Sports, media and entertainment are thoroughly intertwined in a marketplace defined by stars, brands and consumers who customize their content diet, from social media channels, to streamers to linear cable and regional sports networks.
Those were among the themes of panels and conversations held July 13 at Variety + Sportico’s Sports and Entertainment Summit in Los Angeles, presented by City National Bank. Leaders, athletes and executives came together at the 1 Hotel West Hollywood to discuss the varying challenges, techniques and strategies that have served them well. Here are 10 key takeaways from a day of lively discourse.
Streaming Has Shifted The Industry
In the summit’s opening session, moderated by Variety co-editor-in chief Cynthia Littleton, panelists discussed how live games and other sports content perform on streaming platforms versus traditional TV. “We do have to acknowledge that sports are unique,” said Rosalyn Durant, executive VP and head of programming and acquisitions at ESPN. “If you look across the media industry, sports have to be live.” Jon Cruz, YouTube’s global head of sports partnerships, noted that “the intent is to provide flexibility for our users and our partners” with the use of lucrative streaming value bundles.
“We want to make sure viewers have access to the content they want,” said Cruz. “We want to make sure whether you’re the NFL, FOX, or ESPN, you have multiple ways to monetize your content on our platform.”
Mike Mulvihill, president of insights and analytics for Fox Sports, pointed to the struggles of the regional sports network business as an example of how the economics of pay TV have shifted. In the past, the more successful a show was, the more money it generated. “Now we’re at a moment where the relationship between popularity and revenue is breaking down. And it makes are business a lot more complicated, and I think it’s a major reason why we have writers and actors on strike.” So while the content being broadcast on regional sports networks is still as popular as ever, cord-cutting and streaming is still effecting on viewership.
“I think the reason RSNs have a hard time building a direct-to-consumer offering is because they become unbundled,” said Mulvihill. “If they can find a way to bundle themselves with something else, it’s gonna put them in a much better position, but that’s obviously a lot easier said than done.”
Fans Want Immersive Content
With so many demographics of fans tuning into sporting content comes the need for varying flows of entertainment. Deloitte’s Sports Fan Insight survey compiled information from over 3,000 participants, giving a clearer view of what fans are truly looking for. “We are now about to enter the era of immersive sports,” said Kat Harwood, principal of sports industry practices at Deloitte. “The optionality is absolutely what younger fans want.”
Deloitte’s study found that as opposed to older generations, Gen Z is welcoming to streaming video-on-demand (SVOD) features that enhance viewing experiences. Adhering to the finding that 80% of Gen Z fans follow a professional athlete online, Deloitte found that this leads consumers to become more engaged in sporting content. “They’re watching clips and interviews, and this is just showing that there truly are generational differences,” said Harwood.
Merging Sports And Entertainment Is Indispensable
The influence of entertainment in the sporting industry is paramount, evidently shown through the likes of athletes including the likes of Michael Jordan and LeBron James. For athletes and brands alike, crossing the bridge between the two industries can open limitless opportunities. Gerry Cardinale, founder, managing partner and CIO of RedBird Capital Partners, explained that blending elements of fiction and nonfiction, too, provide great results.
“If you look at what we did with ‘Air,’ it was a classic example where that’s a hybrid,” said Cardinale. “There’s definitely that crossover – it’s just not going to be as easy as just saying you’re going to go right into scripted content.” Utilizing the popularity of sports figures with the profitability of entertainment is one way in which executives can maximize efforts.
Branding Is Key
Brand awareness is a critical element. The Los Angeles Rams know this all too well. The team was long associated with Los Angeles, but decamped for St. Louis in 1995, returning in 2016. Rams head coach Sean McVay, who took the team to a Super Bowl win for the 2021 season, explained that the core of the team’s mission, “it always has been, and always will be, about the people.”
“It comes down to this notion of commitment and investment,” added Kathryn Kai-ling Frederick, CMO of the Rams. “A lot of what we do is marry the opportunity of great entertainment with the core values of our team.” Frederick points to the popularity of Inglewood’s So-Fi Stadium as an example of how the venue has emerged as a “centerpiece” for the NFL team “that allows us to get that convergence point between sport and entertainment” for fans. Noting that the stadium was created as a hub for Rams fans, Frederick said that the “platform” has allowed the business to expand offering a “unique perspective [for] creative, rich, unique experiences in L.A.”
Personal Brand Growth Is Flexible
Whether on or off the field, athletes have been deemed incredibly profitable. For the marketing teams behind them, it’s about steering their athletes in the directions they’re looking to head, while giving them enough space to be authentic online. “There’s so much opportunity, we just need to make the tools and environments available,” said Karin Timpone, CMO of Major League Baseball.
With the prevalence of social media, all panelists at the Sports Leaders Keynote Roundtable acknowledged that social media holds great power to alter the lives of athletes, a force that walks a fine line.
“If they’re comfortable posting, their fans want to hear about how they’re training, what they’re eating, where they’re traveling to,” said Timpone. “But that means less downtime for them when they’re not competing. I think from our perspective, you hope that they can disconnect a little bit for the heat of their performance and their competition schedule.”
“So many of our athletes don’t want to share everything online, and that’s ok,” said Fara Leff, COO of Clutch Sports Group. She discussed how agents can fill the gaps between what the athletes do want to post and what’s left out that fans still want to see. “So then it’s our job as the agency to say, ‘How else are we getting your story out? Is there a moment after a game that we’re taking a reporter to talk to a family member to share something special?’” She added, “It’s our job as representation to reinvent the wheel and find other ways to share their stories.”
For companies like Meta, they don’t mind having to bridge this gap, but they do encourage athletes to have some sort of personal presence online while they’re still in the spotlight. “It just depends on the athlete. “They are not creators, they are not influencers,” said Isaura Morales Ruiz, head of U.S. sports partnerships at Meta. “You want them to have social media at some point, because [as an athlete] you don’t want to say ‘Hello’ when you’re ready for retirement,” she added. “Then the fans are gone, they’re already watching up-and-coming athletes.” Ruiz explains that if an athlete wants to move on to starting a business or a brand post-career, they have to build their platform while the fans are still watching.
A Balance Between Personal and Professional Life Is Vital
Jaylen Brown, Patrick Patterson, Katelyn Ohashi, Jordan Chiles and Scotty James sat down with moderator Todd Burach, SVP at City National Bank, to discuss how they manage their personal and professional lives. “The ball does stop dribbling at some point,” said Patrick Patterson, former NBA star and co-founder Undisputed Productions. “Maybe before you’re even prepared, maybe before you’re even ready. But you need to have something that you’re equally passionate about to fall back on.”
Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown, too, highlighted the fact that athletes often have “most of your influence” while at the peak of their career. “When you’re done, you’re done. Then, most people tend to not care and be less interested in you.” Olympic gymnast Jordan Chiles revealed that she’s been able to utilize the lessons she’s learned throughout her career as an athlete in her own personal life.
“I recently just bought my first house in Texas, and as a 22-year-old that’s the biggest thing you can do in your life,” said Chiles. “I can say competing on the biggest stage is stressful, but no, buying a house was more stressful. Realizing that everything I’ve learned in my sport can be applied to my daily life has helped tremendously.”
Sports Content ‘Is Just Getting Started,’ Says Ross Raphael
Superstar athletes including LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant are among a number of athletes diving into the media industry with their own companies. “A production company is a storytelling brand,” said WME partner Ross Raphael. “Launching a new [production company] is easier to do with an athlete because they have such defined brands.”
Joel Embiid, 2023 NBA MVP, is diving into the world of media alongside James with the development of Miniature Géant, a new production studio in partnership with The SpringHill Company. As to why? Embiid attributes “storytelling,” a niche content form that Raphael said “is just getting started.”
“I have a great story,” said Embiid. “I also want to tell other people’s stories.” Raphael highlighted that athletes hopping onto studio projects “brings a certain level of built-in marketing, it elevates the project.” Because many athletes have pre-developed “standalone brands,” it allows for access to create high-quality content backed by “the best in the class networks and distributors.”
Russell Westbrook Joins Leeds United As A Stakeholder
NBA all-star Russell Westbrook is the latest star to invest in soccer, exclusively announcing at the summit that he’s becoming a minority stakeholder in Leeds United football club. Westbrook’s big announcement comes after Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney successfully bought into Wrexham FC and a majority-female group of Hollywood heavyweights, led by actress Natalie Portman, venture capitalist Kara Nortman, entrepreneur Julie Uhrman, and venture capitalist Alexis Ohanian founded Angel City FC.
“I’m grateful and thankful,” said Westbrook. “I’m excited to keep uplifting what they already have going on.” As to why Westbrook decided to invest in soccer, instead of basketball, he revealed that it was a “process.”
“I have a good team, we bounce ideas off of each other,” said Westbrook. “I make sure that they’re aligned with our message, with our vision, and for us that is making sure anything we do that there’s a community component and finding ways to be the voice in the face of underserved communities.”
Damar Hamlin Is Using His Platform to Evoke Change
Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin was catapulted into the spotlight after going into mid-cardiac arrest during a Jan. 2023 game. Hamlin, having now made a full recovery, shared that he was “still processing a lot” per the shift in his life. “I always had a goal [to] be a face, a figure, to stand for something positive,” said Hamlin. “I’m rolling with the punches.”
Presented with the Variety Social Impact Award, Hamlin has aspirations to grow his charity, Chasing M’s. “I started my foundation directly out of college” by starting a toy drive for children in his community, Hamlin revealed. “The mission, before the incident, was the same. [I have] the platform to help more people across the world. The purpose of Chasing M’s is all about me being a kid and searching for that figure, searching for that answer of what to do.”
Hamlin has plans to “set up rec centers across the country” in addition to launching “different types of programs to keep kids in place, to save generations to come” through the charity. “Where I’m at right now is directly on the mission of who I wanted to be as a kid,” said Hamlin.
Angel Reese Hopes To Give Young Women Confidence
Angel Reese always knew she was going to be successful, but after she broke her foot during her freshman year of college, she had no idea what her future in basketball would hold. “I didn’t think I was going to be able to do anything,” said Reese, NCAA Champion and Most Oustanding Player of the 2023 NCAA Champion. “I just lost confidence in basketball.” Making her full recovery came with “trusting God, praying a lot and having a lot of great people in my circle.”
A key component of Reese’s mission is to be a “voice to help other people that don’t have a voice,” particularly young women. “My biggest impact is the young girls,” said Reese. “I grew up playing against boys so I had to stand my ground,” she explained. At the young age of 21 years old, Reese attributes her confidence to being sure of herself. “People are going to love you or people are going to hate you,” she said. “I’m unapologetically Angel. You don’t have to like me, but you’re going to respect me.”
Why Storytellers Love Sports
The day ended with a look at trends in sports-themed storytelling and commentary. A group of industry creatives noted that the emotional connection viewers have with many sports and personalities is key to the success of scripted and nonfiction projects. “Even if you’re not a sports person, the pursuit of a dream, especially at an elite level: it’s relatable,” said Nkechi Okoro Carroll, executive producer and showrunner of CW’s “All American.”
“We’re telling a bigger story about sacrifice, trust, teamwork and the human spirit,” said Katie Bender Wynn of her “Matildas: The World at Our Feet” that followed the Australian women’s soccer team on their journey to the World Cup. “Sports is compelling to people because you have not only what happens on the field but also the stories that fans [know] go into it,” explained Max Borenstein, creator and showrunner of HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.”
“You have to find the heart of the narrative and then use the sport just to really enhance the story,” added Paul Martin, executive producer on projects including “Break Point,” “Full Swing” and “Formula 1: Drive to Survive.”