This article first appeared in Sports Business Journal, written by Alex Beazley-Long, Senior Strategist.
Whether it is paywalls, time zones or ticket prices, a new generation of fans are finding it harder and harder to access the unique experience of watching sport live that will make them lifelong fans. Sports league, administrators and clubs are some of our longest running (and most passionately debated) institutions. How can they modernise and appeal to new audiences, whilst still acting as effective custodians?
In 2022, the British sporting summer got off to an unexpectedly underwhelming start. The traditional opening Test match at Lord’s was a mouth-watering clash with World Test Champions New Zealand. A Lord’s Test is a fixture of the social season, and pretty much a guaranteed sellout. But this year, cricket fans baulked at the prospect of tickets in the £110-£160 price range, as 16,000 tickets were left unsold in the run-up to the first day of play. By the end of the series, a different picture had emerged, as thrilling 5th day chases were held in front of sold-out crowds. The key? Free tickets, democratising Test cricket and creating a raucous atmosphere, dispelling the notion that the sport is in existential crisis.
The England Cricket Board’s previous response to this has been the creation of The Hundred, a new format that sees the Indian Premier League franchise model arrive on these shores. Along with new teams, uniforms and overseas players, the Hundred prioritised accessibility to reach a new audience. Over 2 million people watched the opening game on BBC2, whilst the ECB revealed 55% of attendees had not bought cricket tickets before. Cricket’s issues seem less to do with the popularity of the sport itself, more with the opportunities to access it.
Football does not suffer from accessibility issues, with the game undeniably the most popular sport in the world. Its existential crisis is instead a moral one, with the powers that run the game under increased scrutiny. The announcement of the European Super League was met by widespread fury and contempt, as a combination of fan protest and threats of government legislation killed the idea within 72 hours. Whilst the ESL itself may have gone away, it did reveal how fragile the existing structures of football are, and how power struggles between clubs and administrators affect fans the most.
A possible solution to this would be teams moving toward a more democratic model, with fans having equity and decision-making powers in clubs. An example of this is WAGMI United, a crypto consortium that has taken over English side Crawley Town FC. They are funding the club through sales of NFTs that entitle owners to execute decisions on club direction. The scheme has already raised £3.5 million of investment, whilst NFT owners can vote on decisions in a Discord server.
The challenge facing baseball is that replicating the unique ballpark experience beyond the U.S. is logistically complex. The huge appetite for baseball outside the U.S. was evident in 2019 when the inaugural London Series between the Yankees and Red Sox sold out the former Olympic Stadium in Stratford twice over. MLB will return to the U.K. in 2023, 2024 and 2026, and tickets will be in equally high demand.
As MLB looks to expand and grow the game beyond the U.S. market, they know that finding new ways to recreate the ballpark experience is key to winning over new fans to America’s pastime. This is where MLB Home Run Derby X comes in, an electrifying new baseball format taking the league on a global tour to London, Seoul and Mexico City in 2022. The three events will see a number of innovations aimed squarely at a new generation of baseball fans.
The guiding principle with Home Run Derby X has been to conceive this new sporting format making the unique features of baseball accessible for a new audience. This has been through free online broadcast platforms, a simplified on-field product or an experience that combines sport with culture. These innovations have allowed us to reach new audiences for MLB, whether that is younger fans, non-baseball fans, new markets, or all of the above.
Cricket, football and baseball are some of the world’s most enduring sports. Despite their longevity, they know that change is necessary to maintain growth and relevance. The Hundred, WAGMI United and Home Run Derby X demonstrate a commitment to innovation from sports organisations. Experiments such as these will be key to ensuring the long-term popularity of sport, tapping into new markets and reaching a more diverse range of audiences through broadening their appeal.