Talent trumps tech in a sports industry grappling with disruption

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It’s become a truism today to say that technology is changing everything.

It is nearly impossible to get through an issue of the Economist or Harvard Business Review, or even the Hollywood Reporter, without encountering an article about how the rise of cloud computing platforms, connected devices, social media, or always on mobile access is reshaping both the consumer and commercial landscape.

The world of sport, often regarded as a bastion of tradition, heritage and legacy, has certainly not been immune to the same kind of disruption.

In fact, data and technology are reshaping several of the industry dynamics simultaneously:

Sporting Domain

Digital Disruptors

Sporting Goods, Fashion, Wearables  

  • Biometric and GPS sensors and equipment to track performance
  • Rapid prototyping (and eventually production) of new equipment using 3-D printing


Fan Experience – Live
  • High speed, in-stadium high-speed internet
  • Mobile apps/games designed to complement the live game experience
Fan Experience – Media
  • “Over-the-Top” internet streaming (example: NFL on Twitter, Amazon)
  • Advance analytics “overlays” to traditional broadcasts (example: MLB Statcast, NHL “glow puck” version 2.0)
  • Emerging Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality Technologies have the potential to put fans “in the game”
Ticketing & Fan Engagement
  • Proliferation of online secondary market sellers (StubHub, MainEvent) siphoning ticket value away from teams
  • Social media techniques feed growing global fan base loyalty
Training & Performance
  • Biometric and GPS sensors built into gear (along with laser & radar tacking) are providing mountains of “Big Data” that can be analyzed to improve the scouting, coaching and training of athletes at all levels
  • Video gaming is emerging as a major spectator sport driven by both live events and by streaming media coverage
  • New models for sponsorship/partnership (many with existing sports leagues & franchises) still in test & learn phase


Diving deeper, there are few sports that have taken the lead on digital transformation in the past few years.



America’s oldest professional sports league was also the first to fully embrace data and technology. Around the same time that Billy Beane began hiring full-time statisticians to turn the concepts of Sabermetrics into “Moneyball”, Major League Baseball invested $16 million to launch its Advanced Media group with the charter to extend the baseball experience to the Internet. Last year MLBAM produced nearly $1 billion in revenues through its online ticketing service, web and mobile apps and video streaming services. Last year also saw MLBAM sell a partial stake of their core technology platform to Disney/ESPN that put a value on that asset of more than $3.5 billion. And in a testament to the convergence of industry talent, the person they hired to lead that new business is the former head of Amazon’s digital video business.


Although they came a bit later to the digital party, the NBA has been aggressively testing and implementing new digital platforms to reach its global audience. The league was one of the first to partner with Twitter on its “Amplify” program, an initiative that turned social media conversations around game broadcasts into real time, two-screen experiences that included in-Tweet video clips. More recently the NBA signed a $250 million, multi-year deal with two sports technology firms, Sportradar and Second Spectrum, to provide a wide range of data tracking and analytic services including in-game player motion capture. The data and insights from this initiative will likely find its way in applications ranging from AR/VR media to player scouting and coaching.


Yes, sailboat racing is also riding a wave of digital technology. For the past two decades teams participating in the sports premiere of event, the America’s Cup, have used supercomputers and sophisticated modeling software to design and optimize everything from the shape of the boat’s hull to the weave of its Kevlar sails. Later this summer, Oracle Team USA and its tech billionaire benefactor, Larry Ellison, will travel to Bermuda to defend their America’s Cup title. But behind the race, they will also be using the event and their boat to showcase how Big Data, IoT, and advanced analytics has completely revolutionized their sport.


So if you’re someone trying to manage, monetize or profit from an investment in sport, what’s the play?

Nigel Fenwick, a leading industry analyst who researches how companies and industries cope with digital disruption, asks a very simple question: “Are you a digital predator or are you digital prey?” Fenwick’s research indicates that the most important factors separating the digital hunters from the digital hunted is not better software or access to more data, but rather it is having a clear, well-articulated vision of your digital ambitions, and the leadership and organizational cohesion necessary to execute. In other words, talent trumps tech!

The implication is that across the sports industry, organizations of all stripes will need to build their bench strength of digital and technology talent. Finding that talent, however, will likely mean looking outside of the sporting world into industries like media, entertainment and retailing, each of which has undergone its own digital disruption and transformation.

The sports world will be well served by scouting executive leaders from these fields who have successfully managed through technology-induced change and have demonstrated skill in driving innovation and building new organizational capabilities.


Jay Hussey is CEO of SRiCheyenne, the North American-facing brand of SRi, a leading international executive search company specializing in sports, digital, sporting goods & fashion, and media & content. The product of a merger between SRi (formerly Sports Recruitment International) and The Cheyenne Group, SRiCheyenne has been purpose built to directly address the new digital and content talent needs of the global sports industry.


To find out more about how SRiCheyenne can help you source talent that delivers results, or to have a confidential discussion, please contact Jay Hussey at jhussey@sricheyenne.com