. The idea is that these can consolidate reach, satisfying fast-growing but still malleable audiences, and give sponsors a place to congregate. The maths may say something different in time but for now, they point to a potential for flexibility in OTT models that has still barely been explored.

Can MLB and MiLB make it work?

Tensions between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball escalated last year to the point where a complete break is not inconceivable. That would have massive ramifications for a good chunk of the US sports economy and could also echo through talks between big and not so big leagues everywhere.

Is pop-up sport here to stay?

Between KSI v Logan Paul, Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon milestone and GolfTV’s multiple challenges, these are boom times for the purpose-built sports promotion. The pop-up event can short-circuit growth for emerging sports, can meet fast-rising demand, and has its appeal for broadcasters and sponsors who want something they wholly own. Yet the balance between curiosity and credibility is a delicate one.

Will the Hundred really count?

Watching the Hundred will replace talking about the Hundred among English cricketing pastimes in July. Plenty of rights holders will be watching on to see how the ECB’s machine-tooled, media-tailored new tournament fares, and what kind of case it makes for radical thinking elsewhere.

How will the Saudi project unfold?

Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth is now a factor for sport and sports events, whatever the controversy or moral conflict. In 2020, it seems likely, a very big property is going to align itself with the kingdom – or take a stand by turning its money down.

Can WADA hold its nerve on Russia?

We’ve seen this one before: Russian state interference in anti-doping procedures, a ban that’s not quite a ban, mixed messages from the federation world. Under new president Witold Banka and with Russia appealing a four-year suspension from global competition, can WADA maintain a firm line on large-scale cheating and will it get the necessary support?

Witold Banka (left) is succeeding Sir Craig Reedie as WADA president

Which sports are due an ISL-style disruption?

The International Swimming League hinted in 2019 at the appetite for change that even quite modest investment could bring to globally popular sports. As a galaxy of underpaid stars get their quadrennial hit of Olympic spotlight, it might not be the last venture of its kind.

Will top athletes keep talking?

With sports stars speaking more confidently on social issues, the position of some brands is not so much ‘Republicans buy sneakers, too’ as ‘Republicans trend away from our target demographics for these products’. But in an Olympic and US presidential election year, there will be lots of prodding at points between sport, commerce and political discourse.

Is China resetting its relationship with global sport?

The aggressive Chinese state response to criticism from Daryl Morey and Mesut Ozil in late 2019 confirmed some difficult realities about doing business in the world’s second-biggest economy. It also sought to convey another message: that overseas rights holders need China more than China needs them. Those rows may look like the thin end of the wedge as the country positions itself as a cultural exporter, rather than importer.

When will the new decade really start?

It’s one of the great pop history standards. The 20th century actually started with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, the 21st with 9/11. The 60s ended a few months early, with the Manson murders in Hollywood; the 2010s were already defined by the financial crash of 2008.

You could argue that the last decade in sport properly began on that fateful December day in 2010 where Fifa awarded the World Cup to Russia and Qatar, setting storylines in motion that would dominate the years ahead. So will there be some happening in the next 12 months that sets the industry tone for the 2020s? Or have we seen it already?


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