There will be bumps, but the resilience of the sports industry was a recurring theme from an array of business insiders and thought leaders at this past weekend’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
A few highlights:
▪ Both Celtics owner Steve Pagliuca and entrepreneur/influencer Gary Vaynerchuk see the initial non-fungible token phase as a speculative bubble that will pop.
Pagliuca expects 90 percent of current NFTs to be wiped out, with Vaynerchuk at a more dire level.
“Ninety-eight percent of NFT projects that are in the market right now are going to go to zero or close to it,” Vaynerchuk said. “We are in a unique time. This is very similar to internet public stocks in 1999, where the internet was right but we all got ahead of ourselves and we put $40 billion valuations on companies that hadn’t even sold anything on the internet yet. That’s what’s happening in the NFT world right now.
“There’s so much money being thrown around, so much greed, so much short-term behavior that almost every project that we see out there, even if it’s already done $10 million-$20 million in sales, is incredibly vulnerable because the IP [intellectual property] creator, the founders of these projects, are generally not building it with the long tail in mind.”
▪ Jonathan Kraft, president of the Kraft Group, and Jason Robins, founder and CEO of DraftKings, agreed the blockchain technology NFTs rely upon will sustain the wave of products that endure by adding usable features that increase fan engagement.
Noting he has a shoe box full of ticket stubs from Celtics and Patriots games he attended as a child, Kraft proposed a plausible use case for NFTs.
“If I could have a digital wallet with the ticket stub from that game and maybe 30 seconds of highlights, but also opt in to have my picture taken in my seats and that gets dropped to me the day after the game — not a selfie but a picture of my dad and my brothers sitting there and I could pull out a digital wallet — it has tremendous value to me,” he said. “It would have no value to anybody else, but I’d love to have that.
“That’s a version of an NFT that I haven’t heard people talk about, but in a lot of ways builds a connection between fans and a team.”
Said Robins, “Believe me, NFTs are not just going to be profile pics and collectibles, there’s going to be a lot more. I think it’s going to create inter-operability between different types of systems. You can buy an NFT that’s usable in multiple different video games or things like that.”
▪ Michael Rubin, executive chairman of Fanatics, expects his company to be the sports betting industry leader in 10 years. And that’s without a current sports betting platform under the well-capitalized, ever-enlarging umbrella of the data-rich apparel and trading card company.
“Right now, the market is a huge long-term opportunity, but the market’s not making as much sense in the near term,” said Rubin. “I do believe we will be the No. 1 player in the business in a decade and I believe we’ll do it through smart and aggressive organic growth and structural advantages we have at Fanatics.”
▪ Jeff Ma, who was a card-counting member of the MIT Blackjack Team that rattled casinos and is now an entrepreneur, delivered some salty pushback to two sports betting leaders, John Sheeran of FanDuel and Gene Lee from Caesars Entertainment, mainly about how the sports betting industry markets its product and why Ma doesn’t want to play in that field.
“Your goal is to provide an entertainment product vs. the fraud that anyone can actually make money off it. This is really the way this market is going,” said Ma. “There are things out there — every story about Mattress Mack [Houston-based Jim McIngvale, whose multi-million dollar wagers are ostensibly to cover giveaways at his furniture stores], about some 15-game parlay that someone won — that is designed to make you think you can win and that they want you to win, and the reality is not that way, unfortunately.”
Sheeran and Lee defended their turf, Lee pointing out that “entertainment” is in the Caesars name.
▪ Renie Anderson, the NFL’s chief revenue officer, after the first full season since the league’s embrace of sports betting: “This is here to stay. It’s a long play. I’m not necessarily focused on the value today, I’m focused on the value long-term, how this will help us grow our fans and engagement. We have 200 million fans. I don’t know if they all want to bet. I don’t believe so.”
▪ Meredith McPherron, CEO and managing partner of Drive by DraftKings, was asked where she sees the best investment opportunities.
“I’m very bullish on the rise in women’s sports,” she said. “It’s time. Women have game. When it’s on, people watch it. Brands are finding it’s a super-engaged audience.”
▪ Gen Z-ers are not watching live sports with anywhere near the attention of their forebears. Asked which sports are doing the best job at attracting those eyeballs, Omar Raja, commentator for ESPN’s digital and social content, picked pro boxer and social media icon Jake Paul.
“When I went to a Jake Paul fight, I’ve never seen younger fans in my life,” said Raja. “The amount of 10-year-olds I saw at a Jake Paul fight was insane to me, so I think they’ve really figured it out.”
Bo Han, founder and CEO at Buzzer, which delivers short-form video content, went with the NBA. Tim Clark, NASCAR executive, went with the NBA and Formula 1.
Noted Vaynerchuk, “Esports and pickleball are real. Boxing, horse racing, and baseball dominated 1945, and that’s two seconds ago. What you see is complacency if you’re the league or the sport that’s dominating the day, which is why innovation comes along.”
▪ Bill James, a founding father of sports analytics, and Doug Fearing of Zelus Analytics both picked the “under” on 144 games to be played in Major League Baseball this season.
“Same principle as an airline,” James explained. “If the airline tells you your flight is going to be 20 minutes late, you’ve got a 50-50 chance of being four hours late. It’s the same thing. When they start canceling games, it just gets easier.”
▪ On the continued rise in sports franchise valuations, Benjamin Hesse from JP Morgan noted: “If you look historically and see assets with volatile cash flows as interest rates rise, typically their valuations go down, and sometimes down a lot. But there’s so much interest in this space, and there’s so few assets available, unlike a lot of other different asset classes, I’m not sure you’re going to see valuations pull back a ton. But that’s a real big point of debate right now for people thinking about getting involved.”
Michael Silverman can be reached at email@example.com.