My guess is anyone reading this as at least a passing interest in the multibillion dollar industry that is sports today. But how did we get here, and more importantly, who got us here in just a few decades. Many of those questions and more are looked at by Matthew Futterman in his new book, “Players: The Story of Sports and Money, and the Visionaries Who Fought to Create a Revolution.” Futterman’s book takes us back to the how’s and why’s of how sport became big business, how it grew on the backs of several visionary leaders, and where it may be going a bit into the future.
A great read for anyone looking to learn more about the business, we caught up with Matt to learn what he learned in putting the book together.
The story of IMG and Mark McCormack is told well, but who is the person behind the scenes you found that did the most in growing the business of sports that never got the recognition he/she deserved?
I called the book “Players” because I think the athletes rarely get the credit they deserve when it comes to the creation of the modern sports industry. The same story happened in so many sports. A star athlete, or a group of star athletes, draws a line in the sand and says, this is the price of dignity, and I’m going to risk my career on it. The Wimbledon boycott, which essentially created modern tennis giving the tennis players a seat at the table, doesn’t happen if Stan Smith doesn’t go along with it. He was the defending champion and walked away from the greatest tournament in his sport. He was playing the best tennis of his life and was pretty unbeatable on grass. He never won another grand slam. Now most people don’t even know he was an actual person. They think he’s just a shoe. That’s about as overlooked as you can get.
How do you think these original pioneers would adapt to a world of MMA and eSports vs. the traditional?
eSports is a tough one, because I’m still not convinced it’s a sport. It’s definitely entertainment, and very popular entertainment, but “sport” is a stretch. MMA is something of a cartel at the moment the way UFC controls so much. I’m concerned about any sport that is too heavily controlled by one person or one family. At some point the fighters will likely be better off if they have more control of the management in the way that golfers and tennis players do.
If you were to update this book in five years, which emerging brands of today would be included in the new global growth of sports?
I suspect I would be writing about the continuing emergence of international soccer in the U.S. The amount of attention now paid to the Premiership and Champions League is night and day from where it was five years ago. Some of the smartest people I know in the sports business believe international soccer is going to be the second-most popular television sport in the U.S. before too long, though I’m not sure it will get bigger than the NBA.
What do you think was the biggest misstep brands took in not engaging in sports business sooner?
It’s hard for me to blame brands for not engaging with sports too heavily on the 1950s-1970s. Sports weren’t all that great back then. Look at the tapes of the games. The action is so slow, and a lot of the athletes aren’t that good. The “Ah-ha” moment for brands happens in the 1980s with Michael Jordan and Nike, when Nike realizes the best way to sell its merchandise is not to talk about the technical attributes of its shoes and clothes but to start spinning legends about the athletes wearing them. That creates a sea-change in the way the corporate world interacts with sports. The problem is Nike got hooked on spinning legends and that came back to bite them when they weren’t true. Lance Armstrong was on more than just his bike for six hours a day.
The digital space has obviously changed the sports and entertainment business forever; is there still a solid place for traditional sports marketing in the world today or do you have to be everything to everybody?
I think you need to reach your audience where it is. Tying yourself to long-term cable deals and making it impossible to reach the next generation of sports fans on mobile is a terrible idea. These local blackouts required to fulfill outdated RSN agreements are not good. My kids shouldn’t have to be in their living room to watch any one sport. So the leagues and governing bodies need to make it easier for sports marketing folks to be everywhere.
The titans of the industry only a few decades ago had the ability to control media in ways you can’t today. Would their approaches have been just as successful because of the size of the personalities they were working with?
I’m a big believer in the quality of the content. Great personalities, great storytelling and quality competition can solve nearly every problem, because it creates audience demand. Baseball is struggling with ratings not because it can’t control media but because the games are too long and boring because nobody scores or gets on base. No matter how much baseball controls media, it’s going to struggle until it fixes some problems with the game.
What is the biggest lesson you would like people to take away from the book?
Pigs get fat, but hogs get slaughtered. The idea that the most important thing in sports, or in any industry, is to keep labor costs as low as possible is absurd. Some of the highest paid factory workers are in Germany and Scandinavia, whose products are the envy of the world in terms of quality. When people are empowered financially they are incentivized to be as good as they can be and the rising tide can raise all boats. That said, players can be guilty of the overreach, too. Honesty and being genuine pays.
Is there an emerging star, or stars, you think are under marketed today that we should be watching?
Every NCAA athlete, and that’s the NCAA’s fault. The Olympics haven’t been sullied because professionals participate. They are bigger than ever. Katie Ledecky is the world’s greatest female swimmer. She is going to Stanford in the fall. Imagine how much more attention people might pay to NCAA swimming if she could be marketed nationally during her college career by the P&G’s of the world.