The Unofficial Partner Column: Sport is the Product

Richard Gillis asks whether Facebook's interests will bring a broadcast windfall for sport. The question is rhetorical...

The Unofficial Partner Column: Sport is the Product

Facebook is on a charm offensive.

It’s toured the autumn conference halls and offered its execs up to the sports media, who have asked the same question in different guises over and over again: will Facebook pay for sport?

Luckily, I’m a journalist who lived through the last 20 years, so I’ve seen this movie before.

There are seven key scenes.


1. The Gold Rush Years

This starts around 1992 and finishes, for the purposes of column relevance, in 2018.

It’s an era of unprecedented growth when sport grew fat on money from bloated TV subscription bundles, the ripple effect of which was felt far beyond football.

Hobbies were elevated to the status of niche Long Tail rights categories; slalom canoeists got agents and privately educated windsurfers felt emboldened to moan about Olympic lottery funding.


2. The Complacent Longing for Disruption

A large proportion of people working in the sport business are conformists.

They were good at school, did their exams and excelled at PE, where they developed a ‘passion for sport’.

They suit the rule-bound world of sponsorship with its good guys and bad guys, official rights holders and ambushers; everything has its place in a natural order, from elite sport down to the grassroots.

So when it comes, the idea of disruption is thrilling.  

It speaks to the latent outlaw that lurks within all good boys and girls.

3. The Sudden Impulse to Give Your Work Away Free To People Wearing Hoodies

Like great sex, creative destruction is something that tends to happen to other people.

From inside the sports bubble, it’s inconceivable that we’d make the same mistakes as our trendy but naïve counterparts in music or news.

“There are no lessons to be learned from the past because we’d just never do that now, we’re far more sophisticated. We’ve got data and robust business models.”

These are the same people who watch the History Channel and wonder how our great grandparents could be so stupid as to sleepwalk into the First World War.


4. The Zuckerberg Seduction

I share a trait with many sports rights holders in that I’ve spent my life chasing people who don’t really like me.

This leaves me vulnerable to glamorous people showing affection.

It started in the fifth form with Anne Lynch. She shunned my advances in favour of the caretaker’s burly son, whose name – Glenn Pluck – fitted perfectly into a crude and libellous limerick on the toilet door of the science block. Children can be very cruel.

(For the purposes of clarity, in the preceding scenario I play the sport business and Anne Lynch is Facebook. I can’t work out what or who Glenn Pluck represents and am frankly beginning to tire of the whole metaphor.)


5. The Creation and Willing Acceptance of Narrative Fallacy

To make Facebook’s relationship with sport easier to understand it has been shoehorned to fit the Sky Sports Story, with Mark Zuckerberg in the Rupert Murdoch role.

This sees a cold, calculating billionaire use football as a battering ram into peoples’ homes, creating a valuable monopoly that takes regulators a generation to untangle.

This story is not true but, importantly, it feels right.

Like all great myths, the Facebook Story has an air of inevitability because cause and effect seem to be perfectly aligned.

To quote Poirot, Facebook has both the motive and the opportunity.

It is very cash-rich and is in the game of capturing and reselling attention that craves the sort of huge numbers that live sport delivers.  

But there is scant evidence that this scenario will actually happen.

6. The Over Analysis of Red Herrings

So we go in search of evidence to stand the story up.

And has there been a mid-market rights deal so relentlessly scrutinised for meaning as Amazon’s move for ATP tennis?

Obviously, this is not just about tennis – is anything? – it’s about the future relationship between sport and Big Tech.

If Amazon buys tennis, then the inevitable next step is someone will pay US$10 billion for global Premier League rights in every market.

OK, if you say so.


7. The Slow, Nagging Feeling That You’ve Really Fucked Up

It’s hard to register the exact moment when you know you’ve been had.

It’s like trying to remember when the rain started. 

And then we wake up to realise that much of sport’s value has been lobotomised.

The transcendent moment that was once valuable ‘must-have content’ has been reduced to clickbait, between the Russian fake news bot and the NFL cheerleader in a see-through shirt.

As John Lancaster wrote in the London Review of Books: ‘Access to an audience – two billion monthly active users – is a wonderful thing, but Facebook isn’t in any hurry to help you make money from it. If the content providers all eventually go broke, well, that might not be too much of a problem.’

What’s not to Like?


Richard Gillis is author of The Captain Myth: The Ryder Cup and Sport’s Great Leadership Delusion, published by Bloomsbury in the UK and US.

This column originally appeared in issue 97 of SportsPro Magazine. To find out more or to subscribe, click here.