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- Mark A. Williams FAIA, Director Venues, Principal, HKS
- Fred Ortiz AIA, Director of Collegiate Sports, Principal, HKS
- Craig Janssen, Managing Director, Idibri
- Kevin Cottam, Vice President – Global Sports & Events, Ross Video
- Robin Blakeley, Director of Strategic Partnerships, HKS Sport and Entertainment (Moderator)
On Tuesday, LEAD1 hosted one of its most cutting-edge webinars, focused on how athletic departments can thrive both now and in the future. “There’s some good news during COVID,” said Robin Blakeley, the Director of Strategic Partnerships at HKS, who moderated and sponsored the webinar.
For all the negativity that has surrounded college sports during the last several months, the virtual forum provided a rare perspective into possible “good news,” for athletic departments in the future. In addition to Blakeley, who has worked in sports for more than 30 years, the panel featured Mark Williams (Director, Venues, and Principal at HKS), Fred Ortiz (Director of Collegiate Sports and Principal at HKS), Craig Janssen (Managing Director at Idibri; who also co-sponsored the webinar), and Kevin Cottam (Vice President – Global Sports & Events at Ross Video; also a co-sponsor of the webinar).
Blakeley shaped the conversation by focusing on three main themes; including (1) what COVID-19 has taught athletic departments about the sports industry; (2) how athletic departments can better use technology for fan engagement and increasing revenue; and (3) where athletic departments should consider focusing their resources.
With respect to lessons learned from COVID-19, Williams underscored the fact that technology can connect fans to their favorite athletic teams, perhaps better now, than ever before. In this vein, Janssen stated that fan engagement may be more important now than the actual sport itself. Ortiz briefed the audience on some of the latest trends with respect to facility design (noting that stadium designers are now paying closer attention to prevention control, such as the ease of cleaning and disinfecting). Cottam made the sobering point that sports is not “bullet proof” like we may have once thought (in other words, sports follows economic downturns). Because of this reality, the sports industry should now focus on producing better content, even while working remotely from home.
Cottam’s point segued into a larger conversation about how using technology can help college sports better “story tell.” First, Williams opined that athletic venues are where “people want to be,” for example, people who are not even sports fans like to hold their special events, such as weddings, at athletic venues, because of the scenery (see one of William’s points on technology in the footnote). Cottam noted that some college and professional teams are still generating revenue by live streaming game-day productions from inside the stadium to their fans at home. Cottam further remarked that remote production, such as coaches shows, while cliché, are important to provide fans with the inside scoop.
Ortiz addressed the elephant in the room, describing that “many questions” now surround the facilities “arms race” in college sports, while Janssen backed Cottam’s earlier comments on the possibilities of operating within a digital age. Janssen, for example, stated that sporting teams can now personalize their fan’s experiences from home by charging fees for certain camera angles, and special access features (noting that when COVID-19 ends, or is at least under control, the sports world will have a different “muscle memory,” based on increasingly engaging in virtual content).
In terms of where athletic departments should invest their resources, Williams highlighted three main buckets, including (1) flexibility; (2) enhanced experience; and (3) connectivity. Flexibility refers to the need for venues and buildings to be adaptable. Enhanced experience refers to the benefits of more data, content, and technology (for example, fans will pay for the experience (even if there is no actual view of the field)). Connectivity refers to synergies with not only the fans in the stands, but also, the majority of the audience not actually attending in person through data, technology, and add-on experiences.
Janssen provided further advice on resource allocation. Janssen’s main point is to sell to current fans, for example, through data, camera angles, and use of select cameras, while upcharging that information. In addition, Janssen recommends using “zero-based budgeting.” Athletic departments, for example, should ask themselves whether they need all the “spaces” they have and whether their “technologies” need to be on site. According to Janssen, the answer to both of these questions should be “no.” In other words, athletic departments should ask themselves the following rhetorical question — but for the teams playing, how would my athletic department develop revenue streams if operating entirely digitally?
In short, despite all of the recent negativity, the future is actually bright for college sports. There are more opportunities that have not been imagined yet. To put it best, “Challenge everything, innovate like crazy, and act like a startup,” said Janssen.
 It is worth noting that HKS recently designed Southern California’s new SoFi Stadium, home to the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers, in the National Football League (NFL). For those wondering, in addition to architecture, HKS has a business, strategy, and development branch within its sports and entertainment division. Blakeley’s contact information is email@example.com.
 It is worth mentioning that Williams is disheartened by “cardboard cutouts” of fans in stands, and, instead, believes that technology can be used to enhance environments surrounding playing fields.
 Stating that data is the key to “storytelling.” As an example of the possibilities of remote work, Cottam also mentioned that production activities with respect to SoFi stadium were done solely remotely because of COVID-19.
 Williams highlighted that all these components are “scalable.”
 Janssen stated that while upcharging camera angles may become ubiquitous over time, selling these experiences can be accomplished now (in addition, noting that esports can be housed in existing facilities).