In the case of Serie A, stronger governance would have prevented the scandal and its consequences. But mitigating disaster is not enough – competitions can help set their teams and athletes up for success too. This is an approach that we have adopted in partnership with the Canadian Premier League, by supporting the league with the recruitment of talented non-Canadian players. Through the use of our team and player models, we have helped identify players who are likely to improve the standard of play in the league, but are also affordable and likely to grow in value should the league look to sell them on.
Japan’s rugby union Top League has adopted a similar approach – albeit on a grander scale – by extensively recruiting high-profile players from the major southern hemisphere nations. This has raised the standard of competition, especially among homegrown players. The league is transitioning to a more professional setup from next year, with attendances having more than doubled in 2019/20 (thanks in no small part to the buzz from hosting the World Cup).
Quality needn’t be imported at great expense though. Rights holders that are prepared to be patient can develop quality over time, too. This was the case for British Cycling, who in 1997 capitalised on the introduction of National Lottery funding to develop world-class infrastructure, technology, and coaching, focusing on the much more controllable environment of track racing. This resulted in an Olympic gold medal boom, and subsequently revenue growth from sponsors and fans. In the final year of the London Olympic funding cycle, just 38% of British Cycling’s funding was from non-grant sources, but by 2019 this had grown to 58%. Total revenue had grown by 38%, from c. 24m c. 33m. Fans and sponsors were unwilling to associate themselves with middle-of-the road athletes, but this all changed when British cyclists became among the highest quality in the world.
Sport is more effective at delivering jeopardy than any other form of entertainment. Jeopardy is what happens when high-stakes meet uncertainty, and fans respond to jeopardy in material numbers. We know this from viewing figures and attendances. In the football leagues we have analysed, a match that has significance in the title race can boost viewership from anywhere between 20% and 50%, compared to an equivalent match where the title was already (virtually) decided. The threat of relegation too encourages significantly more people to watch games they would otherwise ignore, given these games tend to involve lower-quality teams.
Sport is uniquely positioned as an industry where it is in each actor’s interest to have close competitors. This is something US rights holders in particular have recognised through ‘socialist’ models designed to preserve competitive balance. To effectively create jeopardy competitions need to strike a balance between uncertainty and high-stakes. This means maximising the number of games that have ‘meaning’ during an event, without going so far as to lose credibility as a sporting contest, or not delivering an outcome that could be deemed ‘fair’. Cup finals are exciting and draw viewers, but you couldn’t hand out a trophy after every match lest you reduce the stakes.
European football has more recently struggled with this balance between jeopardy and retaining high stakes. Using competition formats that were devised over 100 years ago, far too many leagues are predictable in their outcomes, and may go years before producing an entertaining title race or end-of-season thrill. Competitive balance – a key driver of jeopardy – can be achieved through a flatter media rights distributions (as the Premier League have done), but also through innovative competition formats.
Take tennis’ Laver Cup, which, by increasing the points to play for as the competition progresses, has evolved golf’s Ryder Cup scoring format to increase jeopardy on its final day. Unusually for a startup event, it has sold out every session it has played in its three editions to date; while the brand of Federer and the standard of tennis on offer is clearly a draw, the knowledge that there will be everything to play for throughout is not something that can be said for, for example, a bilateral cricket series. The use of a third set 10-point tiebreak only adds to randomness and therefore uncertainty around matches, showing that not only should the rules of competition be up for consideration, but the very rules of the sport too.
Events that reach a climax through a finale with all to play for while not diminishing the meaning of all the results that lead to that point tend to generate greater revenues, though this must be balanced with the desire to generate more matches or events too.