Wrap-up: Wharton Sports Innovation Conference

Today’s post is courtesy of guest blogger Emily Huddell from Turnkey Sports & Entertainment.

The inaugural Wharton Sports Innovation Conference (SIC) was held last Friday, April 8, at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.  Initiated and organized by the Wharton Sports Business Club, the event was conceived as a forum for high-level discussion on “what’s next” in the world of sports business, attracted approximately 250 attendees, and (full disclosure) was sponsored by Turnkey Sports & Entertainment.

The event began with a welcome address by Kenneth Shropshire, Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics and Director of Wharton’s Sports Business Initiative. Then, attendees split into sub-groups to attend panels including “Developing Story: Shifts in Sports Media Coverage,” “If You Build It, Will They Come?: Innovations in Stadium Land Use and Surrounding Real Estate,” and “The Social Impact of Sports.”

In one of the day’s first sessions, Barry Blyn (VP of Consumer Insights, ESPN) engaged attendees in a discussion centered on ESPN’s “brand health narrative.” According to Blyn, ESPN’s core focus is the die-hard sports fan (i.e., the individual who identifies as at an 8, 9 or 10 on a 1-10 avidity scale). In their quest to “relentlessly monitor brand health” by understanding the perceptions of this group, Blyn’s team employs many non-traditional means, including father/son BBQs (at which fans’ perceptions and needs are discussed), “ESPN deprivation” experiences, conflict groups, and projects like eulogy creation (in which fans are asked to pretend that the brand has “died” and reflect on its cause of death).

Moving forward, Blyn’s group is focused on determining how SportsCenter should adapt/react to the growth of mobile to retain its appeal. Other goals including developing a true social media strategy, and continuing to create a sense of community with fans with innovations like the World Cup Match Truck.

In one of the morning’s second panels, titled “To the Cloud!”, a stacked panel comprised of Dave Butler (CEO, Paciolan), Sean Morgan (Founder & CEO, Critical Media), Brian Perez (SVP & GM, NBA Digital), Matt Higgins (EVP Business Operations, NY Jets), and Brad Goldberg (CEO, Peak6 Online) and moderated by Len Perna (President & CEO, Turnkey Sports & Entertainment), engaged in a lively conversation about the impact of cloud computing on the sports industry. The panel agreed that though fans may not understand the concept of the cloud, they directly benefit from it in the form of customized and improved in-stadium service.

Other hot button issues tackled by this group included:

  • The interplay of broadcast rights and mobile/digital
  • The lack of mobile bandwidth in areas/facilities (Perez called it the “single biggest issue” in sports)
  • The potential nationalization of team brands via mobile technology/mobile’s effect on the ~75 mile marketing boundaries currently in place
  • The role of in-stadium replay
  • The development of platforms enabling fans to invite friends to games via social media

The panel’s consensus was that the sports industry must do a better job of implementing initiatives like the NBA’s Fan Night, which allows fans to determine which game airs on NBA TV each Tuesday. According to this group, increased adaptation stemming from going where the fans are and giving them what they want will be crucial as the sports industry strives to remain relevant.

Perhaps the day’s most compelling event was Ted Leonsis’ Keynote Speech. Leonsis, the Founder and CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, spoke about teams’ effect on the metro areas they call home, and their responsibilities as the “caretakers of the emotional well-being” of those cities. He discussed how the Verizon Center has played a crucial role in the revitalization of DC’s Chinatown, changing the arc of the narrative of the city, and turning the area surrounding the arena into a hub of commerce with an annual economic impact of $300 million.

As one who has worked in multiple industries and created and managed companies of varied sizes and types, Leonsis was the perfect person to give the SIC Keynote Speech. The themes of innovation, forward-thinking, creating value for consumers, and keeping philanthropy front-of-mind remained as Leonsis detailed his career with AOL, his roles as a founder of SnagFilms, and his experiences as a member of the Groupon Board of Directors.

Leonsis’ recommendation to students looking to break into the sports industry was, as he put it, “M&M” – math and Mandarin. On the math side, teams’ evolution into “gigantic data factories” means that mastery of statistics and numbers will become a crucial skill set. With regard to the second “m”, Mandarin has more native speakers than any other language, and is the language spoken in Beijing, the political and cultural center of China.

Following Leonsis’ presentation, Chuck Greenberg (Former CEO & Managing Partner, Texas Rangers), Nick Sakiewicz (CEO & Operating Partner, Philadelphia Union), and Stu Siegel (Partner, Sunrise Sports & Entertainment) took the floor as participants in the “Owner’s Roundtable.”

Sakiewicz, possessing the unique perspective of a person who literally created a franchise and a brand from “a blank sheet of paper,” emphasized the importance of the role of data mining as it pertains to improving the in-game experience and building connections with the fans outside of stadium via social media.

Greenberg, meanwhile, was tasked with rehabilitating a storied brand’s image when his group purchased the franchise in 2010. Interestingly, Greenberg noted that, prior to his group’s purchase of the club, the Texas Rangers were perceived as a small- to mid-market franchise… despite the fact that their stadium is literally across the street from Cowboy’s Stadium, capacity ~110,000 and home of “America’s Team.”

In his role as CEO of the club, Greenberg focused on rebuilding trust with Rangers fans and enhancing a sense of community. Said Greenberg, “Sports franchises may be the last great town hall of modern society,” in that they have the ability to connect unrelated individuals from different backgrounds and with varied interests.

Following the “Owner’s Roundtable,” SIC attendees grabbed bag lunches and then attend two more waves of roundtables about the future of international expansion in sports, the impact of social media on sports brands, and innovations in sports analytics.

In “Growing the Gate,” a roundtable focused on innovations in ticketing, participants agreed that teams’ current challenge is creating true communities and a “membership” feel among season ticket holders. Ben Gumpert (Sr. Director, Team Marketing & Business Operations, NBA) noted that the Charlotte Bobcats have already taken steps in this direction by offering season ticket holders access to movie nights and cooking classes with the team’s Executive Chef.

Personalizing the stadium experience for each fan was also a popular concept the group expects to see more of in future years.

When asked how his side of the business has changed as technology has evolved, Dave Butler (CEO, Paciolan) made the point that his business is no longer just about ticket transactions. Instead, Paciolan now considers helping teams better understand their fans, build relationships with them, and figure out how to give them what they need to be their primary responsibility. “The fan teaches us what’s right and what clicks and what doesn’t,” said Butler, adding that Paciolan looks to other industries for innovative ideas but ultimately takes their cue from ticket buying fans.

In the day’s final session, a presentation featuring Joe Banner (President, Philadelphia Eagles), Stan Kasten (Former President, Washington Nationals), Tim Purpura (EVP & COO, MiLB), and Jason Levian (President & Founder, LSRI) titled “The Bottom Line,” panelists discussed the balance of on-field success and success on the books. Kasten summed up the concept mid-way through the session, explaining that “smart’s going to beat rich, but when you’re rich and smart, that’s tough to beat.”

Overall, this event provided insightful and interesting content appropriate for professionals and students alike. Students benefited from sessions geared specifically towards them (“Paying Your Dues: Breaking Into The Sports Business”, etc.), and comments from panelists like the NHL’s Jeff Morander, who noted that teams’ increasing sophistication with regard to technology and analytics opens doors to students looking for jobs in sports with who are comfortable working with data and tech-savvy. Industry professionals, meanwhile, had the opportunity to network with dozens of top-level executives, discuss the future, and openly brainstorm about new concepts and ideas. Given the convenient location (blocks from Philadelphia’s Amtrak station), reasonable cost for attendee badges, and stacked lineup of panelists and speakers, this event is a must-attend for anyone with an eye on the future in 2012.

Today’s guest post is from Emily M. Huddell. Emily serves as the SVP of Client Sales & Service at Turnkey Sports & Entertainment. At Turnkey, she oversees two of the company’s core products, Activator and Prospector.

One thought on “Wrap-up: Wharton Sports Innovation Conference

  • April 19, 2011 at 2:56 pm
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    Read this with great interest, particularly the portion about the Hot Button Issues Panel. As someone who represents a leader in providing solutions for some of these very issues (www.signalshare.net), it’s great to see industry leaders place such a priority on the need to meet these challenges.

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