New Games, New Rules

How sports are evolving their format to remain relevant, entice viewership and earn the attention of brands

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JEMIMA TWIST, Coordinator, TORQUE Strategies

Trying to find time in our increasingly busy lives to play or even watch sport can be challenging, and sport properties big and small are feeling the knock on effects.  This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that consumer attention spans are diminishing, we are all too quick to move on to the next source of entertainment if it doesn’t captivate us within the blink of an eye. Brands and properties have to work extremely hard, often by upping the ante for their value proposition to claw back our attention, even for a moment. A trend is afoot for rights-holders focused on regaining consumer and associated media attention with more and more sports working to shake up the very format of their games into more digestable and entertaining products. There are a number of rights-holders doing it well.

It seems like only yesterday we were down at BC Place cheering on Canada as they went on to beat Australia in the thrilling inaugural HSBC Canada Sevens tournament, the biggest rugby event that Canada has ever seen. Amazingly the stadium sold out with over 60,000 tickets sold over two days of competition to witness the spectacle, a true testament to the organizers who put on a fantastic event. The women’s event was equally successful, with general admission tickets selling out ahead of tournament weekend and large crowds turning out to witness Canada win the Plate.

Sevens is a real success story for rugby. Born from a recognition by the governing bodies that in its traditional format, rugby lacked appeal for certain demographics and markets. With so many alternative sports and activities to choose from, the game faces fierce competition when vying for consumer interest and attention. Whether the matches are too long or the play too slow, many potential fans are not tuning in to watch or participate.

Rugby Sevens sought to address these concerns, introducing a format that is fast and exciting – the games are less than 15 minutes long, short enough to keep those with even the shortest attention span interested.  A strong move by World Rugby to entice not only a new growing audience, the 18-25 younger demographic but females as well, a group significantly underrepresented in the fan make up. Judging by the diversity in the sell-out crowd at BC Place on March 12th and 13th for the HSBC Canada Sevens, not to mention the IOC’s choice to add sevens over fifteens to the Olympic program, clearly this initiative is working.

“We were extremely happy with the response of the local, National, and International community to our tournament and the game of Rugby Sevens in general. To attract over 60,000 fans to BC Place over the weekend means that fans outside of the core rugby community were eager to attend, and we believe the success of the tournament – combined with the addition of Rugby Sevens to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games – will lead to more “first timers” becoming annual attendees of the HSBC Canada Sevens Vancouver tournament.”  Jamie Levchuk, HSBC Canada Sevens Managing Director

Bringing in shorter and more exciting format events in any sport aims to increase not only participation levels but in turn there is hope that it will  grow event attendance and viewership. Ultimately this benefits the rights-holder hugely.  From a sponsorship perspective, higher levels of participation and interest creates more media coverage and viewership. A much easier sell to sponsors looking for exposure. A win-win-win scenario for the fans, rights-holder and sponsor.

Introducing new formats of sports to increase the size of a fanbase isn’t exclusive to rugby. We have seen successful adaptions of cricket in the form of the T20 series, golf with it’s ‘powerplay’ program, ‘power snooker’ and the netball ‘fast5’ series to name but a few initiatives launched by governing bodies adopting this approach to raise the profile of their sports.  Winter sports are getting in on the action too, with a completely new event called the ‘monobob’ making its debut at the 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games earlier in the year (featuring a single athlete in a bobsleigh).

But how successful have these new sports been? None more so than cricket’s Twenty20. The sport has adapted to suit an audience who no longer have the luxury of following a five-day international test match. The shortened format of 20 overs provides an action packed afternoon of entertainment. Cheerleaders, mascots and music contribute to a new dynamic off the field, whilst the play is fast and exciting on the field.  Rights-holders have amassed huge income from broadcasting deals. The Indian Premier League (The most popular Twenty20 league in the world) last year generated revenue primarily achieved through broadcast deals amounting to 26.5 bn rupees ($550 m), hugely outnumbering the revenues achieved through the traditional game. (BBC Sport)

Attendance at matches has been steadily rising with Twenty20 considered responsible for the global growth of cricket. Earlier this year, a new cricket attendance record was set at the MCG, home of cricket in Australia with over 80,000 fans turning up for the local Big Bash Twenty20 league derby between the Melbourne Stars and the Melbourne Renegades. (ABC News) This interest hasn’t gone unnoticed by brands, with more and more sponsorship dollars being  pumped into the series, often diverted away from the One Day Internationals and test matches. The Twenty20 World Cup recently signed a seventh multi-million dollar partner with Star India’s video-streaming platform Hotstar coming on board for the 2016 event (SportsPro)

Rugby Sevens appears to be on a similar trajectory with huge growth potential, making its Olympic debut in just 50 days.   A recent report commissioned by the Futures Company predicts the number of rugby players worldwide to hit the 10 million mark by the year 2020, an increase of 3 million players from today’s participation base. That figure is likely to swell to 15 million by 2026.

TORQUE and TTG client Canada Sevens is counting down the days to Rio 2016 with the women’s team having already qualified, with an excellent shot at a medal.  The men have one last chance to secure an Olympic berth, with a spot up for grabs at the final Olympic qualification event  in Monaco this weekend with games being played June 18th and 19th. Stay tuned to find out if they will be joining the women on the plane to Rio.

I’m looking forward to seeing which other sports follow in the footsteps of the likes of golf, rugby and cricket to evolve and thrive in the face of the digital native generation’s minimized attention span. Undoubtedly this has been a huge success for the sports already adopted this approach in bringing new fans to the game.