Amid Super Bowl fever, the sports business needs to take its medicine

Contact: Scott Denne

Super Bowl ad prices continue to rise each year, and that masks the symptoms of the sporting world’s concussion. Sports had previously blocked television audiences from completely heading to the sidelines in favor of video on demand, video games and other forms of media; no longer is that the case. Yet networks continue to increase investments in sports – the NFL just sold a package of Thursday Night Football games next fall for $450m, up from $300m last season. This comes during an exodus of subscribers from the sports-industry’s flagship network, ESPN. And as networks, teams and leagues look for ways to stanch the losses, we expect to see increasing investment in technologies that enable them to keep those audiences.

Time may not be on their side (always good news for bankers). Our surveys suggest acceleration in linear TV’s declining audiences. Only 35% of respondents to one of our 2015 consumer surveys reported seeing a TV ad in the previous week. In a separate survey, 8.4% said they had altogether canceled their traditional TV service, while another 16.7% said they are ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ likely to cancel within the next six months – the highest level to date on both figures.

Increasing fan engagement was the logic behind the heavy investments into daily fantasy sports. The two leading companies in that space – FanDuel and DraftKings – raised more than $700m combined, much of it from networks, sports leagues and team owners. Although those bets don’t look set to pay off, the lure of free cash isn’t the only way to keep fans interested. We recommend the sports industry’s heavy hitters start acquiring and investing in areas that are beginning to change how fans interact with sports.

The first is the technology and talent that power mobile apps. Buying and developing apps gives teams, leagues and networks a direct link to their fans today. Broadcast signals and ticket stubs don’t generate data. Apps do, and having such data will ultimately make their audiences more valuable, and help them find ways to grow and keep them. The second area is in emerging categories of virtual and augmented reality. Madison Square Garden Company, owners of the New York Knicks and Rangers, has already made two venture investments in virtual reality – NextVR (along with Comcast) and Jaunt (alongside Disney). A ringside seat to the growth of these technologies would help sports grow within the next generation of media, rather than succumbing to it, as might happen within the current one.

For more real-time information on tech M&A, follow us on Twitter @451TechMnA.