Add family responsibility to the concept of permission, increasing demands on our time, second screens, and more leisure options, and you can see why sports administrators are looking at change, and going short
Andrew Croker
Andrew Croker was the first head of sport at BSB, before setting up and running IMG’s worldwide football division. He co-founded Perform in 2007, where he remains a shareholder and adviser.
Sport: selling itself short?
24th May 2017, 17:28

Earlier this month two sports were simultaneously promoting revolutionary short formats. In Madrid’s Caja Mágica it was tennis, with Tie Break Tens, a four-hour shoot-out featuring 16 top men and women. In golf it was at England’s Centurion Club with GolfSixes, a PGA European Tour two-man national team event, with matches played over six holes.

It’s a pattern emerging across a whole range of sports, for a variety of reasons.

Regarding participation, recent anecdotal evidence suggests the emergence of the ‘two-hour permission’ phenomenon. This reflects a societal shift where it is becoming less acceptable for partners (both men and women) to spend large amounts of time off playing sport without permission, and even some form of penalty. Many of us will be familiar with the response: “OK, but you owe me.” A boys’ golf trip to Las Vegas will probably involve jewellery. 

The same applies to watching TV. One could argue that you need permission to watch more than two hours (some of us less, to be honest). You can probably hang onto the remote to watch soccer, or Formula 1, but as the NFL has discovered, average game time of over three hours, with 60 minutes of play, is pushing the envelope. So it’s looking at this right now. Its ideas include fewer advertising breaks (though not fewer ads), quicker replay reviews, and less time between touchdowns, extra points and kick-offs.

It reckons it can save five minutes, which is a start, but in terms of maintaining interest it does already have the brilliant NFL RedZone, its own game-day channel, which reflects the way we now consume media, airing commercial-free, laden with stats, showing every touchdown from every game, and closely linked to Fantasy Football. It sees RedZone as a critical route to growing its global fan base.


You can probably hang onto the remote to watch soccer, or Formula 1, but as the NFL has discovered, average game time of over three hours, with 60 minutes of play, is pushing the envelope 

 

This approach reflects research that shows that most people can only focus on one thing for about 20 minutes, although we can apparently repeatedly re-focus. Add family responsibility to the concept of permission, increasing demands on our time, second screens, and more leisure options, and you can see why sports administrators are looking at change, and going short.

The tennis and golf examples are worth examining. Tie Break Tens is independently promoted, but was widely distributed, including on ESPN in the USA, with a good take-up of the live stream, including on Facebook Live. GolfSixes has the might of the European Tour behind it, so Sky gave it the full treatment, and it was conferred instant credibility with a €1-million ($1.12-million) prize fund, and carrying ranking points.

In tennis the tie-break is genius, but what next? The ATP has just announced a series of innovations that will be trialled at the Next Gen Finals in November, aimed at creating a high-tempo and television-friendly product, including first-to-four-games sets, tie-breaks at 3-3, no-ad scoring, and best-of-five sets, all in an effort to attract new and younger fans.

Golf’s issue is not really with television, though goodness knows play needs to be quicker, and you had to love GolfSixes’ shot clock. Golf’s challenge is accessibility, and engaging with a young audience. Last month a National Golf Foundation report in the USA showed growth in driving-range activity and golf-simulator use, where Topgolf has led the way in all-day entertainment, more like ten-pin bowling, ticking the ‘permission’ box. In fact you don’t really need permission: you can take the whole family.


The ATP has just announced a series of innovations that will be trialled at the Next Gen Finals in November, aimed at creating a high-tempo and television-friendly product

 

There are two separate issues here. One is creating sport that is more attractive commercially – to fans, broadcasters, viewers, and sponsors. The other is improving the sport for those who play it, particularly men, women and children contemplating taking it up.

One might think it odd that such a traditional sport as cricket led the way, but it did start with a sport that took five days, often without producing a result. Try selling that concept to a US network. One-day games really took off in the 1970s, and the game has shrunk progressively until the English came up with T20 in 2003, and just four years later India’s IPL juggernaut got going. At just over two hours long it still doesn’t quite avoid needing permission, but Australia’s ‘Big Bash’ pretty accurately describes its universal appeal.

Inevitably, so much comes down to progress versus tradition. How do you change a sport without devaluing it? How do you keep both the purist and the casual fan happy? Last week it took the New York Yankees over six hours to beat the Chicago Cubs in 18 innings. That’s twice the normal time for a baseball game. The dilemma facing MLB is that fans in the stadia generally like the pace of the game, it’s the ones at home and on their phones, also generating revenue, who don’t.

Some sports, many more by luck than judgement, remain near perfect for television, like soccer of course, basketball, rugby, and Moto GP. But what needs the most attention? Bringing up the rear is cycling. On the road, television coverage has improved little this century, but events and the calendar have not changed for even longer, with so-called traditionalists holding sway.


City Horse Racing aims to take the sport back to city streets, ‘where the Romans invented it’, with a global circuit, using a 1.4km raised hi-tech trackway

 

There is a ray of light, but as with Tie Break Tens it’s not coming from the sport’s leadership. Velon, an alliance of ten pro teams (including Team Sky), in conjunction with the InFront agency, is next month launching the Hammer Series in Limburg, Netherlands. A punchy three-day format will focus on a team-event, which addresses one of the sport’s fundamental problems – a team sport where teams don’t win.

Plenty more sports are making plans. City Horse Racing aims to take the sport back to city streets, ‘where the Romans invented it’, with a global circuit, using a 1.4km raised hi-tech trackway. It’s not Ben Hur but who wouldn’t pay to see Arrogate thundering down the Champs-Élysées? Snooker this year launched a one-frame shootout event but, despite some resistance and controversy, the players voted overwhelmingly to keep it as a ranking event.

The other route is just being smaller. FIBA has 3x3 basketball, billed as the world’s biggest ‘urban sport’. Arena Football is still going, and Rugby sevens is firmly established. Oddly, while Futsal has some hotspots, indoor soccer has never really taken off, though World Street Soccer is up and running, and behind the World Street 3s, the global street soccer tournament which debuted in Manchester, England, last year. 

Time will tell, but the evidence suggests that rather than selling itself short, less actually might be more.

Sportcal