Industrialization of sport, Part II — smart outsiders, shorter cycles

By Rick Burton and Norm O’Reilly

After our column on sport industrialization ran in May, we heard from more readers than normal, including a few sages who intrigued us. The first came from Syracuse University professor Sean Branagan, who noted professional sports in North America emerged and grew into a national cultural experience in the early 1900s after the establishment, growth, and reliability of rail travel.

Trains allowed for the archrival dynamic of home and away scheduling. Suddenly, in the early 1900s, our industry could build regional competitions and dress them up as national pastimes.

Think about it. What must it have been like for teams to travel during a time when most villagers never ventured away from their local municipality?

By the late 1950s, accessible (and affordable) air travel allowed professional sports to expand westward based on the same empire-building benefits, but at a fraction of the time. A club could play in Chicago one night and Los Angeles the next. Even more impressive, a New York club could play an evening game in Detroit and return home shortly after midnight.

Another reader — John Barrows of the Monmouth Timeline — suggested front-office positions during pro sports’ first century tended to be held by ex-professional ballplayers from within the organization, passionate fans, or nepotistic hires. The pay was low but free tickets and the chance to hobnob with big leaguers made the utilitarian benefits great. Those early administrators clung to their jobs like barnacles and there was little incentive for continuous improvement, best practices, or key performance indicators. Sports marketers lacked MBAs or even modest experience with brands or products. CFOs were former bookkeepers.

In 2021, we’re watching AI technology and high-speed social media forcing the digitalization of sport. Progression is always natural, and the results readily observable in the growth of properties like esports, simulation racing and virtual/augmented reality. In other words, digital speed (driven by ones and zeros) means we’ve reached the point where travel is not required at all.

So, we revisited with Professor Branagan. In his feedback, he referenced Russian economist Nikolai Kondratieff, who wrote about “hot” capitalist economic cycles, volatile periods usually lasting about 40 to 60 years. They’re known as “K-waves” or “surges.” These distinct economic windows usually featured technological evolution (i.e., the steam engine), market corrections and sustained periods of prosperity.

This might explain why today’s sports wagering landscape is suddenly exploding with new laws, mergers, acquisitions, SPACs, and app-based books. Other areas “popping” include sport biotechnology/health care (think Clear, the biometric identity company providing frictionless scanning) and sports data security.

Not surprisingly, the length of these long economic waves is decreasing as technology and our pace of life increases. Some scholars now think future K-cycles may last 24 months or less (and not 50 years).

Whether they are a half-century long or much shorter, we believe professional sport, while it has weathered the “COVID storm” much better than any other sector of our industry, is in turmoil. Its place of cultural primacy is under attack.

One could argue this crisis is happening because leagues and teams are failing to connect with younger fans at the speed (and in the forums) they favor. We are seeing some progress but by 2031, our industry’s 2021 communication efforts will look the actions of Stone Age savants.

Our prediction? Fan engagement, driven by algorithms and artificial intelligence, will jump that much in the next decade.   

Another commentator on the sport industrialization column was Jim Bowie, the Canadian co-founder of Racing Prodigy. He suggested: “It’s not just about access anymore. It’s about connecting, interacting, and communicating in ways that could have never previously existed.”

Bowie’s thoughts reveal this much: Leagues and teams will need to get much more advanced with meaningful communication strategies. Ultimately, the interface between sellers and buyers must evolve at a faster rate if leagues want sustainable fan engagement. Like the Law of Demand, the rate of change will increase as the age of the fan decreases.

So, let’s recap what these readers suggested. First, demand cycles are changing at rocket fast rates. And they’re getting faster. It means smart sport properties must:

1. Hire smart people from more advanced industries. Take a page from the books of the major leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) and hire from major brands such as Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Samsung, and cutting-edge agencies with deep expertise in key niche areas — tech, esports, digital marketing, social media and more.

2. Shorten planning cycles. With the (obvious) exception of capital builds, shorten long-range planning cycles to 18 months or less. No more 5-year plans or 10-year growth strategies. Those are just way too slow. Many are already adopting approaches based on days (think 30-day plans), not months or years.

3. Include other industries in market research. Particularly, get busy learning from those with short turn-on-a-dime cycles and ever-changing landscapes. Think biotech and cyber-security.

A lot of seers and swamis have previously suggested the above material, so our point is not rinsing and repeating. Instead, let’s agree demand tendencies are evolving. Get ahead of the curve or (literally) get left behind.

Rick Burton ( is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and SU’s faculty athletics representative (FAR) to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). Norm O’Reilly ( is dean of the Graduate School of Business at the University of Maine and partner consultant at The T1 Agency

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at

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