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Where should sports organisations be investing in digital? Start with the people
An interview with Richard Ayers, CEO of Seven League
An interview with Richard Ayers, CEO of Seven League
Seven League is a digital consultancy which helps sports organisations to accelerate their digital performance, delivering creative and engaging content, products and services. They have worked with clients spanning UEFA, The Rugby Football Union, Major League Soccer and sports teams across the world. We spoke to founder Richard Ayers about great fan engagement and where sports organisations should be focusing their digital efforts.
Could you please tell us about the work you do with sporting organisations?
All the work we do is about connecting with an audience and engaging those groups with the sport and then finding ways of making money out of it.
What do you think is key for those organisations when they’re looking for a way to use digital to engage fans?
Most of the work we do is around organisational change, so learning how to adapt fast enough to the rapidly evolving digital environment. Adapting to a digital way of thinking is probably the most important thing for sports organisations to do outside of winning, of course.
Do you think the main quest for sports organisations is to use digital to bring fans in closer to the sport?
Yes. Engagement is both the most difficult and the most rewarding thing to do. Making some money is relatively easy, but making lots of money if you get the engagement right is a bit more difficult.
Can you give us an example of a recent project, either that you’ve worked on or that you’ve seen, that’s made you think ‘gosh, they’ve really got it right’.
I really like the Christmas Advent calendar that Manchester City did. One of the things that we were driving at when we first worked with them to set the strategy was to grow the media network’s retention, then start to look at growing specifically digital revenue, and I think that’s coming to fruition, which is great. On a different note, it’s been really interesting watching my 7L guys adapt to the changing nature of Facebook, in terms of the news feed and its bias towards video, and the way that that’s opened up has been interesting.
Are there any organisations who are doing a particularly good job with their digital platforms, perhaps outside the UK?
The 49ers always do things nicely. One of my particular favourites to watch is Major League Soccer. The MLS digital team is one of the best I have worked with. They’re always really interesting to look at. It’s interesting also what Cricket Australia are doing, because they’ve also invested in their team, and bigger teams usually mean more exciting strategy.
Do you think that digital can go too far and get in the way of enjoying the sport?
No. Although that doesn’t mean people won’t do things badly along the way.
What about the role it plays in the matchday experience?
My experience across all sectors tells me that technology provides opportunity and humans then have to adjust to those opportunities and create services, and do what you do at Wilson Fletcher. Then what happens is that society has to adjust to the things that people like you make. So you do get people who worry about the live experience and how technology is going to change it. Part of the job of the makers is to make beautiful things that enhance, rather than interrupt that experience. On the journey towards enhancing the experience, undoubtedly people would come up with things that are a bit rubbish and things that do interrupt the experience and cause problems. But really, the key thing is about people understanding whether or not they want to use something.
That quite nicely sums up the story behind our magazine, The Human Layer — it’s about that human layer of interaction. I saw on Twitter than you recently gave a presentation entitled ‘don’t waste your money on digital’. Are you able to tell us a little bit about that?
It was an intentionally provocative title because what I was saying wasn’t ‘don’t spend your money on digital’, it was ‘don’t waste your money on digital’. I am becoming increasingly passionate about the fact that there are lots of people selling shiny baubles to the nearest marketing director who will buy off them. There are a lot of people whose working time is spent on projects which don’t have a real strategy behind them. I do think that digital has an incredibly powerful capacity, but the danger is that people are being sold and start buying the wrong things.
What one thing do you think that sports organisations should be investing their digital budgets in?
The people. The ability to get them to adapt, learn and raise their digital expertise. That’s what they should be investing in. Oh, and Seven League’s advice. Lots of that, of course.
Is there anything on the horizon that particularly excites you?
Augmented reality and virtual reality are exciting areas. I used to talk a lot about ‘datatainment’, I don’t talk about it so much any more but I think that the use of data appropriately is still exciting. The other big one that people are interested in is wearable technology. In many ways, it might be the development model for stadium wifi — that’ll be the key thing for stadium innovation. The next phase of innovation will be about having lots of innovation. We will see interesting things in all those areas over the next couple of years, and I’ll be at the front getting super excited about it. But unless we find ways to make head capture, or profiling work brilliantly, or to make something so good that people will pay for it, then a lot of it will just be shiny marketing baubles.
Are there some areas of sport that are better than others in terms of engagement?
There are two reasons why people start getting on board with a digital mindset. One is because they have a vision of their future — and there are a few media companies for whom that’s the case, but there are very few sports companies who are just like that. The other reason why people do it is because their backs are against the wall and they really have no option — they just have to do it. So take the cricket example, where Channel 4 who paid a load of money for the rights, saw that opportunity to make it interesting.
Or you look at rugby, which is a big game although it doesn’t have the same global reach as football, where they’ve been interviewing players as they come off and talking to coaches during games, and all that other stuff. And that might be down to BT Sport spending lots of money on the rights. It’s interesting to look at smaller, relatively niche sports — wakeboarding, for example — which are doing innovative things with technology. Other sports might not have the impetus to change.
And I suppose that once those teams are formed, the organisations don’t need to have their backs against the wall any longer in order to make something happen — that’ll just be what they do.
More than being what they do, it’ll be who they are.