How New Sports Leagues Can Position Themselves for Long-Term Success

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Startup sports entities such as the United States Football League, Premier Lacrosse League, LIV Golf, Big3, 3Ice, American Cornhole League, The Basketball Tournament, Athletes Unlimited, National Women’s Soccer League and Ones Basketball League have hosted several games and events this summer. However, history suggests some of these upstart ventures will eventually wash out.

According to former XFL president & CEO and current McKinsey & Co. senior advisor Jeffrey Pollack, these startup leagues will have a better chance at long-term success if they meet four tenets. The rights owner should deliver competition that has meaning, focus on storytelling for a new generation, have a commitment to co-creation and innovation, and deploy patient leadership and capital.

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JWS’ Take: While having a substantial base of passionate fans is a must for a startup sports league, it does not guarantee success. (Investors continue to pour money into spring football, behind the idea American sports fans can never get enough pigskin, despite the various failed non-NFL leagues.) That’s why the product still needs to resonate with the target demographic.

As Pollack said in an interview with Sportico, it all starts with the action between the lines. The on-field competition creates the foundation for a gameday experience that should be enjoyable, memorable and shareable.

“The competition needs to be full of energy, integrity and meaning for the participants and fans,” Pollack said. “It is the connective tissue among your fans, players and the stories they have to tell.”

An example of a sports property delivering competition with meaning is the OBL, at least for those competing. The OBL is a nationwide one-on-one basketball tournament to determine who is the “Ruler of the Court.” Former Texas A&M Corpus Christi player John Jordan, the champion, took home the $250,000 grand prize.

“It was life-changing for our players,” said Pollack, an advisor to the league. “We created a new opportunity for their talent to shine and dreams to come true.” The league still needs to prove the one-on-one, winner-take-all format matters to basketball fans. Fewer than 1,500 people attended the OBL Finals in Las Vegas.

On the flip side, a criticism of the LIV Golf tour is that there is relatively little at stake on a per event basis because the players were paid so much up front. Even the player who finishes last takes home six figures, which could be seen sapping competitiveness from tour events, too. But LIV president and COO Atul Khosla strongly disputed that notion on a recent Zoom call with JWS. “We are not the only concept that has guaranteed money in sports. … At the end of the day, they are competitors, they are athletes, and they are wired in a particular way.”

Once sports properties are delivering meaningful competition on the field, they then should focus their efforts on storytelling and connecting with the audience. Conveying who the participants are and why the fans should care about them can go a long way in creating interest in the property’s live events. The content should be fresh, engaging and snackable, across a range of platforms, Pollack said, and “geared to the viewing habits of a new generation of sports fans that is frankly more interested in athletes and personalities than they are teams.”

Premier Lacrosse League co-founder Mike Rabil said ESPN’s ability to widely deliver content was a differentiator for the league during its last round of broadcast rights negotiations. “ESPN+ carried over 250 NCAA men’s lacrosse games, in addition to 450 NCAA women’s lacrosse games, illustrating that there is now more synergy within the sport than ever before,” Rabil said. “ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2 offer both broadcast and linear windows that allow the PLL to reach net new fans in an environment and attention economy that is becoming increasingly difficult to break into.”

It’s also crucial for athletes to authentically connect with the fans. For example, PLL holds clinics during the regular season and regularly brings families onto the field before and after games.

Athletes Unlimited has taken a more radical approach of connecting athletes with the fans by designing the league to be athlete-based as opposed to team-based—and the league’s storytelling is solely focused on individual players. Teams are reshuffled on a weekly basis and the points leader at the end of the season is crowned champion and takes home the most prize money.

“If you are an emerging league, it seems clear that instead of creating teams overnight and expecting fans to become fans of a team without history or set values, it makes much more sense to lean into the connection between the athletes and the fans,” Jon Patricof (CEO and co-founder, Athletes Unlimited) said.

A commitment to co-creation and innovation helps sports properties gain favor with employees, partners and fans alike. “We live in a world where everyone expects to have a voice more than ever before,” Pollack said. Giving each of those parties the opportunity to participate in the conversation and feel a sense of ownership will help an upstart league to build a vibrant culture and stand out in a competitive landscape.

The NWSL has made it a point to include fans in the conversation. “As a challenger property, [we have] the opportunity to take some risks and really innovate the way we engage our fans,” commissioner Jessica Berman said. For example, the league was the first back from the sports hiatus, playing its games in a Utah bubble. It was also an early adopter of OTT technology, streaming matches all over the world on Paramount+ and Twitch.

LIV has brought the team concept to a golf tour and cut tournaments down to 54 holes and three days. It has also altered the on-course experience for fans and players alike. “We are playing music on site. That is typically not common on a golf course. But we surveyed all of our players and the overwhelming response was that is how they practiced,” Khosla said. “It doesn’t bother them, it sort of relaxes them, and it completely changes the vibe on the course.”

The final tenet needed for long-term success is patient leadership and capital. “It takes time for a new league to connect in a profound, meaningful and sustainable way. Nothing long-lasting happens overnight,” Pollack said. Remember, the first Super Bowl did not sell out.

The good news for these upstart properties is that technology advancements and social media have shortened the timeline to achieve mainstream success. “You can now accomplish in five years, what previously took 15,” Pollack said.

A new sports property is likely to evolve before finding success. So, having nimble leadership able to adjust on the fly is beneficial. TBT founder Jon Mugar explained that his league launched with a vision that looks very little like the product people see today.

TBT’s most notable creation is the Elam Ending. Initially, league games were comprised of two 18-minute halves, but that wasn’t working. “We found our teams were getting into the bonus and shooting free throws midway through each half, so we went to quarters, resetting team fouls at the beginning of each quarter,” Mugar said. “That was better, but still resulted in end of game fouling. Then we put in the Elam Ending, which we named after a guy who randomly emailed us with the concept one day.”

The format, which ends a game by playing to a target score, has been so popular it has since been adopted by the NBA and used in the NBA All-Star Game.

“We’ve gotten here by experimenting each year in capital efficient ways and slowly steering towards what works,” Mugar said. “That’s how we find ourselves hosting events across the country on college campuses in addition to Rucker Park. It’s also how we find ourselves heading into our 10-year anniversary in 2023.”

(This article has been updated to reflect the correct name of Premier Lacrosse League.)

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