23 questions for the sports industry in 2023 - SportsPro

As the sports business swings back into action for another year, SportsPro ponders some of the storylines set to unfold over the coming 12 months.

After a brief lull, the sports industry is back and ready to do it all again.

2023 will see major events in women’s soccer, rugby union, and cricket, while a number of premium sports properties will be going to market with their media rights. There are likely to be ownership changes at some of the world’s most recognisable franchises, which will sell for prices that will be difficult to reconcile with a cost-of-living crisis set to create new challenges for all types of organisations operating within global sport.

The appeal of sport lies in its unpredictability. So, with that in mind, SportsPro lays out 23 questions that will be worth considering – and might even get answered – over the coming 12 months.

What we can be almost certain of is that we will see the record broken for the most expensive team sale – and then potentially broken again.

(Clockwise from top left) Manchester United, the Washington Commanders, the Phoenix Suns and Ottawa Senators are just four of the teams currently up for sale

The last decade in the sports industry had been building up to the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar, an event that seemed so fanciful that it never really felt like it was going to happen until it, well, happened. But what now for the tiny Gulf state after its big moment on the global stage?

The collapse of FTX is likely to impact more than just the sports teams that the cryptocurrency exchange held partnerships with. Several rights holders have been burned by other companies linked to the sector and are therefore likely to be more cautious about signing deals – especially long-term ones – with crypto brands. The question is who replaces them?

Sports properties may look to emerging brands in traditional sectors, such as electric vehicle manufacturers and rapid food delivery firms, or may even try to cash in on the generative AI hype.

Given their expertise across areas such as ecommerce, discoverability and streaming technology, sports properties could do worse than try to further leverage their fledgling relationship with some of the biggest businesses in the world to deepen their engagement with fans.

The 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand will be the biggest ever and is expected to break more records for viewership and attendances. There are also likely to be further milestones at the women’s T20 and netball World Cups. But all that has become par for the course.

There will now be greater focus on how the landscape of women’s sport is evolving outside of those flagship occasions. New media rights deals for the NWSL should offer some insight into the perceived value among broadcasters. But the Women’s Indian Premier League (WIPL) could drive investment to new heights for a standalone women’s sports property.

As the cost of living rises, many people are reconsidering what luxuries they can afford. Sport may well fall into the ‘disposable’ category and fears over a looming recession has the potential to impact everything from ticket sales to merchandise and streaming subscriptions as fans look to cut costs.

7. What will the Rugby World Cup tell us about France’s preparations for Paris 2024?

The Rugby World Cup later this year will provide a welcome distraction for a sport that has struggled to make headlines for the right reasons, with the state of the game in England a particular concern. It will also offer an opportunity to see how France’s preparations are coming along ahead of it hosting the Olympic Games next year.

The Formula One season will be headlined by a return to Las Vegas. If a replacement for the Chinese Grand Prix can be found, this year’s schedule will feature a record 24 races for the first time. But as Formula One continues to expand while talking up the prospect of more races in new markets, there will be greater scrutiny on the strain that growth will place on its workforce and raise questions over its commitment to reduce its carbon footprint.

Will the series continue its upward trajectory or are the wheels about to come off?

One of the more interesting developments in the streaming space last year saw several businesses shift towards becoming all-in-one sports destinations. Challenger brands such as DAZN have spent heavily to acquire premium rights in major territories but there appears to be an admission that subscription costs alone – which have also climbed over the past 12 months – will not deliver profitability.

Sport will continue to work out how to get the most out of Web 3.0 this year. 2022 was a bad year for crypto, while several non-fungible token (NFT) projects were met with a lukewarm reception. Even excitement around the metaverse, much talked about in late 2021, has faded over the last 12 months as businesses weigh up how best to show up in virtual worlds.

Opportunities in that space will still exist but sports organisations are also likely to continue to monitor developments in 5G, augmented and virtual reality, and the aforementioned generative AI – along with whatever shiny new thing inevitably emerges.

Sports organisations will be watching platforms like Roblox with interest as they continue to weigh their entry into the metaverse

Twitter has long been a reliable medium for sports properties to keep their fans informed but its future is less certain under the new ownership of Elon Musk. That could force social media teams to focus their attention elsewhere and increase their output on new applications like TikTok and BeReal, while more established platforms such as Instagram and YouTube are creating additional content opportunities all the time with the roll-out of fresh features.

The NBA is the last of the North American major leagues to go to market with its next multi-year rights package, which could reportedly deliver a US$75 billion windfall. It will also be worth keeping an eye on the Pac-12 college sports conference, whose current deal expires in 2024, and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which is approaching the end of its existing contract with ESPN.

Still, LIV is not going away. If it can add more talent and strike some meaningful commercial deals it may even embolden investors considering funding breakaways in other sports.

Scotland will host the inaugural UCI Cycling World Championships in August, which will bring together various disciplines of the sport for the first time. If successful, it would be another glowing endorsement of the model pioneered by the European Championships, a multi-sport gathering that sees nine international federations hold their continental championships at the same time.

The idea is that combining multiple individual championships as part of one bigger event will attract higher audiences and engagement than they would do in isolation, thus delivering more value for commercial partners.

A haul of celebrity investors helped padel and pickleball make the headlines in 2022 but anyone involved in esports will tell you that hype doesn’t always translate to success. New properties have been formed in each but both sports still have governance issues to iron out, while it remains to be seen whether they will be able to attract the size of media rights fee required to fuel growth and help challenge the more established racket sports.

A question worth considering every year as more sports organisations attempt to up their sustainability efforts. The environmental crisis isn’t going away and neither will scrutiny over who sports organisations are partnering with, what actions they are taking to tackle climate change, and how their business practices are affecting the planet.

It started out with social media personalities being paid to film themselves having a good time at sporting events and then morphed into YouTubers fighting real-life trained boxers. Now, some rights holders are even granting creators access to their media rights in the hope that their content will reach new audiences on platforms such as Twitch.

Understand them or not, influencers have huge reach and in some cases are becoming event promoters in their own right. Sports organisations know that working with them can help to engage younger demographics.

The ATP Tour, WTA, Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) and PGA Tour are all banking on their respective documentaries having a similar impact, but is a behind-the-scenes series really the silver bullet many believe it to be?

The IPL’s new US$6 billion media rights deals have tightened India’s grip over cricket’s economy and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is in line for further windfalls from the soon-to-launch WIPL and its next national team broadcast partnership. How that influence is exercised in practice will be interesting to watch.

Various IPL team owners have started investing in T20 franchises overseas and more national governing bodies are banking on their own new white-ball competitions to drive revenue and attract fans. As the money flows towards those properties, there is a theory that we could see the cricket calendar start to be built around domestic competitions rather than the international game, as has long been the case.

The end of EA’s 30-year relationship with Fifa was one of the biggest storylines of 2022. The question now is how they will fare without one another.

Having sold more than 325 million copies since its creation, the FIFA series is the highest-selling sports video game franchise in history, according to Forbes. EA has retained many of its licensing partnerships with individual leagues and teams so the expectation is that the look and feel of the new EA Sports FC game won’t change too much, but the company will require a significant marketing push to ensure consumers are aware of that fact.

For Fifa, it will be intriguing to see what impact the split has on its esports efforts, which have become a key growth area for the governing body.

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