A talk given by Marshall Glickman, the acting CEO of Euroleague, in Athens last April points to the real decisions facing not only the competition but sports as a whole. Emmet Ryan examines the most interesting comments from Glickman and what they might mean for Euroleague going forward
The end of the Jordi Bertomeu era came and went with a slight tweak in how matters are going to be for at least the immediate future of Euroleague basketball. Dejan Bodiroga is the new chairman of Euroleague while the CEO duties are, for now, in the hands of Marshall Glickman.
The American’s experience is substantial. A former president of the Portland Trail Blazers, he also has experience with capital projects overseeing the creation of the Moda Center, the 20,000 seat home of the Blazers, and the enormous overhaul of Providence Park, which is home to the Portland Timbers of MLS.
Euroleague has been a client of his for 20 years through his G2 Strategic business and he also has La Liga as a client through that business, while also working on the new Palau Blaugrana project.
Last April he spoke at Front Runners in Sports Management conference in Athens and the video of his address was uploaded to YouTube. At the time of writing it has just 127 views but anyone with an interest in the growth of basketball on this continent would do far worse than devote 49 minutes of their lives to watching it.
Glickman began by addressing the core issue of the difference in sports management in his native United States and in Europe.
“The main difference is that, in the United States, professional and even amateur sports have evolved into a bottom line business. It means the primary objective of most leagues, clubs, and properties, is driving profits and ever-increasing growth,” he said.
“In Europe, sports is more of a cultural imperative. There’s a lot more involvement by government. There are many big institutions and stakeholders with conflicting interests. The governance of sports in most European theatres is quite cumbersome and very different because profit is not the number one motivator.”
This has long been a challenging issue for sports across the continent. Basketball, like many sports, has benefited greatly from patronage of a larger sporting club that it is part of (including half of this year’s Euroleague line-up) or wealthy benefactors who demanded heavy levels of control and could disappear on a whim.
Sustainable business practices haven’t exactly been conventional in European sport. Now, there are positives to being about more than mammon, sports clubs are cultural institutions of the communities they are in but those same institutions seem to operate with practices that leave the very communities they aim to serve at risk of losing said institutions.
As we enter an era with two full generations of digital natives making up substantial parts of the current workforce, and will be the majority within a decade, fresh thinking is required and the bulk of Glickman’s talk was on the challenge with Gen Z, those born from 1997* onwards.
The new clientele
“The understanding of attracting the next generation of audiences is really a matter of survival. Global sports properties like WWE and UFC get this. The sports leagues, clubs, and properties, in the US and UK tend to get this. European football and other European institutions tend to be far behind, albeit that they are starting to catch up,” Glickman said.
“Overall the sports industry is far behind entertainment and consumer brands in its recognition of the massive shift in consumer behaviour. The notion of parents passing along their love of sports and teams to their sons and daughters is no longer a reality.”
*The arbitrary nature of defining generations, which is essentially done for the purposes of marketing is a bit sketchy. For context, I was born in 1981 so a current 26 year old would be listed as my generation. Accept the lines are fuzzy but reasonable and you’ll have fewer headaches.
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The presence of the smartphone in the world, which has become one of the rare things in life that people tend to forget less than putting on underwear, is the fundamental game changer for Glickman. It’s not just the device however but the relationship with it,
“They grow up with it almost in their crib. There’s a decline in active participation in youth sports in the US. Gen Z’s active younger adults tend to be distracted. The focus is more on athletes and stars than teams and leagues. This generation values experiences over things,”
“We have to listen and we have to act. Frankly, we have to ignore the naysayers that want to preserve the status quo. That’s the battle I have to enter into most often.”
Ignoring naysayers is often challenging, not least because they are often those in power because of how right they were in previous times. Age is not a barrier to wisdom nor is it a guarantee of continued learning. If you want a basketball example, just look at the difference between Sergio Scariolo’s Spain and Svetislav Pesic’s Serbia.
Beyond the game
What Glickman gets about the consumption of content is how that while the game is the key thing to the sports organisation, it’s not necessarily that to the new fan.
“That means a fusion of sports, culture, lifestyle, and purpose. That is manifesting more and more through storytelling and the drama around games, and bringing to life the athletes that play sports. The next generation are interested in far more than what happens on the court,” he said.
“We must also leverage tech to provide the content that people want at the time and place they want to receive it. More and more, when a property like the NBA enters into a domestic national broadcasting agreement that the exclusivity around the broadcast only applies to the broadcast of those games. It carves out numerous other rights which allow US teams to show games on multiple platforms. There’s many examples where the same game is being shown in more than one place but presented in more than one way.”
In his address, Glickman cited quite a few differences. There are formats more suited to betting, which was frankly depressingly hilarious to observe with YouTube streams of youth tournaments in the summer but there was no doubt of the nature of delivery and interaction suiting that type of viewer. There’s the more assertive style of commentary seen on Twitch, the NFL’s experiments with games on Nickelodeon, and ESPN’s Manningcast for Monday Night Football in the same sport.
That last one is particularly interesting with regards to Euroleague as it did watchalongs last year. Those watchalongs however were challenged in terms of their ability to truly drive interest as, and this may seem small but it matters, there was a substantial lag between the product on TV or Euroleague’s own streaming service and the watchalong. There was also the challenge that the two pieces of content, the game and the watchalong, simply weren’t in the same place. That makes it harder for fans to interact truly.
Now here’s the important bit. Those problems existing isn’t the issue. The issue is that far too often, especially in sports but really across the media, if something new and scary to the bosses doesn’t work the first time then it’s just killed off right away rather than any real effort being made to learn from it and make it better. Mistakes are not treated as opportunities to learn, which is particularly maddening in a sports business as nowhere is it made more important that learning from mistakes is how you improve than in sports.
Fandom is changing
It’s also of concern because of research Glickman pointed to from the US which found that
difference in anti-sports fans, as in people who openly disliked sports, between millennials and Gen Z is huge, 7 per cent vs 27 per cent. For context, Gen X and Boomers were at 6 and 5 per cent respectively so a gradual climb has become a giant leap. That points to fandom cratering.
“We have to go to the platforms that are followed by young adults, wherever it may be and wherever it will be in the future. We have to really listen to the behaviours and preferences of Gen Z,” Glickman said.
“Some of the changes are uncomfortable, this is why there tends to be resistance. Governance is typically older white males, like me, and they aren’t always the best people to decide the future of how we present our properties.”
His solution is rather simple. If you want to promote to a demographic, it’s good to work with people who know that demographic. More often, that means people of that demographic.
“We have to populate our organisations with people that have the mindset and skills to innovate, and the courage to disrupt. One of the key differences is that most of the institutions in Europe tend to be governed by strong people at the top of a pyramid structure whereas in the US there’s a flatter structure with people empowered to make decisions and mistakes,” he said.
“The NBA is really relatable for this next generation of fans. They launched the NBA 2K league years ago but they’ve adapted some of the best ideas from the actual NBA and rolled it over into the 2K league, including a draft,”
The NHL has a youth advisory board of youths between 13 and 17 years old that provides the league with honest advice. It generates tens of thousands of applications annually.
“I was really pleased this year with the Euroleague FanZ lab. It was something I proposed to them several years ago and it’s really come to life. It’s more flexible, more youth oriented, less of a fixation on history, and a greater willingness to change,” he said.
“Status quo is not an option. If the status quo remains, I see a slow decline in interest. Basketball is more adaptable and more flexible. It’s an urgent problem and if we want sustainable and economically viable sports properties, then we have to adapt. You can’t continue to borrow money to pay off borrowed money. At some point it’s going to catch up with you.”
That means moving to adapt to how young people are consuming content.
“Young adults are digital natives. They grew up with a phone in their pocket. Once you put that phone in their hand, they have access to content and material. They grow up with it. Distraction is a factor and the other is fragmentation,” he said.
“We’re in an era of so many platforms and sources of content. This means you don’t have big mass audiences gathering around and watching as a family or group of friends in the same space. We live in a global world and they have access to everything.”
The biggest hurdles often have the best intentions
There were repeated points by Glickman throughout the talk that hit home, both in terms of my own frustration at trying to execute projects in other parts of my life and more directly with basketball.
“We have to understand them and use a lot of imagination. There tends to be this idea that if we pour content into all of these platforms it will take care of itself. The quality of that content is extremely important and it has to be precisely curated for the audience,” he said.
“To get great content means having better access. I watched a NBA game the other night where during the entire first half of the game, a player in the game had a microphone. It was not shared live but they did share it over the course of the broadcast,”
“If I suggested that to a European football team, they would put me on a plane and send me back to the United States. In Europe, the players have a wall around them.”
That access issue really is mind blowing at times. Think back to the EuroBasket championship game. Juancho Hernangomez went off for 7 threes and was the player of the game. Both his name and that of Bo Cruz, his character from Hustle, were trending worldwide including among many people who somehow never realised that the man playing Cruz was a legitimate NBA player.
Spain’s communications team marched Juancho, who was at that moment the perfect ambassador for them to the Gen Zers that Glickman discussed, right past every non Spanish language media outlet. This was compounded by him not doing a press conference.
In a moment where Spanish basketball and the sport as a whole on this continent was guaranteed an easy win with a broad mix of content going out on all kinds of platforms, the Spain PR people figured they’d pass. It was a bizarre choice in any era but utterly bonkers in the modern day.
At a time when the NBA is doing all it can to ensure its stars are relatable, European sport is putting up glass walls.
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“We’re pushing away families, we’re pushing away women. We have to get a lot more diverse and appeal to more diverse audiences. That has to change or else we are going to be in trouble,” said Glickman.
“There is resistance by the people at the top of the governance pyramids but not across the board. My client, La Liga, has done an outstanding job embracing the need for change at some level. They’re beginning to do things that make sense,”
“Those who are millennials and on the older side of Gen Z, have to speak up and demand empowerment. There are Gen X decision makers making decisions that will impact the Gen Z audience. Those two things are not aligned and we have to demand diversity in the decision making process.”
The appetite from Gen Z for content is varied. I’m lucky for my age. I’ve covered a broad variety of beats as a journalist which has forced me to always look at ways to stay fresh, not just in the type of content I create but in the variety and locations of it. That’s why you are as likely to find a 2,500 word long read analysing a talk from a sports executive as a quick hit video on our YouTube or a full on documentary type of piece.
The audience is varied and it no longer has to settle. Every sub demographic expects to be catered to because it has a choice that means it doesn’t need to compromise.
“Content isn’t just a matter of the live game. With the NBA, they give you the option of watching the whole game or a condensed version of the game. The key is that those great moments can be seen within literal seconds of them actually happening,” he said.
Basketball can either adapt or it be the victim of apathy. That’s the choice and not just for Euroleague.
by Emmet Ryan