How do you source hard-to-find senior talent when an industry has been turned on its head?
The sports sector has evolved at breakneck pace since 2020, becoming a highly desirable asset class fuelled by technology. With the global sports market expected to reach $707.84 billion in 2026 at a CAGR of 9%, there is significant investment into tech-enabled businesses or tech companies serving the industry. In this sector venture capital global investment soared to over $10bn in 2022, up from $3.8bn in 2020, while private equity investment reached $50bn in 2021.
The industry is witnessing disruption on the scale of what Netflix did to broadcasting, what Spotify did to music, and what Amazon did to distribution.
The metamorphic rise of the sports tech industry means that top-level talent from the wider digital and tech ecosystem is required to support its growth.
“Sport and media have always existed in harmony and thrive off one another,” says Hannah Joyce, co-lead of Calibre One’s consumer, media and sports practice. “Now tech-enabled businesses are making this relationship more important than ever, rapidly evolving fan engagement and ultimately increasing profitability across both sectors.”
Look around and it’s clear that consumers have vastly more ways to engage with sport than ever. In the past, a sports fan would go to a match, meet up with other fans for a drink before and afterwards, read press reports about injuries or transfers … then repeat for the next game. Today there is a constant stream of tech-enabled content on multiple different apps and streaming devices: interviews, player content, tutorials, news stories, clips, training … Fans can check posts from their favourite club or player on their phone while on the go; enjoy a live-streamed training session during their lunch break; and sit back and enjoy an interview with a winning manager once they’re back at home in the evening.
Sporting organisations, from Premier League clubs to e-sports, recognise that technology has to be core to all they do, across activity and performance, fan engagement and executive operations.
New roles, new skillsets and new opportunities
Companies who can attract the right talent are tapping into massive scope for significant additional revenue generation. But with that potential comes a requirement for new roles and new skillsets. Because this is a relatively nascent space, CEO-level talent for the sports tech industry has to come from wider tech and digitally enabled consumer businesses.
“Any sports and media company that takes itself seriously today needs some of the best tech talent in the world in its organisation if it is to realise the potential that is waiting out there,” says James Flashman-Fox, co-lead of Calibre One’s consumer, media and sports practice. “Executive search experts with a long track record in the tech and digital world and with a wealth of consumer experience are very well poised to understand the market and help these businesses secure this talent.”
Where are the opportunities? They are front and centre for visionary tech entrepreneurs with a passion for sport who are now investing in or becoming strategic advisors to sports tech companies, and for senior media executives moving into content, rights and advertising.
Some of the concepts are mouth-watering:
- Formula E and Extreme E ‘e-racing’ are a powerful crossover between ESG, sustainability and sport. Formula E was ranked #1 sustainable sport in the world in 2022 by the Global Sustainability Benchmark in Sports.
- FanDuel has created an entire ecosystem around fantasy sports, with real-world gambling in a community environment – tearing up the rule book for sports betting by monetizing a virtual rather than real-world concept.
- TMRW Sports is a heavily backed hybrid model between real-world sport and gaming. Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy will head up The Monday Night Golf League launching in 2024 where top golfers compete on a simulator in a stadium. This is a prime example of combining performance tech and fan engagement, as fans use their phones to be a part of a revolutionary concept.
- Sorare and Dapper Labs have raised over a billion dollars in investment between them in the last two years, with their entire focus on NFTs, web3 and blockchain.
Hannah highlights how a swathe of digital content spurring fan engagement means the balance of power has swung from club owners to star performers: “Individual players have more commercial leverage. Cristiano Ronaldo’s contract with a cryptocurrency business to exclusively launch CR7-branded NFTs to its customers is nothing to do with Real Madrid, Manchester United or Al Nassr in Saudi Arabia, it’s because of his own personal following.”
Immense commercial gain
Sport and media tech offers investors the security of a relatively recession-proof industry, with supporters who will make sacrifices at home rather than give up their season ticket, and unparalleled brand loyalty that brings immense commercial gain. One telling (if rather depressing) study of soccer fans found that while 90% would never give up on their team no matter how poorly it played, only 48% would stick with a relationship going badly. What’s more, a quarter of men would miss a family funeral to see a game, while half would happily travel to every ground in the UK stadium to watch their team play!
As James says, however, sport does have universal benefits: “There is something very special about sport. In a sometimes divisive and discordant world sport has a unique ability to bring people from all walks of life together – in the stadium and outside. Tech has allowed people to connect with one another on a global scale and share a common passion.”
Yet when sports and media businesses search for the senior talent they need to exploit today’s revenue-generating opportunities, they often face one of two separate challenges:
- Innovation companies serving the sports media space find they have tech-heavy teams that lack the real-world experience to commercialise their product. They need talent that understands both the market and the tech, which for many search firms can be a tough ask.
- Established sports brands have commercial experience but struggle to understand how to monetize their data and maximize fan engagement. Specialist assistance is required to ensure the right C-level talent is in place to lead on digital, tech, content and data agendas.
Again, the message is clear that top-level talent from the wider digital and tech ecosystem is essential to fuel the growth of the sports tech industry.
“The sector needs a specialist executive search firm that has the experience and network that comes from being digital, media and technology first, and applying that to the sports sector,” Hannah says. “An executive search firm that knows the talent pools required by an industry undergoing significant change. Clients are becoming more and more interested in hiring ultra-specific people with a very narrow but impressive skill set, taking digital talent with strong transferable skills from other sectors into the new world of tech-enabled sport.”
The pivotal step is to trust specialists who can source this wider talent and capitalize on the opportunities the sports tech industry offers.