What do the Olympics look like in 2028? Will gambling on NBA games be legal? Will esports and technology forever disrupt the sports we are fanatical about? The Sports Track at The Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Conference assembled some marquee names and thought-leaders to tackle these questions and in the process, revealed how advanced the business of sport is when it comes to embracing innovation. Here are 5 take-aways from this start-studded event, to help corporations unlock innovation to drive actual business impact.
- Embracing Innovation is a Competitive Advantage
Jeff Luhnow, the General Manager of the World Champion Astros, is largely credited with ushering analytics into baseball. His progressive moves include implementing the shift, where players are positioned out of traditional defensive spots based on opposing hitters’ tendencies. He spoke about spin-rates and evaluating young talent using analytics that help him make smarter decisions during the draft and free agent negotiations. Finding diamonds in the rough that give them outsized returns on their investments. By investing in these new technologies, he gives each player and coach a small advantage on each pitch, which over the course of a season adds up to extra wins and plays a major role in his winning 3 World Series over the past decade.
- Integrate New into The Establishment
Luhnow spoke about how he implanted a “quant” analytics lead as an on-field coach. The data expert threw batting practice, sat on the bench, and gave players insights and advice throughout the season rather than emailing tech insights from the home office. People are resistant to new things, especially when they are being judged on results today. Many brand managers won’t try innovations because they must deliver quarterly results. Many baseball players wouldn’t try different innovations because their livelihood often rested on their next at bat. By having someone integrated into the daily process, technology becomes less daunting and more approachable and when success begins, everyone wants to partake.
- Trust The Process and Welcome Specialist Coaches
I asked Alex Rodriguez, former Yankees all-star and CEO of A-Rod Corp., and Michael Rubin, Founder of Fanatics and Co-Owner of the Philadelphia 76ers what technology they were most excited about. Rubin commented that a few years back he didn’t think mobile would be as big as it is, and that voice presents exciting opportunities but who knows what is next. Rodriguez joked that until recently he was still using his blackberry, so he surrounds himself with a team of MBAs that synthesize new opportunities to him for evaluate. Tech and innovation are constantly evolving which makes it very frustrating for executives to stay in front of. The evolution from mobile to voice may in fact lead to vision commerce or some combination of tech we haven’t seen yet. The key, as Rodriguez noted, is to tap into advisors that can stay in front of these trends, curate those of most value specifically for your business decisions. Rodriguez quietly revealed investment in an e-Sports team and being quite savvy around autonomous vehicles showing his “aww shucks” comment on new technology wasn’t entirely accurate.
- Take Risks, Make Bets
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver focused on sports gambling and e-Sports both of which would appear to be threats to his established league. Instead, Silver publicly backed legislation to make gambling legal and became the first professional sports league to launch an esports league with NBA 2k. Why, with the NBA thriving nationally and globally, would you take such risks? Silver was quick to point out focused engagement with all fans, increasing their individual experiences no matter where they are – in-stadium, on-device or watching video games on Twitch. The key take-away is that the time to innovate is always now, and that making strategic bets should be a part of the normal day-to-day strategy to continue to build your business for the future.
- Think Long, Win Now
Katrina Adams, President of the Unites States Tennis Association, spoke about Youth Sports in 2030 and the need for her business to engage younger fans, the “Net Generation.” These fans are different from previous generations – more urban, less physically active, and tethered to their devices. She spoke about meeting this audience on their terms, providing access and experiences they love as a gateway to the traditional game and how technology is evolving to make the game quicker and more dynamic while maintaining its essence. The USTA is investing in refurbishing courts in urban areas with local artists, robotic judges to make the game more accurate and constantly testing new technologies to provide deeper and more intimate access for fans. She is planning for 2030 as much as she is planning for the 50th anniversary of the US Open this fall.
Innovation and new technology is daunting and often feels distracting from immediate goals. It’s easy to put off for next year, or often worse, to give lip-service to it by creating “tests” unrelated to immediate challenges. Innovation doesn’t need to be fluffy 10 year-out vision quests with post-it notes and un-actionable dreams. You need the right coaches to vet appropriate opportunities specifically for your business today, that will then implement the changes with your team. Tackle today’s challenges with innovation and you get an immediate competitive advantage while preparing your corporation for future growth.
Fred Schonenberg is the Founder of VentureFuel, a global consultancy that helps Fortune 500 corporations unlock the potential of innovation to drive business results.