Author: Dragan Perendija | Read time: 7 min
“In the 2020s, Head of Digital will need to understand commercial as well as the Commercial Director, and the Commercial Director will need to understand digital as well as the Head of Digital,” predicts Lewis Wiltshire, former Twitter Head of Sport, who has been appointed in August as the new CEO of Seven League, Europe’s leading digital sports agency and consultancy, part of the global Mailman Group with the headquarters in Shanghai. Seven League – their clients include FIFA, UEFA, FC Barcelona, Juventus, NBA and NHL among other – together with Mailman recently launched its manifesto document. Manifesto explores a Third Age of Sport, an age of balance between commercialisation and community. Mailman/Seven League believes that in order for sports organisations to continue thriving and connecting with their audiences, they will need to become media and entertainment businesses. SPORTO talked to Lewis about the role of digital in the “new reality” of sport.
SPORTO: Sport has been affected heavily during the pandemic and sports organisations are calling on governments for support. Richard Ayers, Seven League’s Chairman, recently tweeted: “We need sport commercially, culturally and spiritually … it’s not just a bit of fun and it’s not just Premier League football.” In the UK, the FA for example announced the end of funding for senior futsal teams, many sports are struggling, women’s sports growth will be slowed down … How can digital – offering the voice and platform – help in this difficult situation?
LEWIS WILTSHIRE: Digital will be a huge part of how we’ll rebuild the sports industry, which, as you say, has been hugely affected by Covid-19. We see the pandemic as an accelerator – trends which had already begun have been sped up during the outbreak. That includes digital which will now, increasingly, be how sports rights holders broadcast to audiences, interact with communities and drive value for commercial partners. In the 2020s, the actual sport will be physical and everything else around it will be digital.
On the other hand, we have all realized that sport can’t be a priority during the pandemic. There were noteworthy examples of clubs and other rights holders working with health authorities and offering support within the community during the #StayAtHome period. Once again, the social media played an irreplaceable role. How did you see the response and solidarity within the (digital) sports world?
I think the sports industry has behaved impeccably during this crisis. Sport has really stood up – it rightly took a back seat at the start of the pandemic and used its voice responsibly to help keep people safe. Now, it’s time for governments around the world to pay sport back. Yes, in many countries governments have given financial support to sports. But there are also examples of where other sectors, such as music and the arts, have been allowed to let paying customers back in, whilst sport is not allowed to open up safely to fans. That isn’t right or fair – sport is vital for healthy societies and it’s vital that is recognised.
Seven League works across different sports and not just with leading global sports properties. When it comes to digital as an enabler, we shouldn’t differentiate between the size and reach of sports/discipline. Would you agree that it is just about potential and impact on the target group?
Digital excellence can be built within the same framework no matter how big or small the sport might be. At Seven League, we have a consulting model we call Building to Brilliance. It builds from Basics, into Best Practice, and finally to Brilliance. It’s pyramid-shaped and we lead clients through it, bottom to top. The key thing to know is that you can’t start at the top. As athletes know, you have to put in the hard work to achieve the moment of glory! The objectives, strategy and tactics needed to implement that pyramid will always be specific to a client, but the model itself is the same no matter the size of your business or audience.
Jon Ford, a colleague from Seven League, discussed digital sponsorship inventory in his blog and argued that while digital is now an expected component of a sponsorship agreement, too often inventory is misvalued, poorly defined or not as sophisticated as in the wider digital market. There are numerous assets that can be used in the interconnected digital environment. Are the rights holders adapting to this change in your opinion?
Slowly. We are getting our clients to the right level, but as an industry, sport is behind other sectors on this. Digital used to be a cost line for businesses – now it’s a revenue driver. But only if organisations understand the process – how you segment your digital portfolio, measure it, grow it, value it, and sell it. In the 2020s, Head of Digital will need to understand commercial as well as the Commercial Director, and the Commercial Director will need to understand digital as well as the Head of Digital. If digital sits fully outside of commercial, an organisation will never get ROI from it.
Digital used to be a cost line for businesses – now it’s a revenue driver. But only if organisations understand the process – how you segment your digital portfolio, measure it, grow it, value it, and sell it.
In one of your columns, you mentioned that your job at Seven League has been “to help fix aeroplanes while they flew”. The aeroplanes parallel refers to the media teams within the sports organisations that live day-to-day. During the pandemic, you helped some of your clients to re-engineer completely. What are your lessons from the re-engineering process with some of them?
In that analogy, digital is the best tool you have. But it’s only a tool. Some organisations make the mistake of seeing digital excellence as a metric in itself. It isn’t the end point. It’s the way you get to the end point. The smart CEO creates a clearly understood vision and mission for their team. The digital team should then be able to create a digital roadmap which delivers that vision. If digital is not aligned to organisational objectives, your digital will fail. It will also fail if it’s a bad digital strategy, by the way, but the part to do first is aligning it to where the business is heading.
Some organisations make the mistake of seeing digital excellence as a metric in itself. It isn’t the end point. It’s the way you get to the end point.
Seven League announced 7 trends/predictions for 2020. After the start of the pandemic, you adapted them to a “new reality”. One of the trends that fast-tracked very fast predicted that “our next big signing will be virtual” and that we will see more sports creating year-round entertainment properties and new virtual IP. How did you see this trend coming to life?
We do believe that by the end of the 2020s, much of the talent we currently see around the biggest sports will be virtual. We’re not talking about athletes – we haven’t quite reached that point yet! We’re referring to mascots, some of the ‘people’ who are the face of in-house channels, superfans and other entertainment elements around a sports rights holder. When you look at Lil Miquela, an influencer with millions of Instagram followers, thousands of Spotify streams and lucrative endorsements deals, and Lil Miquela doesn’t actually exist as a real person, it’s a clear sign of where the talent industry is headed.
2020 also represents the turning point in how athletes use their platforms to create social change. The NBA stars, Naomi Osaka, Megan Rapinoe, Marcus Rashford and other athletes use their social media platforms to share their voice similarly to icons like Muhammad Ali or Billie Jean King in the 70s. Athletes are no longer afraid to speak about the issues that are important to them. Besides sports performance, fan engagement and endorsements, is their social voice becoming part of their timeline? Is this the new level of authenticity we are witnessing?
This is one of the areas I’m most excited about in the future of sports. The examples you’ve outlined are fantastic – what Rashford has done this year is phenomenal. The key word you used is authenticity. Athletes are real people (unlike the mentioned influencers) and they care about their communities. They have a social conscience, a public voice and a refusal to accept the kind of attitudes that have gone unchecked for too long. More power to them. That trend is only going to increase and the world will be better for it. Go athletes!
Seven League is part of the Mailman Group and one of their services is managing social media across key Chinese platforms. How do sports consumption habits differ, what can Europe learn from China in terms of digital?
China is so unique that we have a completely separate production team in Shanghai producing content for clients daily. In much the same way that the sports industry turns to Mailman China for help in that market, so did I for this answer. I asked our Shanghai team for some key learnings from that market and what they’ll say is that Chinese fans want their content in bitesize formats and with elements of music, fashion and entertainment. Chinese sports fans gravitate towards either short-form video content up to 15 seconds – this is predominantly on Douyin – or longer form livestream content which can be up to 3 hours long with ecommerce integrated into the content. This ‘live commerce’ trend is hugely popular (a third of China’s internet 309m users have tuned in to livestreaming ecommerce) and is definitely something the western platforms can learn from.
Netflix’s documentary “The Social Dilemma” offers insight into how social media apps compete for our attention and the “power” of algorithms. Besides overuse and screen addiction, we can’t ignore the existing hate speech and the polarisation effect as one of the possible “side effects”. What’s next for social media and what (if anything) needs to be fixed in your view?
Social media has been a 15-year social experiment – what happens when we give most of the people in the world a public voice and the ability to say more or less whatever they want to anyone else. Well, now we know what happens. The answer is that the vast majority of people are good. They’re funny, interesting and smart. A minority of people are less pleasant. Any of us could have predicted that’s what would happen. The platforms have become better at dealing with the bad stuff and the industry is where it is. However, it has probably peaked. I do not see a decline imminently, but it won’t grow and grow forever in the way it has done from the mid-00s to the early 20s. The trend is already towards private, closed social experiences such as WhatsApp, Messenger, much of Snapchat’s use, Instagram DMs and more. Expect that to continue throughout the 20s.
Social media has been a 15-year social experiment – what happens when we give most of the people in the world a public voice and the ability to say more or less whatever they want to anyone else.
You have worked at Twitter for many years. Is Twitter still the “best sports bar around” (that doesn’t close)?
100%. All of the platforms have their strengths and Twitter’s advantage is that it’s live. For sports, live is everything. We encourage sports to use each platform for the ways in which that platform is strong, and that’s where Twitter comes into its own. Instagram continues to boom, Facebook and YouTube are still giants that should be used in specific ways, and I think we’ll see a return to owned digital properties being a focus. Especially around digital membership. But yeah – Twitter still rocks.
San Francisco 49ers announced that Levi’s Stadium will be among the first wave of NFL venues to complete the transition to a cashless payment model whenever fans are able to return. The uncertainty around the future stadium activities is an enigma for all. What would be the message for the sports community in these uncertain times from a 49ers fan’s perspective?
I am indeed a lifelong fan of the San Francisco 49ers and I’ve been lucky enough to visit Levi’s. I would also add that the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium has been cashless since it opened. If the question is from a fan’s perspective, I am really looking forward to sports venues opening up again as safely and as soon as possible. Millions of us miss it greatly. Sport will be part of how the world heals – and digital will be the best tool it has to achieve that.
The interview was first published in the SPORTO Magazine No. 15 (November 2020).