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Future of Sports And Entertainment Revealed at Lecture Series

By Keith Morelli

Abe Madkour, Tim Leiweke, Brendan Donohue, and Jeff Wilpon

TAMPA (October 10, 2017) -- From holographic professional games played in home stadiums of teams playing away games to the emergence of esports as a profound money maker, the future of sports and entertainment – or at least a hazy vision of what it might be – played itself out Monday night in the University of South Florida Sun Dome.

Before a crowd of about 350, three heavy hitters addressed the lecture's theme, "What Tomorrow Might Look Like," as part of the Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program's annual lecture series. The wide-ranging discussion hit on managing professional sports and venues, enhancing fan engagement with athletes and developing revenue streams through simulated video game systems, many of which are licensed by professional teams.

The panel included:

  • Tim Leiweke, founder and CEO of the Oak View Group. He has more than 30 years of global sports and entertainment experience and is a respected industry leader who has been deeply involved in the evolution of the NHL, the NBA and MLS.
  • Jeff Wilpon, chief operating officer of the New York Mets who oversees the day-to-day baseball and business operations of the club and the Mets Foundation. He is active on a number of non-profit organizations and serves on the board of MLB Business and MLB Media.
  • Brendan Donohue, managing director of the NBA 2K League, which offers a series of basketball simulation video games. Overseeing the newly formed esports system that is set to launch next year, Donohue has more than two decades of experience in team and league operations. The NBA K2 League will feature 17 of the NBA's 29 teams in its inaugural season.

Abe Madkour, executive editor of Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal, moderated of the event.

The emergence of esports, which takes advantage of the popularity of professional teams and players, is something everyone is watching, Donohue said. Arenas have filled up with spectators watching video gamers play basketball on jumbo screens, manipulating real professional players from real teams.

"Tens of millions of players are out there," Donohue said, representing a new source of revenue and the blossoming of a new kind of competition. The NBA 2K League is launching in February.

Wilpon, who also is involved with the Overwatch League, an esports venture that provides video games featuring players from specific cities, also sees the potential in this new line of business.

"Thirty-million people worldwide are doing this," he said, referring not only to video games, but virtual reality games. "In five to 10 years, we won't have to explain what esports is to anyone."

That the game of choice for video gamers is basketball is not by chance, said Leiweke, whose brother, Tod, is the chief operating officer with the NFL and former CEO of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tod Leiweke was the guest speaker at last year's lecture series.

"The NBA now is the visionary," he said. "It is worldwide. Its grassroots' reach around the world is shocking. Two-thirds of all the NBA social-media followers are from outside the United States."

Wilpon said he envied the NBA. Its stars are more recognizable because when they are drafted they already are well known and their popularity increases when they immediately enter the spotlight of professional sports. Baseball players are drafted largely as unknowns and spend years in the minor leagues before landing in the Big Show.

"Yeah," Wilpon said, "there is a little jealously there."

Sports and entertainment have become merged industries, all agreed. Now, baseball games are occasionally followed by concerts that are free for attending fans and sporting venues often are places for music, motocross events, monster truck rallies and even lectures. Executives now are realizing streams or revenue beyond the gate at sporting events.

Over the past year, Leiweke said, Fenway Park in Boston, home of the Red Sox; and Gillette Stadium in nearby Foxborough, home of the New England Patriots, booked 20 concerts, a trend that increasingly is being looked at by managers of large sporting venues.

"This never would have happened at Busch Stadium (in St. Louis) when I was growing up," Leiweke said.

Still, the future is not as predictable as sports executives would like to believe, said Wilpon, who oversaw the planning, development and construction of Citi Field, home of the Mets.

"I can't tell you how sports will be consumed by people in five years," he said. Will Netflix and Amazon enter the mix? There's no telling at this point.

One thing the executives voiced concern over is the perceived shorter attention span of millennials. That could mean changes in sports, particularly baseball, which has a reputation of being a bit slow paced and with games that can last well past three hours, longer than other sports games. The NFL, NHL and NBA all are experimenting with ways of shortening games to keep viewers in their seats or in front of their televisions, Wilpon said.

"Major League Baseball is not yet doing that," he said. "We need to do something to make the games shorter."

The next best thing is to keep fans engaged, he said. This year, the Mets have experimented with live interviews during the game with players and managers. If a pitcher is pulled from the game, a camera crew is in the tunnel leading to the clubhouse for a quick live television interview. Wilpon said the results have been positive, as fans stay engaged and the players, so far, all have been on board.

That was a good move, the other panelists agreed. Making sports figures more accessible to fans can only boost interest in games and bump revenue.

"The engagement level is more important than the time it takes to play a game," Donohue said.

There's engagement and then there's disengagement.

The discussion led to the impact the NFL players are having as they protest social injustice by kneeling as the national anthem is played before each game. The panelists agreed that those players have the right to stage that peaceful protest, but understood the feelings of some people who take it as an affront to the flag and are turning off their television sets on Sunday afternoons or trading in their season tickets.

"Player protests are an issue for the league," Leiweke said. "Are the NFL players bad guys? No, certainly not. They've done lots for their communities and they have the right to use this platform for this. We are going through a tough time, right now."

When it comes to keeping fans secure at large events, the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas will have an impact, the panelists predicted. Security will be more visible, Wilpon said. When Citi Field was being planned, input from anti-terrorist experts was sought, resulting in several million dollars in additional security measures being folded into the plans.

Leiweke went as far as to say large outdoor urban concerts and festivals that are held with high-rise buildings nearby, may become extinct.

"Bad guys, crazy guys see sports and music as two things they want to disrupt the most," Leiweke said. "This is one thing that keeps me up at night. We all have been trying to get our arms around this."

Spectators at the lecture included sports fans, faculty, entertainment officials, business leaders and students.

Career advice for students?

"Follow the right people," said Donohue. "Find people who will truly invest in your development."

"Someone always is watching you," said Wilpon. "Get into an organization (at any level); that way you have that opportunity to move up."

"Juice," Leiweke said. "Find an organization where the front office has drive, passion, work ethic, buzz, electricity."

Muma College of Business Dean Moez Limayem presented the panelists with visionary leader awards at the conclusion of the hour-and-a-half event.

"These people just don't talk about the future," the dean said. "They shape the future."