Sport’s Kobayashi Maru Conundrum
A proper artist once said to me:
The hook finds you, you don’t find the hook
Few of us are artists sadly.
We mortals are, at very best, artisans. But that shouldn’t stop us having the patience to wait to be presented with some kind of ”hook” for our podcasts and articles. Something that is different and fresh. Time-poor audiences are bored with all these same-old-same-old posts, videos and audios.
There’s no value in consensus content.
In a 2023 bear market, there is no value in content that is just re-presenting the consensus zeitgeist. No matter how erudite and polished. The industries of “entertainment”, of which sport is a part, will now all be raising their bar as to what “works” for their business.
So pray that an idea, a “hook”, finds you.
This week, for good or bad, under deadline, what eventually found me for this Column was King Canute, the Danish English king who sat on the beach and undeniably proved that the tides and their waves were impossible to stop, even for a sovereign monarch.
This seems exactly where we are, and what I personally see, when I think of our industry.
Sport is under serious attack.
Sport is under serious attack, yet still there are so many incumbents sitting on Canute’s beach trying to send the sea back. Often with arrogance, always with complacency.
Indeed, in general, it has been humorous in these five years of AYNE to see many people move their opinions on “change”. Their line now seems to no longer be a sneering hard rebuttal, brushing off, with disdain, those they described as:
people predicting doom, with disruption products to sell
Even these late-adopter Luddites can now see that the 30-year sports right bubble is ending. They’re late, but they got there eventually, and have now changed their shtick a bit, to some version of:
That’s progress I suppose. But I do wince, knowing I’ll soon be reading and hearing an awful lot of “sports rights are overvalued” op-eds in coming weeks.
“Underpriced Risk” has been in sport, and sports valuations for at least 30 months. If you weren’t calling it then…
The sports rights and valuations bubble will indeed become “golf-club bore” consensus, but other areas of complacency remain strong in an industry that still doesn’t fully grasp the direction of travel.
The biggest sports event in coming weeks is not the Rugby World Cup denouement, thankfully ending weeks of tedious commodity “filler” games.
It’s the KSI v Tommy Fury fight. This also was predictable. Yet, again, an industry preferred to sneer. Posh sports and their leaders love to sneer, despite having the perfect living example of why they are wrong. Take a trip out to Essex and sit down with Barry Hearn.
The strange case of Taylor Swift.
In this same theme, I’d argue that the most profound sports case study of the year for our community has not been the excitement of the Ryder Cup. It’s been Taylor Swift, and how she has dramatically boosted the ratings for the NFL game she attended as a fan. She is dating a player. With her in the bleachers, only a member of the audience, viewership among teen girls aged 12-17 spiked 53% from the season-to-date average of the first three weeks of Sunday Night Football. While the audience among women aged 18-24 was up 24%, and women 35 and older increased 34%.
That’s dramatic. Read those stats again.
Sport has a plethora of similar data points on what it needs to do to, frankly, not lose the next generation, and the traditional position of “games” in society’s leisure time.
The most obvious one is to get the female eyeball and dollar. Nothing else comes close. The summer has been very clear.
My own hot-take suggestion that the Ryder Cup could expand to a mixed format (to achieve exactly this objective) was, unsurprisingly, brutally shot down on Twitter.
If it ain’t broken don’t fix it. Change isn’t always needed.
Inclusion at all costs is irritating.
I suspect people know that I personally despise quotas and positive discrimination in anything, but here I just think the pushback on women’s participation is wrong, and really missing the point. Sure the Ryder Cup is already great. A fantastic product. But it’s going to need help, like everything else, as bubbles burst.
This industry is, very bluntly, going into challenging times as a business model. And women’s disposable income is a very large untapped market that just may help save us.
It’s not easy to do that, we know, as the debate is not solely a business one, or even a sport one. It’s right in the middle of this generation’s culture wars. A minefield of absurdity in a world of violent intolerance. We hear formal US Senate Committees asking questions like “ is there a difference between a man and a woman?”, “ is 2+2=4 racist?”.
The other half of the sky.
This is such a shame, because getting women into sport is really an opportunity. Both for the product, and the business.
Reflecting more on our Danish king, I noticed that Canute was better known, unfortunately, as Cnut. And I can’t take the risk of triggering some people in these sensitive times. Although one remembers fondly the Millwall fans recent friendly welcome to the Leeds team at the train station. Canutes, all of them. LOL
But the thrust of the Column remains, and we just need to find another analogy to make the same point on inevitability, threats and opportunities.
So, to use a famous quote from a grocer’s daughter from Grantham:
you can’t buck the market, it will always have its way.
Margaret Thatcher was talking about, in her opinion, the futility of her Chancellor Nigel Lawson’s attempt to keep a lid on a rising pound sterling by artificial intervention in the currency markets. He famously failed, and she was right.
Markets, like tides, cannot be bucked. They keep coming, relentlessly.
Sport now has the water level right at its neck, and I am grateful to AYNE guest Brent Johnson for the below clip that highlights the urgency of all of this. This is coming hard. Very hard.
This is the Quickening in action.
I also enjoyed this week the speculation that Apple may bid globally for F1. Not as a micro example of new bidders for rights, or the success of F1. Or its likelihood of happening.
But as a reminder of another nonsense so beloved of sport. This industry organises itself along geographical lines, selling its rights, nation state by nation state.
How long has it been that the commerce of digital goods has abandoned that thinking? 30 years?
Content is now digital, but still sold by sport’s execs who think analogue, or even feudal.
Apple comes along and calls BS on all this. They will only bid for sports assets if available on a global basis. Like MLS. Of course they think like this.
If we look around, we can see sport’s attempts to react to all this disruption in product, audiences, and business models. Trying to hold back the inevitable.
The re-intergation of the 92 clubs in English football.
Thirty years ago, the top 20 clubs in England responded to what the media sector needed and broke away to create the English Premier League (EPL), focussing on the top of the game, and quality. That product has undoubtedly been the greatest success story in the industry of sport.
It looks like they are now trying to reverse that, under intense populist pressure from politicians.
Equally, we see UEFA suddenly pitching to own and manage their own SuperLeague project, only a couple of years after so much vitriol was spat at that very concept by the folks at Nyon. This volte face reminds one of Jay Monahan and Saudi “blood money”.
Sport’s governors aren’t long “shame”, are they?
The half-pregnant disruption.
Our industry is trying to manage all this rising tide of change, in half measure, and on its own terms.
I call it half-pregnant disruption. I fear that won’t work.
Sport just can’t satisfy everyone, so, very likely, market forces will end up doing it for them.
What Adam Smith described as the “invisible hand of markets” will coldly seek out and exploit all the cross-subsidies and compromises of sport’s bundles, via what we, in serious finance, call arbitrage.
Arbitrage is a price-discovery steamroller, where capital markets participants seek out differences between the intrinsic value of something and its current price. And they trade all that away, very very quickly. Michael Lewis, in his book Flash Boys, would be suggested reading here.
Arbitrage has been the source code of all the recent attempts to create breakaway leagues and formats.
Sport and its bundles will always be vulnerable to this, where underpaid athletes and teams will be tempted by the offer to earn the actual market value they create, without having to subsidise other players or teams.
Both media broadcasters and corporate financiers, those who made sport rich in the last 30 years, now want a polarised product at the top end. Hollywood sport, with crossover into popular culture and its existing audiences. That’s not even up for debate anymore.
And if sport doesn’t agree, the market forces of arbitrage will do it for them.
Sports’ bundles create natural space for the arbitrageur’s whisper:
We can see from the data that people tune in to see you guys. You are the ones to bring eyeballs and the sponsors.
Why do you accept receiving so much less than that, in distribution of monies? Would you be interested if I could remedy that?”
And here is where the rubber meets the road:
Solving polarisation and arbitrage is mutually exclusive.
The more you try and reward those big brand clubs and athletes for what they have created in value, the more you polarise the problem. You make the rich richer, and the gap to the poor wider. Sport’s balance and uncertainty of result dissolves.
This, for me, is the core of Sport’s Perfect Storm.
We are now in reality in the eye of the Kobayashi Maru test. A much better “hook” than Cnut.
James T Kirk, even more than James Bond, was my male role model.
Sometimes there is no win.
The Kobayashi Maru is a training exercise in Star Trek, designed to test the character of Starfleet Academy cadets in an inevitable no-win scenario. The goal of the exercise is to rescue the civilian spaceship Kobayashi Maru, which is damaged and stranded in dangerous territory. The cadet being evaluated must decide whether to attempt to rescue the Kobayashi Maru—endangering their own ship and crew—or leave the dead-in-water ship to certain destruction. If the cadet chooses to attempt a rescue, an insurmountable enemy force attacks their vessel; everyone dies anyway. As Trekkies will know, by reprogramming the test itself, Captain James T Kirk became the only cadet to defeat Kobayashi Maru.
As a beautiful real-life aside, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Star Trek fan Randy Paulsch received an autographed picture from William Shatner with the words of Kirk:
I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.
We, as a community and an industry, are now all facing Kobayashi Maru.
Namely, fixing polarisation whilst leaving no space for arbitrage is just not possible.
Where is James T?
Live long and prosper.
Listen to our “Are you not entertained?” sports management podcast here.
Let us also recommend our wonderful colleague John WallStreet. His daily newsletter here is essential reading, especially in its coverage of the US market.
To find out what we do in change management, have a look here.
For our C-suite management services, read here.
Here you can know more about our content development work.
Discover our Corporate Learning service.
Get to know more our “Sport Summit Como” yearly sports management event here.
If you are interested in our own story, check us out here.