CEO, Co-Founder at Sports Innovation Lab
Welcome to 2022, a year that will see the return of the Winter Olympics, sustained growth in women’s sports, a Super Bowl in Los Angeles’s tech-centric SoFi Stadium, and a flurry of deals and acquisitions that will push the pace of the industry.
Everyone wants to know what’s next. But first, let’s pause for a moment and recap the top observations from 2021. Coming out of “The Bubble Year” and seeing the return of full-capacity game attendance brought a feeling of normalcy, even with on-off mask policies and inconsistent vaccine mandates from stadium to stadium.
A Turning Point for Women’s Sports
If 2020 was a bubble-induced year of increased broadcast coverage of women’s sports, 2021 was the subsequent year of fast-tracked investment and global interest. Here are some of my favorite highlights:
- The WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury landed a 15-year, $66 million deal with Bally’s, hailed as “largest official team sponsorship” in women’s sports history
- Athletes Unlimited entered a historic multi-year partnership with Aspiration to operate the first U.S.-based carbon neutral professional sports leagues, following on the momentum of landing Gatorade & Hyperice as sponsors for its women’s volleyball league
- Simone Biles earned Time’s ‘Athlete of the Year’ honour, after igniting discussion around mental health
- The NWSL’s expansion into Los Angeles and San Diego induced a flurry of new entertainment, technology, and consumer service partners into individual teams and the league
- Women led the United States to the top of the medal count chart at Tokyo 2020, accounting for 66 of Team USA’s 113 medals. This came during the first ever gender-balanced Olympics, with women accounting for 49 percent of participants, according to the International Olympic Committee
- Team USA women also led the way at the Tokyo Paralympics, winning 61.5 percent of total US medals and 62 percent of US gold medals
- BBC called for women’s sports to be added to the UK government’s list of protected sporting events that must be made available on free-to-air television, and for updated legislation to reflect digital viewing habits of modern sports consumers. They also participated in a UK£15m/season agreement to broadcast the Women’s Super League with Sky Sports
- Barclays expanded its title sponsorship of the Women’s Championship through a $40 million deal with FA
Media is picking up on this hunger and there has been a noticeable uptick in coverage. From a bump in WNBA highlights on ESPN SportsCenter, to investment in women’s-only outlets like Just Women’s Sports ($3.5 million Seed), TOGETHXR (mid-seven figures, founded by Olympians Chloe Kim, Sue Bird, Simone Manuel and Alex Morgan), and The GIST (whose partner list includes the NBA, FanDuel, Red Bull and Adidas), consumer demand is driving change in media representation.
And this all makes sense when you examine the new market research now publicly available to anyone with an interest in the space. The Fan Project, for one, demonstrated that there is a deep, hungry market for women’s sports that behaves differently than traditional viewers of men’s sports, and that there is a heavy reward for brands that personalize experiences for them.
Fan viewership supports this notion:
- Women’s sports accounted for 58 percent of NBC’s evening Olympic broadcast coverage
- The 2021 Women’s College World Series averaged a record 1,203,000 viewers, up 10 percent over the 2019 WCWS despite having unfavorable afternoon time slots on ESPN
- The NWSL Championship averaged a record 525,000 viewers, marking a 216 percent increase from the 2019 game
- The Barclays FA Women’s Super League is averaging 114,000 viewers per match on pay-TV network Sky Sports, up from 37,000 last season
A sizeable first-mover advantage exists in women’s sports, and I’m looking forward to monitoring the returns very closely through next year.
Co-Watching Behaviors Stay Steady
Co-watching is the act of two or more fans digitally and remotely watching, participating in second-screen activity, or otherwise streaming the content they want, together on the same digital platform. A number of companies, technologies, and platforms enable fans to do this, with notable examples including Twitch, NBC Sports, ESPN, and PeacockTV.
During the pandemic, an estimated 25 million U.S. adults co-watched content with people outside their home via internet-connected screens – and that’s a key indicator for the future of live sports, where a sense of unity amongst fans is important as leagues expand interest globally, far away from where the games are actually being played.
The past year continued to demonstrate that co-watching can be to live sports what eCommerce has been to shopping. We know this because an ease in COVID restrictions and a return of fans to stadiums did not halt the momentum of co-watching behaviors that defined 2020.
A Space to Communicate
Interestingly, esports is providing a major clue on how to maximize co-watching and take it to extreme new levels.
For every parent wondering how their child could be entertained spending countless hours playing Fortnite, there is a gamer that is addicted to the platform as a means to hanging out with their friends. Sports leagues, for their part, are now recognizing this and integrating technologies that mirror what has made esports a $1.08 billion market that increased by 50% YoY.
Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch, for example, has become integral to Amazon Prime Video’s growth strategy for Thursday Night Football viewership. By promoting channels of NFL broadcasters there to “hang out” interactively during a game while also talking X’s and O’s, Twitch is reducing the barrier between the NFL, its personalities, and its fans in a way that gets people involved even more than the revolutionary Manningcast has brought revived interest in Monday Night Football.
In the pending metaverse, a virtual-reality space in which users can interact with others in a computer-generated environment, we have the potential to come together from anywhere in the world and simulate togetherness. This behavior takes life and furthers an ongoing cultural shift Sports Innovation Lab is noticing from straight content consumption to a consumption-participation balance. Two-way interaction in a virtual space like this was accelerated in COVID.
If Zoom single-handedly transformed work, co-watching platforms are moving the needle for sports. From FaceTime to Houseparty to LiveLike, COVID brought comfort to the masses for doing things together in a virtual space. As that familiarity matures, I’m more and more bullish on co-watching in 2022 and beyond.
NIL is a Good Thing
A shift has occurred in how college sports operate, and brands and athletes have jointly jumped to take advantage of a new revenue stream opportunity. I’m talking about the landmark opening of Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) deals for NCAA athletes on July 1, ringing in a new era for college athletics.
Opening day saw headline sponsorship deals like Fresno State twin basketball players Haley and Hanna Cavinder aligning with Boost Mobile, while Miami quarterback D’Eriq King took an ownership route and co-founded NIL-focused platform Dreamfield to book live events for student-athletes.
Since then, we’ve seen a headline deal weekly from big brands and small businesses alike, as athletes and marketers explore creative ways to capitalize on the new opportunity. The Atlanta Braves signed University of Georgia Gymnast Rachel Baumann and ex Georgia Tech quarterback Jordan Yates. UConn basketball star Paige Bueckers joined Gatorade’s roster, which already included household professional stars from across sport like Serena Williams and Jayson Tatum. And Degree committed $5 million over the next five years to inspirational college athletes of all levels of stardom.
The jury is still out on how this will affect competition and whether or not it will increase or decrease corruption traditionally seen in prior years through booster activity. In Decmber, the NCAA probed NIL deals at BYU and Miami for possible violations of its interim policy regarding athlete marketing rights, which should provide insight in 2022 to the level of punishment programs can expect if they step out of line.
That said, NIL as a sum of its parts is a great thing for sports businesses and athletes. Consider some of the pros:
- NIL gives athletes increased rights and control over their personal image, rewarding them for who they are and allowing them to capitalize on developing a skillset.
- Rather than athletes giving away the rights to their person for a fraction of their value, an athlete’s deal potential is in their hands and can be maximized in the same vein as entrepreneurship
- Women athletes who previously did not have much opportunity to benefit from their sports careers now are capitalizing on their marketing value and may end up outpacing men’s athletes in both deal volume and brand ROI
As a former Olympic and NCAA athlete myself, I could have benefited greatly from having this sort of support. Beyond the endorsement deals I missed out on, I was also denied the opportunity to simply be able to use my identity. Famously, the lack of NIL rights at the time resulted in me being left off a Wheaties box commemorating the 1998 Olympic Gold-winning USA Hockey team I was a member of. Now that NIL exists, athletes of the future will never have to experience similar heartbreak from being unjustly denied an incredible opportunity many athletes grow up dreaming of.
Into the New Year
In 2022, I’m bullish on applying blockchain and the metaverse to the sports economy. There are a number of ways teams, players, and media can utilize the infrastructure both of these tech tools provide in order to either open up new revenue streams or facilitate data analysis like never before.
Make sure to subscribe to my LinkedIn feed to stay updated on new insights, and also follow my company Sports Innovation Lab for leading fan intelligence data insights found nowhere else. You can also reach us on Instagram at instagram.com/angela.m.ruggiero / instagram.com/sportsilab and Twitter at twitter.com/angelaruggiero / twitter.com/sportsilab.