Friday, March 30th, 2007...1:04 am

IMG World Congress of Sports

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I spent last Wednesday and Thursday (March 21-22) at the IMG World Congress of Sports conference at the Pierre in New York City. The WCOS is perhaps the most prestigious sports business conference and consists of luminary panelists and attendees within the sports business industry. Naturally, this conference is held annually in New York City as almost all major sports have their league offices in NYC and many major corporate advertisers and media agencies operate their sports divisions out of the city. Speakers included MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, NCAA President Myles Brand, ESPN head man John Skipper, NBA COO Adam Silver, and former press secretary Ari Fleischer, who has clients in sports.

I was especially excited to learn how the leading executives in sports media plan to utilize the innovative technology and trends in digital media to enhance their products and brands and create cutting-edge sponsorship solutions for their corporate partners. I’m a firm believer that sports are a perfect platform for the convergence of media and technology. The live aspect of sports combined with a passionate consumer base makes sports a catalyst to change consumer behaviors and drive innovation in media. In addition, two recent web 2.0 success stories have come from the sports realm as both fannation and maxpreps were acquired by major sports media companies for hefty eight figure acquisition prices.

I came away with mixed feeling on how innovative the sports world is in regard to new media progress. Part of this is because the sports industry is thriving in many facets all across the globe. Traditional media and attendance numbers are at an all-time high and corporate advertisers are flooding the market with dollars. Unlike other media industries, most people in sports seem to be doing ok. Therefore, there is less of an urgency to innovate and to try and figure out the future of sports. Combine that with the fact that the sports industry is a close-knit fraternal bunch that is somewhat weary of outsiders and it becomes even harder to crack the shell.

The major media issues at the conference surrounded MLB’s pending Extra Innings package with DirecTV in which all MSO’s would be shut out from carrying the out-of-market subscription package. MLB also restricts web site the right to provide fantasy baseball. Closed off distribution? Limiting access? Doesn’t sound like the future of media. But the Extra Innings package is a $700 million deal. It’s a bit tougher to experiment with new media when you are throwing around those kinds of numbers.

Executive used the words Facebook and Myspace like they were enigmas and fads that were too dicey to embrace. ESPN exec John Skipper stated that “We are a content company trying to figure out how to deal with a generation who doesn’t understand what they’re putting up [on the Internet].” Many do see the value though as sports executive Dave Checketts (former President of MSG) believes that social networking is the language of a new America. Overall, I get the sense that many sports executives are deathly afraid of user-generated content. After all, there brands and relationships are too valuable to jeopardize with experiments on social networks.

There was a panel dedicated to digital media called “Digital media: content, distribution and the business models that make sense.” I was pumped to hear some of the experts dissect the industry but thought most of the conversation to be lackluster. All the panelists admitted competition is stiff and that they must innovate to survive. It seems like they are trying new things more as a defensive tactic than an offensive maneuver. All parties were very conservative in regard to digital rights (for good reason as that is a main revenue source in sports media) leaving the Google representative squirming a bit uncomfortably. Finally, there were gripes about traffic reporting and indifference to digital sponsorship opportunities. It was almost as though the panelists could have been having a conversation about the television space.
I still believe that sports will be a driver of new media in the future but it might not happen as fast as I would like or expect. Unlike publishing, and news and entertainment media, sports is thriving in traditional media. Motivations and dollars are still flowing from television, event sponsorship, franchise ownership and event operations. I’m pretty sure that digital media will grow. Actually, it must grow for sports to remain on top.
For a full recap of all the panels and to get a great recap of the conference check out the Sports Business Journal All-Access Blog.