Fair Pay to Play Isn’t Just About College

On September 30, 2019, California passed the Fair Pay to Play Act allowing college athletes to earn money off their Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) and hire an agent while maintaining their college eligibility, starting in 2023. The NCAA, while at first criticizing this decision, has now embraced it. Sort of.

Sports and business (e.g. money) are tightly linked. Sometimes like peanut butter and jelly, and other times like oil and water. Curt Flood’s lawsuit for free agency, Ed O’Bannon’s antitrust case for the NCAA’s commercial use of former athlete images, Northwestern athletes’ attempt to be classified as employees, and now California’s legislation are pivotal examples within my lifetime. During this time, sports revenue and player contracts have risen dramatically. The NFL achieved $16 billion in revenue this past year, the NCAA now reports over $1 billion in revenue, twenty-seven colleges and universities generate more than $100 million per year, and Mike Trout recently signed a 12-year contract worth $430 million.

Meanwhile, for the rest of us

“Average Americans can only wish they had the salary inflation enjoyed by pro sports figures. The median U.S. household income in 1985 (meaning half were higher, half lower) was $23,618, according to the Census Bureau. By 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available, it had more than doubled to $49,777, but that simply kept household incomes on par with inflation over that span. In contrast, Greinke’s average salary is more than 20 times the $1.2 million Fernando Valenzuela earned pitching for the Dodgers in 1985. Just think: If all Americans’ incomes had soared that much, the median U.S. household income would now be $472,360.” LA Times.

Alongside this sports revenue boom, college expenses have risen at equally high levels. Since my birth year, 1969, according to the National Center for Education Statistics and The College Board, “the average annual cost of a four-year public school has soared 3,009 percent. The average annual cost of a four-year private school has jumped 2,310 percent. Today, the average American needs to earn about $22,000 more than the current median income to afford college.” To pay for this, student debt has reached a record of $1.5 trillion.

How does Fair Pay to Play and these economics affect youth sports?

Youth sports is big business, estimated at $15 billion per year serving some 40 million athletes. The rise of college costs, the fierce competition of college admissions, and the perceived economic opportunities motivate families to spend significant amounts on their kids’ sports. The consequences? Less accessibility to key opportunities like travel sports teams for those less fortunate, more pressure on young athletes to deliver ROI to their families, higher quitting rates at an earlier age, and repetitive stress injuries due to year-round specialization and over-use. 

Yet despite the focus and hard pushing, the percentage likelihood of playing at the next level is remarkably low. Of the 40 million kids, approximately 18% will play high school athletics, 1.2% NCAA athletics, and 0.02% professional, whereby “professional” means just getting drafted, let alone making the team and signing a contract.

The benefit of NIL rights and eventually pay-to-play is that a select number of scholarship and non-scholarship athletes will be able to attain money for important expenses such as tuition, books, rent, food, travel, and family support. In many cases, college may be the single best opportunity for athletes to profit from their name. For youth sports, however, NIL draws even more attention to the pot of gold while the likelihood of attaining it remains incredibly slim.

What can be done?

California’s Fair Pay to Play Act is a good thing as it allows athletes the chance to earn legitimate and deserved money. Those with an opportunity of playing at the professional level can hire an agent to help evaluate the all-important “stay or go” decision. There will be abuses. There will be bad actors. Oversight and education are required. It sounds a lot like the system we have today. For too long though, the NCAA and its member schools, brands, and broadcasters have earned huge sums on the backs of athletes without evolving the total compensation system. It’s their own fault, driven by greed, commitment to the status quo, and the weakness of the NCAA. Whenever the Government feels compelled to step in, as with this case, you know that negative forces have taken advantage of a situation for too long.

So, if college athletes earning money is the new normal, here are a few suggestions taken from my research that could limit the negative effect on youth sports.

Rethink and increase funding by professional sports organizations and teams, USA governing bodies, the NCAA, and brands (e.g. Nike, Under Armour, Dicks Sporting Goods, NBC) supporting youth participation. Examples of existing funding vehicles include Little League International’s Grow The Game Grants, NBA Cares, MLB Community, NFL Foundation, Nike’s Global Community Impact, and the NCAA’s scholarships and grants.

Continually educate families on the value of a college degree, which as reported by the Census Bureau in 2018, nearly doubles one’s earning potential. Put as much emphasis (if not more) on education as we do on sports.

Workers 18 and over sporting bachelors degrees earn an average of $51,206 a year, while those with a high school diploma earn $27,915. But wait, there’s more. Workers with an advanced degree make an average of $74,602, and those without a high school diploma average $18,734.” 

The percentage likelihood of graduating college is much better than the likelihood of playing professional sports. According to the US Department of Education, “The official four-year graduation rate for students attending public colleges and universities is 33.3%. The six-year rate is 57.6%. At private colleges and universities, the four-year graduation rate is 52.8%, and 65.4% earn a degree in six years.” To reiterate, a mere 1.2% play NCAA athletics, and only 0.02% are selected into professional leagues.

Train the coaches. According to the Positive Coaching Alliance, just 20% of youth coaches receive training, and many of the training programs that do exist are extremely limited in scope.  A comprehensive training curriculum would include how to coach that specific sport, coaching philosophies and techniques, health and safety, dealing with parents and families, and the psychology of kids. Professional leagues and the NCAA should fund this.

Encourage multiple sports and educate on the benefits of cross-training. In his book Any Given Monday, Dr. James Andrews reports that “almost 40 percent of all sports injuries seen in the Emergency Room are for children under the age of fourteen, and overuse is the cause of nearly half of all adolescent sports injuries.” A more aggressive stance is to formally restrict the amount of time a young athlete can dedicate to a single sport within a calendar year until high school. This is similar to NCAA restrictions re: the number of hours per week an athlete is allowed to spend on a sport, applied with the intent of reducing injury.

One way to enforce a restriction is to require athletes to register and maintain a profile with a national database to qualify for sports activities. Someone would have to fund and maintain such a database (e.g. professional leagues and the NCAA).

Bring back the fun. According to the Aspen Institute, “lack of fun” is the most commonly cited reason for kids quitting. 

Certainly, heightened competition and costs are other reasons as kids get older, but it’s important to acknowledge the fun component. Sports offer an amazing path to learn life lessons such as leadership, resilience, sportsmanship, growth mindset, respect, and teamwork. And it’s a great time to have fun! 

Elevate awareness on the health benefits of physical activity, regardless of sport. Developing habits for a healthy lifestyle (nutrition + exercise) should be a primary objective as added life lessons. Sports specialization and year-round commitments, especially at these younger ages, have ramifications such as burn-out, quitting, and an increase in the chance of injury, resulting in less physical activity overall.

The Aspen Institute’s Project Play and Positive Coaching Alliance offer many practical and powerful ideas and resources to help. I encourage you to check them out. I haven’t seen commentary about how NIL legislation will impact the broader ecosystem of sports, especially at the youth (pre-college) level. If you, or if you know of others who have experience, an opinion, or research on the topic, I would very much welcome the conversation! 

Jeff

Podcasting. As Yogi Berra once said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

  • 2001 – Apple releases the iPod
  • 2007 – Apple releases the iPhone
  • 2014 – The hit podcast Serial reaches millions of listeners
  • 2018 – Spotify acquires Gimlet Media and Anchor for about $340M

Fourteen years after the initial launch of podcasting, Apple has finally vowed to improve by funding original content, providing analytics (which it started in early 2018), and elevating podcasting to the coveted status of TV and Music. The IAB has also released its 2.0 guidelines for measurement and metrics to help standardization. Is this the break-out that podcasting-as-revenue-generator has been waiting for?  

In 2007, I left Yahoo! after managing a suite of multimedia products, including a beta branded Yahoo! Podcasting, and joined a podcast advertising technology start-up called Podbridge (subsequently rebranded to VoloMedia). Podcasting was being heralded as a new frontier for digital advertising given the impressive list of brands making podcasts available for free through iTunes, including NBC, MSNBC, ESPN, and NPR. Media companies were essentially re-packaging their previously aired TV or radio programs into an RSS feed and making it available for download and offline consumption on your iPod (pre-iPhone) or RSS-capable device, an economical way to achieve episode longevity and gain additional reach. Market researchers, including Edison Research, noted that podcasting offered a growth market and a very captive audience for advertisers, as listeners were spending more time with podcasts as compared to traditional radio or, at the time, online video. The Association for Downloadable Media even colonized (and has since decolonized…). Yet, in parallel, the streaming market was powering ahead with the success of YouTube and its $1.6B acquisition by Google. Apple wasn’t helping the Podcasting cause by burying the content in its ever-clunky iTunes, offering very limited (if any) metrics and advertising opportunities. Many tech companies that had been funded to capitalize on the emerging podcasting trend, including VoloMedia, either shut down, sold for much less than expected, or significantly trimmed staff to maintain operations. 

Despite the lack of investment and attention, podcasting has continued to grow, albeit largely in the background. Smartphones and the incredible ecosystem make content more and more accessible. Broadband’s progress, including wireless speeds, has been a huge contributor to wide access. 5G holds even more promise. This connectivity wave has turbocharged content mobility through markets such as wearables and automobiles, where a lot of podcast listening occurs.

Investors are taking notice. In 2018, VCs poured in over $200M into podcasting businesses. Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) is forecasting 30%+ advertising revenue growth from $600M in 2018 to $1.6B in 2022, this following 50%+ growth from 2017-2018. Monthly listeners have grown from 23M in 2013 to over 78M in 2018 with the 18-34 demographic leading the growth. Edison states that “85% of people who listen to podcasts, listen to the end,” and the average listener listens to up to five podcasts per week. 

These numbers have reignited advertising interest, especially when evaluated and compared to spend on traditional Radio. A 2017 study by Podcast distributor Audioboom found that “68 percent of podcast listeners had reduced the time they spent listening to broadcast radio in favor of podcasts.” PwC cited this research but was careful to note that there is a lack of evidence suggesting podcasting is actually, today, taking advertising dollars away from broadcast radio. 

According to PwC, traditional US Radio advertising revenue was $15.9B in 2018, essentially flat to slightly down from 2017. They forecast the same $15.9B number in 2019, then again about the same number in 2020. This lack of growth might be due to the same misconception that the TV folks suffered from when the concept of Internet delivery (now OTT) surfaced. TV folks got themselves all worked up about preserving their “cable and broadcast” economics forgetting that the viewers care more about the content than they do the delivery method. Cue the rise of Netflix, and the subscriber decline at ESPN. Radio has been stuck in a rut for a while, and Podcasting represents a growth path even though podcast advertising is still less than 2% of radio advertising. Although in 2013, YouTube’s video ad revenue was just under 4% of cable and broadcast.

Speaking of 2013, remember Jeff Zucker’s quote that year when asked about online video’s impact?  Jeff was then the head of NBC Universal and said that the media industry should be careful not to “end up trading analog dollars for digital pennies.” At the time, online video threatened the $70B+ cable and broadcast business. Well, this time, it’s Radio’s turn. Since Radio is not as economically healthy as TV was back then, maybe the incumbents will actually embrace and extend this movement as opposed to trying to kill it. Another reason podcast growth should continue, and continue less encumbered. 

Podcast investment is now about the content, and specifically original content. Not a week goes by without a celebrity launching a podcast given the low cost of entry and access to a growing audience within their target demographic. This low cost of entry encourages many non-celebrities and companies to jump is as well. Apple reports over 650,000 shows with more than 20 million episodes available as podcasts on iTunes. Last month, the NY Times asked, “Have we hit peak podcast?” in a much discussed article, suggesting that we, as consumers, are ready to be more discerning. Just because you can podcast, doesn’t mean you should. What it does mean is that content has to be really good to survive.

With this vast amount of content, podcast technology start-ups have also secured funding, albeit on a more limited basis than their content-focused counterparts. Production, delivery, monetization, and analytics require underlying tech (just pitch yourself as “Podcast AI,” and the funding should start flowing!). Regarding content delivery and discovery, RSS might be on its way out. As an example, all podcasts on Pandora are actually content streams, as opposed to downloads. This may not matter much so long as listeners can readily find and discover content and internet connectivity is reliable (the download is useful when connectivity is scarce — the anytime, anywhere value proposition). Google recently announced its search engine will surface individual podcast episodes (if published using RSS, Google will automatically index) and Google Assistant will allow users to ask for the content, which certainly helps discovery. And Apple continues to leverage RSS, and as long as they are using the feed format, it will survive. 

The key technology challenge is the same today as it was in 2007, which is advertising metrics. Host-read ads (or read-outs) are still the most effective and popular ad unit followed by brand awareness and direct response. Measurement of performance, however, remains elusive. Apple is certainly helping, but the metrics provided are listener-based for now. Other options include NPRs Remote Audio Data (open-source), Podtrac (founded in 2005), and a recently launched analytics dashboard from Spotify.

The IAB is helping with its standards, but it remains difficult for advertisers to understand performance, which would really turbocharge podcasting.

Yogi was right, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

Jeff

Why are there so few sports technology unicorns?

Sports fuel passions around the world, arguably on a more global scale than any other shared interest. World Atlas reports that there are more than 4 billion soccer fans around the world, more than 10x the population of the US and more than half the planet’s population.

I’ve been a dedicated fan and athlete my whole life, from playing youth sport to the college level, and now regularly exercising 5-6 days per week. It’s a rare exception when my day doesn’t include some flavor of sports TV, radio or online media, whether it’s SportsCenter, a game, The Herd, box scores or a sports-related book (check out my list of favorites at the bottom of the post). And of course, I manage my workouts with an Apple Watch, regularly explore social media for new techniques or routines, enjoy my Peloton, and have recently started my own YouTube channel. I am not a gambler or gamer, so sports betting and esports are not part of my routine, but my teenage son follows Ninja and is an avid Fortnite and Madden gamer!

Yet why, if there are billions of like-minded souls out there — sure, some less and some more devoted — are there so few sports tech unicorns? This is an enormous market. I have some theories.

A lot of spending, but highly fragmented

The North American sports market is approaching $160 Billion in annual revenue, a figure that includes Professional (est. $70 Billion), Betting (est. $40 Billion), Health & Fitness (est. $30 Billion), Youth (est. $15 Billion), eSports (est. $400 Million), and Analytics (est. at $300 million). Including the US sports apparel market, that’s another $122 Billion, pushing the total to just over $280 Billion. Globally, the number is of course much bigger. Even though $280B is an interesting number, companies don’t typically address this aggregate space given the complexities and differences of the individual segments.  According to CB Insights, the markets that have produced the most unicorns are eCommerce, Internet Software & Services, and FinTech. These markets and associated services inherently support a wide demographic. And while Sports does the same, there really isn’t the natural crossover enabling that one product that fits all (or most).

This crossover challenge becomes evident when considering the different ages (e.g. youth, young-adult, adult), levels (e.g. recreation, club/travel, high school, amateur, professional, associations), categories (e.g. fitness, performance, recruiting, scouting, management, communication, merchandise, viewing experiences, education, advertising, payments, events), and ultimately customers (e.g. parents, athletes, teams, leagues, schools, event operators, sponsors, governing bodies, associations). How can one company build a product and sales strategy that crosses these differences? Even firms such as PwC and research companies struggle with consistent market frameworks as everyone seems to have their own flavor of segmentation.

Limited funding and exits

Funding, especially that beyond the seed stage, is challenging even though many athletes and team owners are getting into the investment game as well as the emergence of targeted investment funds such as Sapphire Sport, Courtside Ventures, Hype Capital, and Fullstack Sports Ventures. These funds are mostly early-stage and relatively small as Sapphire is $115M, Hype is $75M, and Courtside is just $35M. Most investors are targeting the intersection of sports and media with the intent of capturing a portion of the money being spent on content. Essentially defining Sports companies as Media companies. Smart and understandable. But there hasn’t been that “big bet” or “big exit” although Peloton could change the landscape given their pending IPO and $4B valuation on funding of approximately $1B and estimated $140M in revenue. Softbank’s Vision Fund, one of the biggest, interestingly does not have a sports tech-specific investment on their roster (Fanatics is the closest).

Other notable companies include Discord ($2B valuation, funding approx. $270M, est. $5M in revenue), Calm ($1B valuation, funding  approx. $115M, est. $40M in revenue), Hudl ($460M valuation, funding approx. $110 Million, est. $15M in revenue), and TeamSnap (funding approx. $45 Million, est. $12M in revenue).

So, while Sports has a few highly funded companies, it’s not as many as you might think given the attention, especially around AI and analytics.

Analytics hasn’t developed into a big market

Billy Bean and the A’s were supposed to win the World Series (multiple times) and validate the era of analytics without the mega player contracts. It’s been since 2002, and we’re still waiting for that economical championship. Daryl Morey and the Rockets have dedicated their entire existence to analytics while also spending on players, but have yet to even make an NBA Finals appearance. Bill Belichick famously dismissed analytics as just a side tool.

These examples aside, analytics has taken hold and represents a dramatic shift in mindset and skills. Analytics is, however, a broad term encompassing a range of applications such as how much to spend on a player contract to schemes and breaking down video footage to injury prevention and prediction. Useful stuff. The flip side though is that sports people don’t like to share, especially those with the money to spend on technology. So if you are building a market opportunity case for analytics, the numbers tend to be relatively small given the finite market (add up all the pro sports and major D1 programs that can afford your product, then use say an aggressive 50% attach rate). But since most teams don’t like to share in the name of competitive advantage and actually hire their own in-house tech staff to develop custom code and programs to run the analytics, that 50% attach rate now looks even more unrealistic.

Wrap-up

Sports is an interesting market and a lot of fun. While a Google or Facebook-style ROI story may not be something this market achieves, companies can create value that’s attractive to a certain set of investors. This market also appeals to those interested in building a business that stands on its own without the added weight of being on an investor timeline chasing valuation expectations.

Most of my career has been spent in digital media, while my personal life has certainly combined the two. For the past several years, I have done quite a bit of research in Sports, consulted with insiders, and engaged in segments such as Youth, Health & Fitness, and Analytics. Hopefully, this post provides useful information and insights, and future posts will deep dive into specific segments. If you have or know of a sports tech project looking for a skilled consultant for advisory, go-to-market, or product management work, please reach out!

Jeff

p.s. as promised, my favorite sports media:

  • Television – ESPN, FS1, live sports
  • Podcasts – The Herd, Jim Rome, Against The Rules
  • News subscriptions – The Athletic, ESPN The Magazine
  • Fitness subscription – Peloton
  • Books – When Pride Still Mattered, Ball Four, Where Nobody Knows Your Name, The Education of a Coach, Paper Lion, Moneyball
  • Social media – Instagram, Pinterest