"You at Leaders?"
It’s a question that gets asked each October, when the marketing industry meets the sports business at Leaders in Sport, a week-long series of lanyards, conference panels and keynote speakers, all served with sponsored food and corporate booze.
This year's cast of characters went from Sorrell and Coe to Samsung and ESPN, via Dave Brailsford and Billy Beane, the Moneyball coach played by Brad Pitt in the film.
But the real value of Leaders lies not in the big name guests but in the small talk in the corridors and bars, a time and place to gauge what people in sport are talking about, worrying about and hoping for.
We’re at the end of the beginning in the relationship between sport and social media. The first phase was based on huge over claims of reach and relevance, as clubs, leagues and other rights holders tried to present Twitter and Facebook follower numbers as evidence of deep fan engagement. "Big vanity numbers are great", said Matt Stevenson, head of sponsorship at EE, "but what we’re looking for is meaning." That’s still the hard bit.
2. Dayta, Darta, Datta
Data evangelists are just as prevalent in sport as they are in the rest of the marketing industry, but in sport there’s a hefty caveat. Sport is about warm and fuzzy sentiment and fans are famously reluctant to be seen as the product. This runs counter to the geeks’ world view that often positions an Arsenal or Chelsea as a database of personal details to be raided for commercial gain. Words change their meaning when they leave a marketing conference and move to a stadium full of real people. When clubs say ‘data’, their fans hear ‘spam’.
3. What’s normal?
Sport’s greatest marketing asset is its ability to normalise behaviours for a mass audience. This power can be used for good or evil, depending on ethical compass and price point. Smoking, betting and burger eating or social inclusion, Superhumans and #TakeAKnee-style racial politics: you pays your money and takes your choice. This goes for tech too. Without sports content to sell it, some of Silicon Valley’s most dazzling platforms can look like a solution seeking a problem.
4. Reading Sorrell
Sir Martin Sorrell has appeared twice at Leaders in the last three years. Given his industry status as walking bellwether, this suggests that sport is something he increasingly values amid the existential crises striking other elements of marketing. His every gnomic utterance was written down and analysed this week, but the fact that he was there again spoke volumes. The medium is the message, as someone clever once said.
5. Sport for sale (lots of it)
There’s quite a bit of unsold sponsorship inventory clogging up the rights market. A host of Fifa packages for next year’s World Cup remain on the shelf, vying for attention with the title rights of the Six Nations rugby, UEFA Euro slots, the England and Wales Cricket Board's test cricket rights and the FA’s stack of partnerships are coming up for renewal. The question for sports rights holders is whether this is just a business as usual cyclical glut or something more fundamental. This gets us to a bigger question as to whether the traditional official partnership model of packaged rights - the engine of growth in sports marketing for three decades - is relevant in today’s media environment.
6. Private v public
Park Run has got mums, dads and their kids jogging on a Saturday morning. Crossfit has made weightlifting sexy and Mamils are tearing around the home counties in Sky branded lycra. This is all great news but there’s a nagging worry for the traditional sports governing bodies who use public money to promote and organise events up and down the country. The accountants in Westminster are starting to ask some tough questions about the link between big televised events and participation. If a grass roots charity can start a running boom….?
7. The kids are revolting
Age is one of the great divides running through the sports business as millennials and gen Y stubbornly refuse to play the game in the way their parents did. They aren’t buying expensive pay TV subscriptions or watching the Olympics and Formula One, and the Premier League’s average season ticket holder is in his mid-forties. The sports market has jumped on eSports as the answer to all ills, trying to shoehorn the chaotic event and talent landscape in to something resembling a rights market. Billions will be spent in the coming years. There will be big hits and lots of wasted money. The message for the brand community is clear: strap yourself in, it’s going to be a heck of a ride.
Richard Gillis is an author and journalist. Follow him on Twitter @RichardGillis1