The annual event draws speakers from the financial aspect of sports to discuss the latest trends within the industry. In the past, speakers have included Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Don Garber, Commissioner of Major League Soccer, Robert Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard, and Stephen Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins. This year’s conference featured four panels, three one-on-one interviews, and two condensed keynote-style presentations, dubbed “power talks”.
According to its mission, MSBC aims “to educate and connect the next generation of sport business professionals.” Outside of the structured discussions, there were opportunities for students to network with industry professionals and meet with representatives from sports organizations across the country.
The first panel of the day, titled “The Business of Esports: More Than a Game”, discussed the business opportunities of esports as it disrupts traditional sports institutions. Moderator Brian Millman spoke with Johanna Faries, Commissioner of the Call of Duty World League, Lovell Walker, the Head of Esports at MGM Resorts International, and Collette Gangemi, VP of Merchandising for the New York Excelsior of the Overwatch League.
They discussed the recent transition of esports to become a stand-alone revenue stream rather than a service provided by video game developers for the purpose of marketing its games. Faries commented that the entire industry “feels like social media from the late nineties”, where anything is possible. Unlike traditional sports leagues, Walker mentioned the flexibility afforded to esports and how “[the leagues] can adapt like that.” Faries agreed, saying, “we have the luxury of not doing things the same way as traditional leagues.” The opportunities provided by esports are ripe for integration within existing sports institutions. Game developers, investors, venues, apparel manufacturers, and media outlets are all vying for a piece of the billion-dollar pie.
Gangemi spoke about how collaborations with established merchandising brands can be utilized to help “fans engage with our team.” The New York Excelsior, the team in the Overwatch League that Gangemi works for, has partnerships with Nike and New Era, as well as a deal with online retailer Fanatics to sell team apparel. Earlier this week, luxury fashion retailer Louis Vuitton announced a partnership with Riot Games, developer of the massively popular game League of Legends. Walker noted that esports are especially unique because brands can directly be integrated into the games through updates and downloadable content.
However, the panel was willing to identify some possible concerns that could face esports into the future. Faries is afraid to focus too much on growth and the potentially outsized expectations that analysts and investors have for the leagues, commenting, “this is a marathon, not a sprint.” Additionally, Walker raised concerns about fragmentation, as many developers attempt to create its own league. “As a new fan, where do you start?”
Following the esports panel was the first one-on-one interview of the conference, where TJ Adeshola took the stage with Jessica Mendoza, Olympic gold medalist and MLB Analyst for ESPN. Mendoza spoke about her experience growing up in an athletic-minded household, representing her country in Athens and Beijing, and being an inspiration for young women as a highly respected female sportscaster in a male-dominated industry.
Growing up, Mendoza recounts how her father conditioned her to love sports. “I grew up in the dugout,” she remembered. She played college softball at Stanford but always felt pressure that she was not good enough. “I was so paranoid that I was going to get cut.” When Mendoza transitioned from the field to the press box, the pressure to succeed remained. She spoke about the nervousness surrounding her audition to cover the NCAA softball for ESPN, saying, “an audition for college softball might not seem like the biggest thing, but it was for me.”
As a woman sportscaster for ESPN, Mendoza feels added pressure to succeed. “I can’t fail,” she said. “There are a lot of people relying on you.” In 2015, she became the first female analyst for a nationally televised postseason MLB broadcast. Also in 2015, she became the first woman to be a television analyst for the Men’s College World Series. She continues to break down barriers, commenting, “it’s 2019. I want to get to a point where it is [treated as] people doing their jobs,” rather than women broadcasters receiving special consideration.
After Mendoza’s interview, the second panel, titled “Enhancing the Fan Experience: From Arrival to Departure”, took place. Moderator Lee Moulton met with Danny Meyer, founder of Shake Shack and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, Caryn Seidman-Becker, CEO of CLEAR, and Lee Zeidman, President of the STAPLES Center. They discussed the latest trends in food and security at sporting events and the future of how fans will experience sports.
According to Seidman-Becker, a positive fan experience is “about creating a frictionless and personalized experience.” Her company, CLEAR, provides expedited entry into stadiums and airports for enrolled members. Currently, 15 stadiums across the country have CLEAR lines while entering.
There was disagreement among the panel about the importance of food to sports fans. Meyer believes that fans want to purchase high-quality food when they attend games, while Zeidman argued, “I don't think people come to the stadium for the food alone.” Meyer’s company, Union Square Hospitality Group, operates numerous high-end restaurants at Citi Field in New York, including Shake Shack and Blue Smoke. A recent trend in sports concessions has been lower price options, as implemented in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The stadium sells hot dogs, pretzels, and popcorn for $2 apiece. Zeidman, although recognizing that this business model “works in some venues and markets”, believes that many stadiums simply do not have the infrastructure or ownership structure to support “street pricing”. The STAPLES Center, operated by Zeidman, was built in 1999 and currently has four tenants, each with different ownership.
The STAPLES Center is particularly unique because it is home to both the Clippers and Lakers in the NBA, the only basketball stadium to hold such a distinction and one of two venues to host two teams in the same sport, along with MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Zeidman boasted that “four of the seven” best players in the NBA will be playing at the STAPLES Center this upcoming season.
All the panelists agreed that the proliferation of big data has revolutionized stadium management. Zeidman uses analytic services to measure data about where fans park, which entrances they decide to use and which concession stands and bathrooms they visit. Using the analytics, Zeidman is able to make “real-time changes” and optimize the venue for consumer preferences. Seidman-Becker also employs analytics to make the security process quicker and less intrusive.
Over the next decade, the panel envisions that new technology will massively how fans attend sporting events. Seidman-Becker is convinced the widespread use of 5G wireless communications and emergence of “microbetting”, where fans can place bets on individual plays, will change the fan experience. Additionally, the panel predicts that there will be an effort from venues to emphasize the “human connection” between fans. Zeidman thinks that as technology advances and watching a game from home becomes more convenient, this human connection will be a major incentive for fans to attend games.
Next at the conference were the two “power talks”. Each power talk featured a single speaker on the stage diving deep into a topic relating to sports and business. In a style similar to a “TED Talk”, speakers utilized powerpoint presentations, videos, images, and infographics to explain their given topic. This year, the two power talks explored corporate partnerships within sports and the unique ways companies promote its brands through sports. The power talks were billed to last only 15 minutes each, but both were slightly longer than the allotted time.
Justin Toman, the head of Sports Marketing and Partnerships at PepsiCo, gave the first power talk, which was titled “The Magic Behind the Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show”. Toman began by summarizing the history of halftime shows during the Super Bowl, starting with marching in the game’s early years and expanding into the spectacle that it is known for today. He stressed the importance of brand integration as a means of extended the event beyond the performance itself. Pepsi tries to produce a consistent visual identity for the halftime show across logos, posters, and advertisements. Toman concluded the presentation by discussing the benefits that Pepsi receives due to its sponsorship. According to Toman, Pepsi receives $25 million in social media value from the halftime show and the company sees a 6% increase in sales following the event.
The second power talk, called “Acing the US Open with American Express”, was given by Lindsay Ulrey, VP of Global Sports Experiences and Partnerships for American Express. American Express sponsors the US Open in Flushing, New York, incorporating what Ulrey calls “experiential marketing” into the event. Through its partnership, the company allows cardholders to pre-purchase tickets for the annual tennis tournament and operates a lounge for attendees to visit outside of the stadium. According to Ulrey, American Express invests in this partnership so the company can grow loyalty, engage new customers, and cement its brand into pop culture.
The final panel before lunch was called “Watch and Wait: Streaming and Innovation in the Sports Industry” and featured various players from digital sports companies. Moderated by Stephen Master, the panel included Howard Mittman, CEO of Bleacher Report, Ari Borod, Chief Commercial Officer for The Action Network, Rob Shaw, director of Global Sports Media and Partnerships at Facebook, and Patrick Colletto, Head of Sponsorship Sales and Brand Partnerships at Roku. The panel discussed the latest developments in sports gambling and the growth of digital streaming services for sports.
Borod’s company, The Action Network, is a digital media outlet that provides news and analysis regarding sports gambling. Sports gambling has received a recent boom after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states have the authority to regulate sports gambling in May 2018. Since then, 13 states and the District of Colombia have legalized sports betting. Mittman believes this situation is a “gold rush” for media outlets, gambling websites and the various professional sports leagues. Mittman’s website, Bleacher Report, covers sports betting and in February 2019 struck a deal with Caesars to create a sports betting television show. Neither Borod nor Mittman are concerned about the growth in gambling to affect the integrity of matches, with Borod commenting, “the integrity is under a spotlight now.”
Additionally, the panel discussed the role of digital streaming services in broadcasting sports. Facebook recently acquired the exclusive streaming rights to Conference USA football games. Shaw says Facebook hopes to “work with the best storytellers in the world.” Services such as ESPN+ and B/R Live provide a way for fans to watch sporting events that are not popular enough to receive coverage on television. Additionally, Amazon Prime Video holds the streaming rights of Thursday Night Football. Mittman believes the leagues and fans are the winners of the recent proliferation of streaming services since the leagues are able to ask for higher broadcast fees and fans receive more sports coverage.
Follow an hour-long lunch break, the conference resumed with the second one-on-one interview of the day. Moderator Micheal Melnitzky sat down with Chairman of CBS Sports, Sean McManus. McManus reflected on his 40-year career, the recently announced CBS-Viacom merger, and how traditional media outlets plan to stay relevant into the future.
McManus is excited by the opportunity brought by the August 2019 merger between CBS and Viacom. The combined company, called ViacomCBS, will provide more content for CBS Sports to incorporate into broadcasts. McManus can imagine a partnership with Nickelodeon, BET, or Comedy Central, all properties now owned by ViacomCBS, to promote their sports among specific demographics. He also believes any upfront investments, such as expensive broadcast agreements with sports leagues, can be spread out among the larger balance-sheet of the combined company.
Headed into the future, McManus hopes to maintain his company’s lucrative programming, saying, “Strategically, it is my number one priority to maintain the events that we have.” Rather than expand the network’s programming lineup, McManus is focused on extending his current programming agreements with college football, the NCAA March Madness Tournament, the PGA Tour, and most importantly, the NFL. The current NFL television broadcast rights are set to expire in 2022, and with Disney expected to make a bid for a Sunday afternoon package, one network will be left without a seat at the table. McManus acknowledged that NFL coverage is especially important for the network because it provides leverage over the television operators during carriage disputes.
Additionally, McManus is directing CBS to cover more niche sports, such as horse racing, beach volleyball, and “Big3” basketball, a 3-on-3 summer basketball league founded by Ice Cube. These less popular sports often don’t charge broadcast fees and some even pay the network to cover its games. Earlier this year, CBS Sports broadcast the short lived Alliance of American Football until its midseason collapse in April. Although McManus is intrigued by the XFL, an upcoming spring football league founded by wrestling magnate Vince McMahon, he is convinced that “there must be a reason why [spring football] has never worked.”
After the interview with McManus was the final panel of the day, titled “Greasing The Wheels: Accelerating Into a New Era of Action Sports.” Moderated by Kate Johnson, the panel discussed the wider acceptance of action sports over the past decade. The panel included Mark Ervin, a Senior VP at IMG Clients, and Kaitlyn Banchero, the General Manager of Street League Skateboarding. A topic of discussion was the inclusion of more action-centric events into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, including karate, sport climbing, surfing, and skateboarding. Although they are excited about the exposure that the Olympics will bring, Banchero is mindful of alienating the core fans of skateboarding as it becomes more mainstream. Ervin agreed, wondering, “do the Olympics need us more than we need them?”
Following the panel was the final event of the day, a one-on-one interview with Senior NFL Insider for ESPN and Michigan graduate, Adam Schefter. Schefter, who has over 7 million Twitter followers, is synonymous with breaking news in the NFL. The interview was conducted by fellow Michigan alum Seth Ader, the VP of Brand Marketing for ESPN. During the interview, Ader selected questions submitted through Twitter and from members of the audience.
Schefter spoke about how he got his start in journalism writing for the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper on campus at University of Michigan. As a student, he was looking for an activity to join and only selected the Daily after being rejected by a fraternity and a managerial role with the University's football team. This experience greatly influenced Schefter’s professional mindset, which he described as “if someone says no, it creates the opportunity for someone else to say yes.”
During the interview, Schefter referenced a quote by Robert Iger, CEO of the Walt Disney Company (and Schefter’s indirect boss due to Disney’s ownership of ESPN): “I never viewed myself as exceptional. And so whenever I got a job, I was relying on hard work more than anything and a level of enthusiasm and optimism.” Schefter revealed that he values hard work, perseverance, and doing the right thing. When asked what guidance he would give students who are interested in working in business, he advised, “just get in the door doing whatever you can and then go and make your mark there.”
Schefter disclosed that he has kept a journal since 1990 and records his thoughts in it every day. He enjoys this process because it allows him to look back and “see [his] own personal growth.” Additionally, Schefter mentioned that he loves to read and one of his favorite books is “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. At the end of the interview, Schefter fielded a lightning round of audience questions, answering each with only a few words of what first comes to mind. He responded to a dozen questions, covering a wide range of topics from his favorite restaurant in Ann Arbor to fantasy football advice. He provided an autographed copy of his book to attendees that asked particularly insightful questions.