David Adams 19 Jul 2018 10:22am

The economy of alternative sports

Outside the mainstream, a whole team of sports are building audiences. David Adams surveys the field

Caption: Photography: Getty Images

Think of a sports star. Who did you picture? Regardless of your favourite sport, most people probably think of a high-profile player of one of the most popular sports in their home country. If you are Indian or Australian you may have picked a cricketer. Americans are most likely to choose an NBA or NFL star. If you’re from New Zealand, you’d probably picture an All Black. If you’re from almost anywhere else, you almost inevitably thought of a footballer.

The chances are you didn’t picture a female athlete. There are a multitude of different sports being played, enjoyed and watched across the globe, but in most markets just a few dominate media coverage and sponsorship opportunities; and most female sports and their stars struggle to get attention. In the UK, 15 of the 20 highest earning sports stars in the 2018 Sunday Times Rich List are footballers; and all 20 of them are men.

But there is now an opportunity for this to change as the growth of online video means that the biggest broadcasting and media companies are no longer quite as powerful. And sporting competitions with smaller audiences are raising their profiles. Sports often gain visibility in a given country if the national team enjoys success at a major tournament. One recent example saw the England netball squad win gold at the Commonwealth Games in April 2018, defeating host nation and favourites Australia with the last shot of a dramatic final. In fact, netball was already booming in the UK in terms of participation, but you would be hard pressed to find coverage of the sport on TV.

Izzy Wray, a consultant at the Deloitte Sports Business Group, suggests that one way England Netball might capitalise on its moment in the spotlight would be to persuade a broadcaster to follow the example of Channel 9 in Australia. In 2017 the free-to-air sports channel agreed a profit-sharing partnership with Netball Australia, with the sport in effect sharing the risk of failure.

The partnership has been a great success, with healthy ratings helping to boost netball’s popularity and increase Netball Australia’s revenues by 70%, to A$26.8m. Although tiny compared to the income of mainstream sports, that is a step forward, enabling more players to turn professional and opening the sport up to a wider audience. In theory, the model could work for netball in the UK, and other sports worldwide. The growing popularity of netball, played predominately by women, is just one example of how women’s sport is advancing, including in arenas in which male teams have historically attracted more attention. Women’s cricket has gained ground in recent years throughout the cricket-playing countries. The England women’s team enjoyed the benefit of a dramatic highprofile victory in 2017, beating India to take the World Cup at a packed Lord’s cricket ground.

That tournament set records for global TV ratings, with a 300% increase in audience figures worldwide, including a 500% increase in India and 861% in South Africa. Women’s football is also getting greater exposure in many markets. In the UK, home of the world’s richest domestic men’s football league, 2017 saw a notable milestone: the first example of a major brand signing a sponsorship deal with a women’s football team separate from sponsorship of the equivalent men’s side.

The shirts of Liverpool Ladies Football Club are now emblazoned with the logo of beauty brand Avon. Sponsors and broadcasters are waking up to the growing popularity of women’s football and women’s sport in general; and seeking to engage with the burgeoning audiences. Technology is also playing a useful role. Many sports now stream matches online, while individuals and teams use social media to engage with fans directly. Records for watching streamed coverage of sporting events are now being broken repeatedly, as fans use online access to decide which sports they are going to watch and when they are going to watch them, with a growing number of events streamed from dedicated websites or via Facebook pages.

A growth in streaming has certainly helped build an online audience for some younger sports, such as CrossFit, which has been able to use this growing following to encourage major broadcasters CBS and ESPN to cover its most important competitions. Once sports are streamed they have, in effect, a global audience and the potential to build those audiences in any country. CrossFit’s growing exposure is attracting more sponsorship and therefore prize money into the sport. The backing of the CrossFit Games by Reebok from 2011 boosted prize money from $25,000 to $250,000; the total prize purse is now $2.2m. With affiliates currently in 100 countries, Wray believes CrossFit could become an even bigger sport during the next few years.

Footballers, basketball players, Indian cricketers and a few tennis players are among the most followed sports stars on social media, but further down the list some more interesting figures appear, like Indian badminton Commonwealth gold medallist Saina Nehwal, and the controversial Irish Ultimate Fighting champion Conor McGregor. The seemingly intimate access to stars and sports teams via social media increases fans’ engagement and interest. Individual stars can play a hugely important role in boosting the popularity of a sport worldwide – think, for example, of Usain Bolt’s contribution to making athletics cool.

Legendary sports promoter and ICAEW member Barry Hearn also highlights the importance of individual stars as a means of raising a sport’s profile, inspiring fans through their talent and success. “That level of aspirational achievement makes people get off their backsides and say ‘I’ll try it’ – or, at the worst, ‘I’ll watch it’,” he says. “You look at people who inspire you and that gives you a warm feeling towards the sport.” Hearn has enjoyed extraordinary success in helping under-appreciated sports become hugely popular. He was at the heart of the original snooker boom in the UK during the 1980s and is still heavily involved in the sport, as well as running the events driving the swell in the popularity of darts. Other contests in which his company Matchroom is directly involved include boxing and angling. He believes almost any sport has the potential to attract a following, but only when run by people who know how to commercialise it. “Nothing’s ever going to be the next football, but there are lots of ways of making a profit.”

Alongside the value of individual stars, the other crucial ingredient, Hearn suggests, is well-organised, enjoyable events, which can lift a sport to another level of public interest. One game set to benefit from better events in the near future is hockey. The sport is huge in some parts of the world – the last hockey match between India and Pakistan attracted a TV audience of 1.2 billion – yet remains a minority interest in most countries.

This could change in coming years. In the UK, hockey could piggyback England hosting the women’s World Cup at the Olympic Park in London in July 2018. This magazine goes to press before the event, but it is expected to attract a total of 100,000 spectators to 36 matches over two weeks, with an predicted total TV audience of one billion, making it the biggest women’s sporting event ever held in the UK.

Following this, the launch of new men’s and women’s international hockey leagues, to run each year from 2019, should see its international profile grow. The size of the potential audience for the sport in the UK was demonstrated when Team GB’s women won gold at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. An epic victory against defending champions the Netherlands was played out live on primetime TV in front of an audience of 9.7 million, with the main evening news delayed until Great Britain finally won the match on penalties. “You can’t force moments like that, but it’s about being ready to capitalise on them,” says Sally Munday, CEO of England Hockey. Dan Jones, head of the Deloitte Sports Business Group, agrees. “Just because you get six million people watching a gold medal final doesn’t mean they will all become devotees of your sport,” he says. “But if you can get 1% of them, that’s a very significant number of people.”

Hearn believes some “low profile” sports will get an opportunity to advance in the years ahead as some well-established sports experience a degree of decline. He suggests that rugby, cricket, golf and tennis may fall into this category. “They are in slow decline, because they don’t get enough participation,” he explains, adding the caveat that while grassroots participation may fall, the really big events will probably retain large audiences. Asked which of the UK’s smaller sports he thinks will likely gain greater exposure, Hearn cites netball and triathlon, “because we’re turning into a nation of people who like to keep fit”.

He also sees potential in gymnastics, with so many inspirational global stars present in the sport and high levels of participation among children. “It’s such a spectacular sport to watch. It has potential.” Other activities may not need mass participation to become more popular. One example is Formula E motor racing, a world championship for electric cars, launched in 2014 and gradually building an international fan base as it develops ever more impressive racing events. Formula E’s profile may soon be enhanced in the UK by the return of Grand Prix-style racing to a circuit laid out on the city streets of Birmingham, last seen when Formula 3000 races were held there in the late 1980s. At the time of writing, reports suggest the city’s council is in negotiations with Formula E.

Hearn believes more broadcasters will want to work with less well-known sports because televising them costs so much less than competing for well-established events. He also believes women’s sport will continue to gain more exposure in many markets, because “more women are watching and playing sport”. “All sports have potential if they have a following,” says Hearn. He is happy to admit his attempts to promote some, such as shooting and bowls, didn’t enjoy the success he hoped for; but also points to the way that darts, still ridiculed by some sports snobs, can attract thousands of followers to an event in a football stadium. “If you can change perceptions of a sport so that enough people think it’s worth watching, worth participating in and worth investing in, then anything is possible.”

The newest sport of all

Those who feel strongly about particular sports may occasionally find themselves arguing about what is and is not a sport. One current version of this discussion concerns the rise of esports, in which multiple computer gamers compete in front of live and/or online audiences, most often in strategy, first person shooter and fighting games. While competitive computer gaming is very different from football or gymnastics, in term of the physical and mental skills and strengths needed for success, there are other activities already accepted as sports that do not require extreme physical exertion – and one might also argue that there are aspects of esports that do require intense physical and certainly mental skills.

From a commercial, or broadcaster’s, point of view, esports certainly fulfil the definition of sport. They boast mass participation and impressive viewing figures. Major tournaments attract stadia-filling hordes of spectators, while millions more watch online. With Asian markets and the US leading the way in revenue generation, and massive interest in many other markets, esports is now a billion dollar global industry.