Highlights of SXsport Interactive 2017?

An observational ramble by a sport-obsessed digital project director

The last time I visited SXSW Interactive was back in 2013. SXsport was still very much in its infancy down at The Driskill on 6th Street. Four years on, SXsport is now hosted at the Four Seasons in three of its large ballrooms. For me the reason for this is simple. One of the great things about the sports industry in the context of “digital” is that it wants to use as many innovative ways to win new fans as possible. It does this through being as open and current as possible. This is opposed to say the fashion industry which whilst it is all about attracting new customers too it does this through exclusivity and a focus on more traditional forms of marketing. The result has been a rise of SXsport at SXSW.

This article is about some of the interesting insights and soundbites I got from these four days. Hope you enjoy.

The EPL vs MLS

In general, I found talks that were presented by a single or couple of speakers particularly enlightening this year. They are able to control the flow of the presentation and are able to maintain focus on the subject matter. Richard Clark (ex-Digital Director of Arsenal FC and the Colorado Rapids FC) was able to do just that providing us with an overview of the differences of the English Premier League and Major League Soccer. Whilst we can all probably list some obvious differences, there were a series of nuances that he brought to light that I found particularly interesting.

“The MLS is a digital first league, unlike the EPL, which is dominated by TV rights” Clark

Whilst I would argue the EPL has a strong digital offering (I did work with them for a couple years on Barclays!), it does suffer from the power of the more traditional media . The result is a more conservative and inward outlook to content strategy. The MLS on the other hand tries to expose as much information and behind-the-scenes content to its fans as quickly and as appropriately as possible. Take a look at these examples:

Take a look at a match report from the EPL and MLS below:

The MLS’ article shows a digital first outlook. It has chunked content, links to video and live social posts. The Man Utd post is long…very long…and all text. I would argue the likelihood is the latter has been written by a classically trained journalist, whereas the former by a younger digital-native.

I also came across this great bit of Twitter banter between the LA Galaxy and Portland Timbers.

See the video here.

You would never see a “Twitter beef” between EPL clubs. It’s positive fun, the fans love it and it shows a human-side which for me ultimately feels more aligned with the digital pulse of social in general.

“Tribalism in the MLS is different to the EPL. The latter is only about their teams. The former supports their club and the wider league as a whole too” Clark

The MLS is still a young league. It wasn’t founded like the English Football League was back in 1888 to control the unruly working classes on a Saturday afternoon, whose fans lived and worked with many of their local footballing heroes. Fierce club loyalty epitomises the UK (and European) fan, whilst the MLS fan is supportive of both their club and the league. In order for the MLS to survive it needs to be a positive place for fans to bring their families again and again. Passion is one thing, regularly calling the ref a “c-bomb” is another.

I find the MLS a hugely exciting league. It is the fastest growing sport in the US and I would not be surprised to see more top quality players, like the standard of current Italian international Sebastian Giovinco as well as ex-Italian international dreamboat Andrea Pirlo, moving stateside. The fans are appreciative, the clubs don’t operate like scared parents and I imagine they can live a much more normal life in Northern America compared to Europe.

How the World’s Biggest Sport is Making it in the US

The other great discussion from the day was a perfect supplement to the presentation from Clark. Leading digital marketers from the City Football Group (NYCFC, Manchester City FC among others), Bayern Munich and FC Barcelona were in attendance to talk about how they were attempting to gain a footprint in the US as European football clubs.

It’s not surprising clubs these size are starting to want to grab a piece of the football pie. Tom Glick, CCO City Football Group, made some very interesting points as to why that is:

“The MLS is on a real roll. NYCFC has 20,000 season ticket holders and has average attendances of 27,000 per game.”


“The breakfast to lunch window in US on a Saturday is perfect timing to consume football media. It fits with the family routine”

I have been following a lot of the supporters clubs over in the US and they are genuinely exploding. Take a look at the Austin Spurs gathering for the Millwall FA Cup Quarter Final…great:

See the video here

I was also taken with the thought that whilst the Europeans are coming to the US to increase their club’s footprint there is also a real interest from these clubs about how they can learn from American sports too.

“We are here to learn from US sport. The fan experience is unbelievable. We need to replicate this” Arno Trabesinger Managing Director America, FC Barcelona

I couldn’t agree more. If football could integrate pre-, half-time and post-match entertainment into the sport the sky would be the limit. Clubs like Brighton & Hove Albion have done this reasonably well by making stadiums feel like a welcoming place to away fans (I know because I have been there as a Fulham FC fan), but there is still a long way to go. A great piece of theatre I love is by Timber Joey at the Portland Timbers:

See his interview here

I don’t think it would work back in the UK, but it certainly is a great spectacle and crowd pleaser rather than playing some awful Blur track when the ball hits the back of the net! We can learn a lot from these guys.

A couple of other points I thought were worth mentioning is the impact EA Sports’ console game, FIFA, is having in the US. For many North Americans this has been the gateway into the sport, many of whom have never played it before.

“FIFA is a vital partner for us. It is a fantastic way to expose the brand to this target audience” — Rudolf Vidal, President Americas at FC Bayern Munich

With the new license agreement between EA Sports and FIFA signed back in May till 2022, I will be fascinated to see what that potential value will be when this comes up for renewal again. It is so important to football clubs to have the accurate stadiums and players featured and now equally as important for sports brands too, e.g. to show off their new football boot models. I can potentially see EA getting together a rather large rabble of partners from across the industry to ensure they maintain those rights.

To wrap up, a member of the audience asked an interesting question to the panel. Using your experience launching your clubs in the US, what lessons would you take to China?

The response:

1/ participation in terms of teaching people how to play and coach the game

2/ create localised content andpartner with platforms where the fans are

The Chinese Super League is slowly simmering in the background and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the title of this particular panel changed for 2018 to discuss the importance of the Far East.

I am going to write one further post about what I thought was the best talk of the entire SXSW Festival. I am not going to give it away today, but I will try to share over the weekend.

Thanks, G

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