A Tale of Two Leagues: Fans Not Customers.
The European Super League has been a what-not-to-do masterclass in fan engagement. So how did the Clubs get it so wrong & could they have learned from the recently announced Overtime Elite League?
“The pandemic reinforced that sports has a bigger lens than something that has to happen on a court or field in that moment. It reinforced for us the power of having and engaging with the community, because the community does not go away.” — Dan Porter (CEO, Overtime)
It’s been a big week in the world of sports. The wild ride saw Europe’s 12 biggest, most powerful (but not necessarily best performing) football clubs announce the new breakaway European Super League. They faced an immediate and furious backlash from fans, players, broadcasters, brands, and even Prince William. In response, 9 of the 12 teams withdrew with Manchester United and Liverpool owners publicly apologizing to their fans. This all happened in fewer than 48 hours. The ESL is dead (for now) but the full effects of the damage in trust and brand for these clubs remain to be seen. So why would club ownership risk infuriating their fan bases?
Even brands were joining the negative pile-on.
#BetterTogether pic.twitter.com/Yrf7GGug9v— Heineken (@Heineken) April 21, 2021
Why a new league?
If you understand pro sports as a business and team ownership as an investment, then actions by the ownership groups of the breakaway clubs are perfectly logical.
Following the blueprint laid out by the closed US pro sports leagues (no relegation, guaranteed shared broadcast revenues, regular marquee matchups) they’re looking to maximize their upside whilst minimizing risk.
Whether this was a sledgehammer negotiating tactic against Uefa or merely the billionaire boy’s club hubris gone too far (or both), it’s a timely reminder that there’s something irrational, emotional and beautiful about fandom that needs to be handled with care.
If you’re a fan, even of the teams involved, the move is transparently greedy with no regard to the future or integrity of the game. You cannot begrudge the team owners for looking to grow their business, and it is a business after all. However, an approach of attracting new fans and monetizing existing ones through innovation and technology is much more fruitful.
This leads us on to another big news story this week, Overtime and their proposed Overtime Elite League (OEL).
What is Overtime Elite League?
Overtime, founded in 2016, is a new-age media company producing original sports and gaming content targetting a predominantly younger audience (88% under the age of 35). Most of this content revolves around high school or other amateur players on a short-form programming content creation and distribution process. Overtime pay a network of contributors to attend high school games and upload highlight-style clips in real-time from their mobile devices which is then published on social media platforms and Overtime’s own channels.
The OEL is a new basketball league for 16-to-18-year-olds allowing them to earn at least $100,000 per year in addition to full health benefits, equity stake in Overtime, revenue from their Name, Image, Likeness (NIL) and year-end bonuses. The league will let players bypass traditional high school and collegiate levels while building their personal brand, before becoming eligible for the NBA.
Due to NCAA rules against athletes being paid, joining OEL will cost students their eligibility to play at college. To offset any negative outcomes from missing out on college scholarships, participants will be guaranteed $100,000 each toward college tuition if they don’t pursue a career in professional basketball.
OTE Learnings for ESL
Obviously, in terms of scale, it’s apples and very, very large oranges comparing OTE to the ESL. But considering they both see themselves as media products that currently exist (or don’t exist) on paper it’s worthwhile to interrogate how the key stakeholders in each situation have been managed (or mismanaged) to this point.
Quality vs. Quantity Fans
As a new product, the ESL is just not that interesting. What was being proposed is essentially recycling and restructuring of the same product they’re already serving up to fans but with midweek games. The proposal also robs the excitement generated by relegation and battles against the better performing teams.
However, taking a step out of the Euro-centric echo chamber, the argument goes international fans across the US and Asia would be more engaged with seeing the big names they know play week in, week out (i.e. Manchester United vs. FC Barcelona rather than Man U vs. Burnley).
The issue with this argument is that you can substitute the word “international” with “casual” and the sentence reads the same. Deeply engaged fans support their team no matter who’s playing. The club owners aren’t interested in better quality engagement with fans, but a higher quantity of fans. This speaks to their old-school mentality of seeing their success predicated on securing a major broadcast rights deal rather than diversified revenue streams. Broadcasters with existing major football rights deals came out strongly against the ESL as it would devalue their current coverage. This left streaming services as the alternatives but both Amazon and DAZN declined to be involved so the league’s business model was a non-starter. For an excellent discussion of Club valuations and this media house vs. user base mentality see Unofficial Partner.
Although Overtime is also a media property it cultivates deep engagement with its fans producing custom content aligned to their interests. This is reflected in its two major revenue sources: indirectly aligning with brands by integrating them into its content and making money off video ads. The other is direct revenue via e-commerce. Selling broadcast rights to the OTE is something further down the track and not essential to the survival or profitabilty of the league in the meantime.
The ESL had the opportunity to portray Uefa as the greedy, anti-competitive villain of the piece but completely blew their public relations strategy and execution. Uefa and other major football governing bodies have previously been dogged by the public perception of corruption and self-interest. There are obviously structural issues to these competitions that the administrators have struggled to address, so the ESL’s appalling failure to manage the narrative gifted Uefa the unfamiliar moral high ground.
OTE on the other hand has effectively painted the NCAA as exactly that, the greedy, anti-competitive villain not wanting players to earn their fair dues. It’s successfully positioned itself as empowering both athletes and fans in opposition to a stale, broken system.
Fans vs. Customers / Players vs. Employees
The emotional reaction of fans to the ESL explains why it’s a treacherous path to use the term “fan” and “customer” interchangeably. Fans expect the service and quality of a customer from the business (i.e. their club) but unlike other industries, they also expect to be consulted as key stakeholders in the decisions and directions of the business.
The same can be said for the involvement of the players themselves. They are employees of these businesses but are also key stakeholders in the direction and growth of the clubs. The power and influence of athletes are only growing as they connect directly with their fans through social media channels and their own personal brands. This especially important in the multi-billion US collegiate sports market with scheduled changes to NIL laws coming into effect in a number of US states throughout this year.
Overtime announced a Series C $80 million fundraising round this week. But funding alone doesn’t equal success. What’s important to note is the profile of the investors backing Overtime including: Jeff Bezos’ investment firm; global entertainer Drake; Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian; VC Andreesson Horowitz and over 25 high-profile current and former NBA & WNBA players (Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Devin Booker, Trae Young, Klay Thompson & Chiney Ogwumike).
In comparison, the ESL secured a $4.2 billion loan from JP Morgan, which is a sizeable chunk of change, but the haziness of the details did nothing to dissuade stakeholders, especially European-based fans, this was anything more than a cash grab from shady foreign ownership groups. OTE’s investment group, especially former and current players, are able to champion the new league to their respective fan bases. As any startup founder knows all too well, there’s capital and then there’s smart capital.
Where to now?
OTE is a step in the right direction towards understanding how sports can effectively and sustainably monetize its fanbase by creating new products focussed on deeper engagement. But it doesn’t quite go far enough as it still heavily relies on third-party social media platforms for distribution, rather than first-party-owned platforms.
Gaming and esports can be seen as the next step in this evolution with their ability to own and monetize a global fanbase through entirely digital products. Fortnite is a prime example of successfully leveraging events to drive microtransactions on limited edition digital products, such as the Travis Scott virtual concert which grossed $20 million in merchandise sales. This rolling stock of digital products and experiences means there’s no ceiling to Average Revenue Per User (APRU) in Fortnite, whereas as it stands there is a very hard ceiling for these Clubs. NFT’s and digital collectibles are a large answer part of the answer to how sports can emulate gaming’s success and something Overtime has already identified as key part of its strategy going forwards.
Only time will tell if the ESL is dead or just resting. Time will also tell if the lessons of this very bruising public backlash are taken on board to better serve fans. The industry isn’t holding its collective breath that the penny has dropped on these learnings, but in the meantime, new-age leagues (like OEL) provide hints to where sports can go to drive revenue whilst respecting the loyalty and passion of fans.
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Thomas Alomes is the Head of Americas for Sports Tech World Series, the world’s largest community for Sports Technology professionals, as well as host of the Sports Tech Feed Podcast.