How Sports Organizations Can Thrive in the Digital Media Business

How can a sports club, league or a federation thrive against the big players? How will sports disciplines do in the future, as consumer behaviour changes?

How can a small sports club, league or a federation thrive against the big players? How will different sports disciplines do in the future, as consumer behaviour changes?

These were some of the questions raised at a round table discussion at iSportConnect Masterclass which was held at the House of Sport in Lausanne Switzerland. Attendees represented global sports federations, teams and leagues accompanied by global sports tech suppliers.

The group was about 40-50 experience thought leaders from well-known global, regional, and even local sports organizations.

Not all questions got final answers but the discussions was lively.

My main take aways from the workshop are listed below and fueled by my own views around the discussed topics:

  • The Big 10 getting (almost) all the attention
  • Opportunities in broadcasting and direct to consumer distribution
  • Since all sports is produced live, how to get the signal to the fans?
  • Has the role of social media giants become too big in the ecosystem?
  • How to secure first party data capture for those who own the content and the brands?
  • How to guarantee visibility and fan connection for the remaining 790+ sports disciplines?
  • Sustainability and integrity have become really important in all of sports

Here is the outcome for me who have dealt with these issues throughout my professional life.

The Big 10 getting (almost) all the attention

There are approximately 800 to 8000 different sports in the world.

It is common knowledge that the top 10 biggest sports and the federations and leagues of those disciplines* get 95% of the attention in general discussion even among sport business professionals.

These Tier 1 organizations also generate a very high percentage of the total revenue of sports. Is this good or bad? In my opinion it is just a fact.

On the other hand, the time has never been so good and favorable for mid-size and smaller teams, leagues and federations to get more visibility, attention, fans and revenues. The thing called “internet” has made this possible, now the question is more about competence, attitude, and willingness to innovate in these SME’s of sport.

Opportunities in broadcasting and direct to consumer distribution

Big broadcasters and streamers will own 99% of the top 10 sports content, distribution and money involved. Still, there are more opportunities for the remaining 790+ sports disciplines that have suffered from not having even their fair share of the visibility.

The big broadcasters and streamers have a lot more capacity in their channels than they used to have, and therefore they have realized that if they will not pay attention to the SME’s of sports, someone else will. They also follow the trends in sports and they know that they also have to renew their offering in order to attract younger audiences.

The new kids on the block, and there are hundreds of them who would like to get relevant sport content on their platforms to attract bigger audiences and make more revenue. There is a huge gold rush going on within this segment. As things go further, the big boys will acquire the winners of this gold rush and then your content and brand will keep on getting the visibility.

Your own actions and platforms (direct-to-customer) can make a big difference if you do it right and respect your loyal fans and sponsors. You have to build it from the group up, but it is doable with the resources that you have.

You just have to make sure that you have parallel rights to your precious content, you have to partner with the right tech and marketing partners and you have to be loyal to your mission, learn from the fan data that you own, reward the fans over and over again and you will realize the positive loop that you have created.

football-matchFootball - or soccer -  is the sports with the most fans in the world, estimated at 3.5 billion

Since all sports is produced live, how to get the signal to the fans?

As Jan Olsson, head of Sports at TV4, Sweden said: “as all sports is produced live, now we just have to make sure that the signal reaches their fans. Production has become so much easier and cheaper and so has distribution. Good example of this is one of Europe’s largest junior football tournaments Helsinki Cup that had 20 000+ attendees and 4000 matches were live streamed into their app and website over the course of just 6 days. And the fans, parents and coaches paid for the stream.

There is also a large amount of new streaming platforms that offer good enough streaming service to the fans of a given sport. I believe that the key here is to make brave and clever partnerships between the rights owner, their marketing partners, tech companies and media owners. And when I say media owners, I mean big, small and anything in between.

Has the role of social media giants become too big in the ecosystem?

Talking about media – social media giants are certainly by far the biggest new factor within sports and media business in the past 15 years. They have changed the game quite radically with their massive audiences fueled by clever and catchy algorithms and super user-friendly mobile apps that allow anyone of us to start being a media company.

They have also made massive revenue growth which is almost mainly based on advertising type of revenues taking already a 40+% share of global media investments. Hats off – well done.

Many sports organizations rely quite heavily on these platforms in their content distribution and PR and marketing strategies. There is only one thing that is often forgotten. These tech giants will own all the data that in this case the world's sports industry feeds into them.

In the last 3 years, it has finally become more clear for content owners how important it is to own 1st party data of your customers, fans, and other stake holders. It is the only way to be the “landlord” and not the “tenant”.

And don’t get me wrong. I am not against these platforms. I just want to remind that how important it is to have a healthy balance with your own and operated channels (web, app, email, brick and mortar) and these platforms.


Screenshots of the mobile app of KuPS, football club playing in the Premier League of Finland

How to secure first party data capture for those who own the content and the brands?

Coming back to my previous point, I want to give you some food for thought, how you can balance these items.

Yes, it used to be very difficult to build and operate a website for a sports organization, and even more complex with mobile apps.

So, it has been a very easy choice to utilize social media platforms, give them your content, get likes and keep going. The user experience with the mobile optimized platform apps is so very good, plus everybody talks about them whether it is a consumer or a business person. It started with Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok. BeReal or something else will be next.

For sports organizations, especially those tens of thousands that don’t have unlimited budgets and resources within their reach; the times have become better than ever. By utilizing the latest, most modern SaaS-based tech you can build or update your own and operated digital platforms (web, email, app, ticketing, merchandising, real time stats, fan engagement, etc.) with budgets and resources that you already have. The market between the big boys and small boys is finally getting more equal, more democratic.

Use social media to get attention to your brand and direct the fans to be active also on your own and operated channels were you will do your actual ROI: serving the fans with the content they love, ask their opinions and have constant dialogue with them, serve them first on you own channels, give them offer tickets, merchandising and promotions. Learn of their behavior of the 1st party data that you receive and what you own – and keep serving them even better. It is a positive loop that will never end. Your fans will love you – and so does the other stakeholder of your brand.

How to guarantee visibility and fan connection for the remaining 790+ sports disciplines?

Nothing is given. ”Big boys” like to stay big and “small boys” are always dreaming of becoming big. By innovation around the sport itself and by making record breaking marketing, media and promotional deals, also the SME’s of sport business can start to grow their importance, media coverage and revenues.

I think that the best example of this is women’s sport that has made substantial leaps in the past few years and I don’t see an end to this. Same with Paralympics and many smaller and newer disciplines, like Triathlon, Surfing, Skateboarding, Paddle, just to mention a few.

paddle-padel-sport-trendingPaddle, one of the trending sports in the recent years

Sports must change and adapt more to the tastes and trends of younger generations

American football is commercially the biggest sport in the world, but it has only 21 minutes of active play time on average and the game lasts over 3 hours. Not very intensive – but still hugely popular…

In Golf, LIV, the tour that started in 2021 and is funded by the Saudi-Arabian Public Investment Fund has challenged PGA in a very dramatic way. Many hate them, many love them and their money and the attitude for innovation.

There are dozens of examples of sport disciplines of how they have renewed themselves and gained continuous success and how some keep going with the old recipe and are still successful – but for how long – is the question.

Younger generations want to consume more and faster tempo sports content, snackable highlights and fun stuff on top of the real outcome and result.

Sustainability and integrity have become really important in all of sports

There are many new sports leagues that have been born on the idea of being more sustainable than the former version of the same discipline, mentioning FormulaE and many others alike.

Scandals like what has happened among many sport organizations like the Canadian National Hockey team are catastrophical signals from the past and hopefully will be a quickly diminishing trend among sports. Fans and sponsors who are a crucial lifeline for any sport organization will become even more vocal and more concretely vote with their wallets and budgets. Good and “bright” is just so much better than evil and dark.


About the author

Heikki Rotko is passionate about new developments within digital media, sports and entertainment businesses. He has worked with these industries all his career and always seeking for new streams. At Choicely Heikki works as a chairman of the board, angel investor, and sales and marketing director. Connect with Heikki in LinkedIn.


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