Our Shifting Sport Landscape

“And the LA 2024 Olympic Gold Medal for World of Warcraft: League of Legends goes too…”



Mark Pearson, Coordinator, Client Strategy



I can guarantee you, as a lifelong sports fan and two-time Olympian, that this is not a phrase I ever expected to hear but after recent comments from the LA 2024 chairman Casey Wasserman, it might be closer to reality than we think. He was recently quoted in an ESPN story saying “…we view esports’ immense global popularity and continued advances in digital technologies as tremendous tools for reconnecting millennials with the Olympic movement,” and that considering esports would be merely part of a larger analysis to ensure they created “a new Games for a new era in 2024.” For context, these comments came on the back of a wildly successful, sold-out League of Legends World Championship, held in LA at the home of the Lakers and the Kings, the Staples Center. The event not only sold out, but millions more tuned in to watch via Twitch or other non-traditional broadcast services (ESPN, 2016).


Esports250 (ESPN, 2016)


At first glance, the IOC appears to share Wasserman’s sentiment, and in August 2016 they approved five new sports for the Tokyo 2020 repertoire, many of which would be much more at-home in an X Games environment, including skateboarding, sports climbing and surfing. To its credit, the IOC doesn’t hide from this blatant ‘youth’ movement and declared they were “…making a historic step in bringing the Games to young people and reflecting the trend of urbanisation in sport” (IOC, 2016). Whatever exactly that is…


surfing250 (Surfer Today, 2016)


Whilst it’s difficult to imagine esports’ Olympic inclusion could be a mere eight years away, analysis of the TV ratings from the Rio 2016 Olympic Games might help propel the notion. Bloomberg Intelligence reported that in the coveted 18-49 year old age category, NBC’s US audience was down almost 25%, their first Summer Olympic Games swimming and track finals start times into American primetime, forcing athletes and fans in Rio to adjust to the extremely late 10pm – 1am competition times in Rio. Sluggish ratings from your biggest TV revenue source will inevitably force change and thus the embattled IOC appears ready to set a new course; one which actively seeks to find and connect with younger audiences.

The IOC is not alone in its quest to cater its product and adjust to the tastes of my own cord-cutting, SnapChat-ified millennial demographic. My colleague Jemima wrote on this topic last year and outlined some of the sports such as rugby and cricket, which have succeeded in creating a condensed, entertaining version of their sport more palatable to younger consumers and sponsors alike. This trend is continuing with adjusted versions of Athletics, Field Hockey and Wrestling featuring our own Canadian Gold Medalist Erica Wiebe set to make an appearance in 2017. and looking to no doubt capture the attention of younger audiences.

Furthermore, one can sense a major shift ongoing when you see change not only from ‘amateur’ sports looking to cut through the clutter, but when major professional sports leagues leave sponsorship and advertising dollars on the table in an effort to make their game more appealing. Baseball has spent the last few years imposing a variety of time restrictions on parts of the game in order to speed things up, with a 20 second shortening of the between-inning commercial breaks making its debut last season. This was followed by comments from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in November 2016, in response to plummeting league-wide ratings, suggesting the league was looking “at a variety of ways to shorten game broadcasts, including trimming some advertising, to keep the action moving” (NYT – 2016). Even the NBA, with its shiny new $24 Billion TV deal, is seeking change, and late last week Commissioner Adam Silver raised eyebrows when he hinted that the league was looking to shorten NBA games. He summarized his thoughts by suggesting “…it’s something that I know all of sports are looking at right now, and that is the format of the game and the length of time it takes to play the game. Obviously people, particularly millennials, have increasingly short attention spans, so it’s something as a business we need to pay attention to” (Bleacher Report – 2017). Ultimately, for wildly popular professional sports leagues to turn away ad money in an effort to speed up the game truly underscores this shifting landscape and highlights an acute desire to cater sports products to a younger consumer demographic.

So what does all this change mean then? Well here are a few things we’ve been discussing around the fireplace here at TORQUE.

  • Marketers and sponsors need to stay informed and engaged to discern which sports are making changes and try to project which ones, like Rugby Sevens, have the capacity and game plan to make effective adjustments resulting in greater marketability and consumer appeal.
  • Sports organizations and league commissioners are going to have to get more creative when it comes to sourcing advertising and sponsorship dollars, as younger consumers demand shorter periods of inaction and thus less time for commercials. We’ve already seen success with digital ad signage at the World Cup of Hockey and during English Premiership Games, and yet I still see stick-on rink board signage being replaced manually during intermissions.
  • International Sports Organizations need to be careful when making drastic changes to their product and need to weigh the risk of potentially alienating some of your core consumer base vs. the reward of gaining a few younger, perhaps more fickle fans. Just look at this headline from the Independent after FIFA’s decision to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 Teams: “Money Grabbing FIFA put Revenue over Prestige as 48-Team World Cup Threatens Irreparable Damage” (Independent, 2017).
  • Call me biased or a traditionalist but I think the IOC needs to be cautious when continuing to add more non-traditional sports to their Olympic repertoire. Whilst I will concede that the Winter Olympic Games have successfully integrated X Games skiing and snowboarding disciplines such as slopestyle and ski-cross, the prospect of transplanting a host of entirely new non-traditional sports into the Summer Olympic Games is another challenge altogether. I fear that athletes from these non-traditional sports such as skateboarding, surfing, or even esports, who didn’t grow up dreaming of Olympic competition, will choose to avoid or skip the Olympic competition, especially considering the tight rules IOC places around individual athlete sponsorship. Just look at what happened with golf in Rio this past summer. Although the tournament was ultimately considered a success, the IOC has had to deal with the bad press of having a host of stars unfoundedly cite Zika as an excuse not to make the trip to Rio, with former world #1 Rory McIlroy recently going so far as to say “I resent the Olympic Games.” Ultimately, the question should be, does the continual addition of new non-traditional, action or esports help grow the Olympic Games, fix the embattled IOC brand and truly connect with the younger generation? I don’t know about you, but I’m not sold…

Skateboarding (X Games ESPN, 2016)