BUFFALO — Sports is more often about the present (today’s ballgames) and the glorious past (Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan) than it is about the future (player to be named later). But Wednesday a passel of professional sports team owners and reps will gather at TD Garden in Boston to discuss the years ahead.
Jeremy Jacobs, who owns the Boston Bruins, will host the dog-and-pony show. No, wait — that colloquialism is more than a century old. Perhaps it’s better to think of the dog in virtual reality and the pony in augmented reality because the point is a peek into sports’ crystal ball: Trying to divine, among other things, how team owners can continue to reap rising rights fees in a brave new world.
Jacobs, chairman of sports concessionaire Delaware North, commissioned a report called "The Future of Sports" that came out late last year. It looked into the future by as much as 25 years but with a bit of a pie-in-the-sky feel, given predictions of athletes perfected in labs and hologram replays. The report’s second iteration — sort of Back to the Future — will be presented Wednesday and it largely aims at targets closer in time, often zeroing in on what’s possible in the next four or five years.
“Twenty-five years was not a horizon that we could appreciate,” Jacobs tells USA TODAY Sports from his Buffalo office overlooking Lake Erie. But the forecast for the next few years “makes me realize this is not the future — this is today. What we thought was a long way off turns out not to be.” He cites the driverless cars that were a driving feature of the first report: “That was futuristic. Now it’s realistic.”
The 54-page document at the heart of the conference looks at young consumers known as Generation Z (and how their engagement with sports differs from their forebears), the coming gold rush of globalization (meaning an emerging audience of new fans from Uganda to Slovenia to China) and machine medicine that can take biometric data from wearable sensors to produce info that can be used to prevent injuries (and perhaps to pinpoint when an athlete’s skills are fading).
Delaware North invited owners and other team representatives from its partners, including NHL teams and teams from other sports leagues that use Delaware North as their concessionaire. Victoria Hong, director of corporate communications, says about a dozen teams and about 100 people have said they’ll be there.
Jacobs says he and fellow owners are interested in how they can monetize whatever is coming next. “We want to capture the new revenue that evolves” from what comes, he says, “but more importantly we want to protect what we have.”
Were the futurists who produced the reports conscious of that as they worked on this one? Contributing editor Ethan Watters says only up to a point.
He says he and editor-in-chief Josh McHugh and contributing editor Po Bronson were conscious of bottom lines “but in certain ways we tried to keep it at bay” because “that doesn’t play to our strengths. So we want to see the broader landscapes and the currents that are happening out there. To say, ‘And now you do this’ would be outside of our task.”
The section titled "Globalized Fandom" provides the sort of insights that could lead to big opportunities. It says “near-universal access to broadcast and social media have unlocked billions of potential fans” and suggests professional teams and leagues will race to claim an emerging audience powered by a coming rise of the global middle class. The report posits that by 2030 the European middle class will have doubled — and the Asian middle class six times — the spending power of the North American middle class.
“The biggest piece of this is global capitalization flows that are happening and likely to happen,” McHugh says. “It’s not, ‘Here’s an app that’s going to make a half-million bucks next year.’ It’s more step back and see where these rails are that encircle the world.”
'How do we figure out millennials?'
The futurists drew from experts in academia and Silicon Valley, just as before, but this time some of their best experts were kids. That’s because the report gives a starring role to Generation Z, which it defines as those born from 2000 onward.
“We brought a team of Gen Z-ers onboard,” Bronson says, “because last year there was so much interest in, ‘How do we figure out millennials?’ ”
The report suggests that these kids from the younger side of the millennial divide are the most informed young sports fans in history and that sports programming and data are such a deep part of their culture that they feel a certain sense of ownership.
And that, Watters says, is the trick to reaching them: “They want to be sports content creators and partner with franchises in terms of mashing up highlights in all sorts of interesting ways that show they want not just to consume content but create it. They are a super-creative generation.”
Their currency is measured in data minutes or gigabytes — and, because they have trained themselves to ration data, Bronson believes they will not buy sports channels when they come of age.
“ ‘Why would I want to buy a whole channel?’ ” Bronson quotes their future thinking. “ ‘Can’t I just buy the minutes that I watch?’ We’re all worrying about the unbundling of television into individual channels. But they’re saying, ‘Why is there a channel?’ ”
They use ad blockers, not because they don’t like ads but because the ads slow down the loading of pages. “They actually love ads, because ads make things feel legit,” Bronson says. “If you run a show without ads, anyone can put that on YouTube. But a show with good-looking ads, that’s big-time.”
McHugh says the coming generation will be willing to pay for sports content, “but what they won’t do is pay for anything they don’t want. It’s offensive to them.”
The report generalizes this generation in multiple ways: They don’t watch whole games, catching the rest on the highlights. Only one in nine use Twitter; about 25% of kids 13 to 17 left Facebook this year. They like “dark sharing” (sites that can’t be measured by web analytics programs). They follow stars more than teams and they care more about transcendent moments than who won or lost.
“When a sports documentary comes on, they don’t think: ‘Too bad we have to watch that because there is no game,’ ” Bronson says. “They think, ‘Awesome!’ To them it’s just as exciting and meaningful and rich as the game itself.”
And, McHugh says, citing The People vs. O.J. Simpson drama series, “When you add narrative structure to it, it can elevate beyond watching a game.”
Choose your reality
Here’s a near-future prediction for you: Lots of kids are going to be sick on Christmas.
That’s because some people get nauseated when they play games on virtual-reality headsets, according to Watters, who says he felt deeply ill himself when he tried it.
“There are going to be how many million headsets under Christmas trees this year and a lot of kids are going to throw up their Christmas candy,” he says. “You put it on for five minutes at a conference and it’s so impressive; you take it off and feel OK. But you put it on for 20 minutes, you put it on for an hour, and there is a significant subset of the population — not talking 10%, potentially much more — who will feel violently ill.”
The report says this is caused by a number of factors that exacerbate the disconnect between the brain’s natural sensing and the headset’s visuals, but suggests that’s less of a problem when watching video (where the point of view stays the same) than in playing games.
“Virtual reality is in for a major speed bump and augmented reality is just going to make an end run around them,” Watters says. “Pokemon Go was a display of early augmented reality. Virtual reality is eventually going to be something significant and meaningful, but augmented reality is going to get there faster.”
The report explains the difference between them concisely: Virtual reality puts you inside a virtual world — while augmented reality puts virtual things into the real world.
“Last year there was a lot of heat around virtual reality and it is still very exciting,” McHugh says. “But what we say is augmented reality has an infinite canvas in a way that virtual reality doesn’t.”
The report foresees a future when augmented reality will transform the stadium experience, with personal replay devices built into your glasses (swipe left in the air to go back in time); data overlays on the live action (pitch speeds, for instance, and defensive rotation stats); and highlights of a pinch hitter available off to the side as he warms up (should you choose to tap and watch).
Using performance data
The report cites the connection between lost dollars and lost games — for every $2.3 million in salary cap dedicated to players on the injured list, the average NFL team will lose one more game — and foresees a utopian universe where injuries can be predicted and thereby avoided.
Machine-learning software systems — using performance data from wearable sensors — will discover how hard to train an individual athlete without overtraining him or her, the report predicts.
“The part I enjoyed a lot,” Jacobs says, “was how much we can find out about our athletes. … We’re going to know a lot more about how they’re feeling and how they’re responding.”
The report suggests contracts of the future will contain speed and strength standards and biometric marker levels (in the same way today’s contracts sometimes specify weight levels). Players’ unions are likely to challenge such biometric data as private medical information.
“We have laws about health data,” Bronson says. “But what about your glucose level? Is that health data or performance data? Or your lactose level.”
The courts are likely to decide. “Player fights over their data will educate the entire world over the data that is being collected on us,” Bronson says, “and what kinds of standards we should have.”
Rate of change
Jacobs says originally his company’s forays into the future were meant to be internal documents. Then he decided maybe they were something Delaware North’s “clients and customers and friends” would want to see. The point, he says, is for sports organizations not just to be early adopters but perhaps to become partners and investors in what’s coming.
Jerry and Lou Jacobs, his sons who are co-CEOs of Delaware North, will be in from Buffalo for Wednesday’s conference at TD Garden. It’s something of a home game for their brother Charlie, who is CEO of the company’s Boston holdings.
“You remember the Palm Pilot and how that was going to change the world?” Jerry asks. “And it’s just a little blip in our history now. The rate of change is so fast that being in front of this and being nimble is the key to operating our businesses. Because if you’re behind, you’re way behind.”
Charlie measures the rate of change by that thing in your pocket: “Ten years ago there was no iPhone and now we are in our 7th iteration of it.”
Lou says the idea behind all this “is the start of a conversation. It is not in any way meant to be predictive in the sense that this is the way the world is going to be.”
Oracles have been peering into the future for millennia. Predicting what’s next is never easy.
“It’s so subjective and so fluid,” Jeremy Jacobs says drily, “that there’s no right or wrong answer. These guys have got the world.”