When Zion Williamson and LaMelo Ball’s AAU teams faced off in the summer of 2017, the event pulled in a total of 822,000 viewers on Facebook Live—a crowd eight times larger than the largest sports stadium in the US, Michigan Stadium, at full capacity.
Estimated 2020 social media marketing earnings of sports influencers
COVID-19 disruption not-withstanding, fans will continue to find ways to satisfy their monster appetite for sports (spending upwards of $50 billion annually on sporting events in the US alone). But with each year, a growing percentage of this will go directly to the athletes, like “bits”—virtual currency—does on Amazon’s Twitch. Fortnite-style virtual arenas will host sporting events with tens and sometimes hundreds of millions of fans, and will include digital concessions and apparel linked to the tap of a key.
Money to the Players
College-age athletes in revenue-generating sports at big-time colleges will reap the first infusions of direct income, destabilizing university revenue streams. With the growing popularity of high school sports, it won’t be long until the same push will be made for all amateur athletes.
The writing has been on the wall for some time. In 2017, college football kicker Donald De La Haye was ruled ineligible for profiting from his YouTube videos. That same year, cross-country runner Ryan Trahan was declared ineligible because he used social media to promote a water bottle company he had started. A couple of years later, high school phenom Tristan Jass passed on a basketball scholarship to pursue an already lucrative YouTube career. Continuing this sort of policing would have been an enforcement nightmare. Additionally, the college programs were beginning to lose out on athletes who were talented both on and off the field of play. In late 2019, the NCAA changed its rules to allow athletes to make money off their names and likenesses. Rules about social media interaction between recruiters and athletes will evolve quickly as athletes start arriving at schools with revenue-generating fanbases in tow.
It likely won’t be long before all restrictions on commercial ventures will be lifted. High school athletes will make more straight-to-pro contracts, avoiding the restrictions and hassle of NCAA mandates. Similar to the way Beats by Dre was purchased by Apple not for its technology but for its streaming service and social network, athletes will increasingly cloister fans so that large endorsement deals can include both them and their fan-based social networks. Endorsements could even expand toward exclusive contracts between athletes and the fans themselves—digital “jerseys” may mean that a fan is reimbursed for not following any other similar athlete. Smart athletes will discover other revenue opportunities.
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Sports broadcasting will also change dramatically. As once the days of the “Big Three” news anchormen disappeared, so too will classic sports broadcasting disappear—audiences will watch live events called by their preferred choice from among thousands of online broadcasters.
Partnerships between athletes and their announcers will start in the early stages of athletic careers as it becomes clear that viewers want to watch and grow alongside a familiar voice. Individual athletes will control channels of distribution. People will not watch the Super Bowl on CBS but on the “Patrick Mahomes Live” channel, available across platforms, which may occasionally include his own narration. Large broadcast network games will be relegated to public spaces like bars and restaurants as a vast majority of viewership is individualized.
Starting Young on Social Media
This sort of “selfie-generated revenue” will start very young as parents push and package their “prodigy-inclined” kids for a social media audience. The Brown siblings, Sky and Ocean, are a prime example. Sky Brown started skateboarding and surfing when she was three years old. Sky and Ocean, now 12 and 9, have 604,000 and 113,000 followers on Instagram, respectively, and 500,000 followers under one account on TikTok, all run by their parents. More kids (and parents) will go down this road hunting for payouts now rather than later, and product companies will line up to reach their expansive audiences.
We’re going to see more and more people making money playing sports—without playing professional sports.
Athletes Narrate Their Own Games
Broadcasting will become increasingly lucrative as athletes who narrate their own games become more popular and athletes are rewarded instantly for flashy or successful feats. Celebrity broadcasting will explode in popularity as the broadcaster and athlete can split the profits. Tony Romo, a former NFL athlete and popular announcer, recently signed a $17 million per year broadcasting contract with CBS. What if he could make his own channel? Imagine Mark Wahlberg, Tom Brady’s close friend, broadcasting a Tom Brady Super Bowl and each netting $20 million for the day in Pay-Per-View revenue.
The effect of these trends on the online youth sports market has many unknowns: How long will it be until high school kids are able to make money from their athletic talents? What current or emerging media platforms will become the TikTok of sports and push fans’ money into student-athletes’ Venmo accounts? Will arena ownership venture into the virtual real estate markets or try to resist the inevitable?
The Future Is Already Here Dep’t
Recruiters and college coaches routinely pay significant subscription fees to watch school-age athletes perform throughout the country by way of a network of freelance videographers. The high-quality broadcasts, enhanced via AI to NFL Films–level quality, preserve games that until now were only retained through memories. Youth athletes build small (think thousands, not millions) but passionate audiences on social media. Sponsors line up to reach these audiences, and youth sports organizations and high school conferences provide the infrastructure to handle deal flow on behalf of the kids and families. The NCAA waives restrictions on athletes receiving payments for endorsements. Sponsor dollars let kids and their families maximize the return on their talents, while at the same time funding operations for schools and youth clubs and easing financial burdens on families.
As even non-superstar athletes started to make more from their endorsement deals than their salary, which makes league market caps worthless, a massive inequality developed between famous and non-famous athletes. This trickled down into youth sports, where the quest for revenue drove many young athletes and their families to push even harder than in the past to raise the kids’ profiles on social media. Branding became more important than performance. Soon, the first college offers (and the top pick in pro drafts) went to the athletes who could drive the most revenue to the team. Exceptionally talented kids made money, but second-tier athletes were left out of the bonanza, and either quit or toiled in bitterness. Because of this, teamwork suffered in youth sports, and lesser-skilled players dropped out entirely, driving down the overall level of play.
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