Robbie Spargo discusses how communicating the entertainment factor of sport is critical to its longevity

Robbie Spargo Little Dot Sport

In May last year, Alex Horne (creator of Channel 4 show Taskmaster) staged a charity football match at Chesham United featuring comedians and footballers, which started with a penalty shootout, featured one player carrying an egg in their hand the entire game, and had a giant inflatable duck invade the pitch for 5 minutes in each half. Football’s sacred rules were violated, in the name of entertainment.

Contentious as it may be to say it, entertainment is at the root of any sport’s commercial success story. What is it that drives the scale of engagement with sport that inspires the big investments made by brands, private equity, and broadcasters alike?

Sadly, it’s not the local communities (always limited in size by the local area boundaries); it’s not the scientific aspect of elite athletic performance (which becomes too academic too quickly); it’s entertainment.

For a definition of what makes good entertainment, look no further than the standout TV show of 2024, a show of purest entertainment, The Traitors.

It has characters with motivations, who can be heroes or villains, sometimes both to different people. It has jeopardy and tension. It has a myriad of plotlines. And all of this means that people want to talk about it.

Sport has all of this in spades, and the conversations it creates used to be amplified deafeningly by mass media channels. However, as audiences’ media consumption fragments across endless platforms, formats, interest areas and publishers, these storylines have almost certainly become harder for audiences to latch on to.

Navigating this new landscape and communicating the entertainment factor is critical to sport’s longevity.

Rightsholders place a lot of pressure on themselves to make up what is being lost via their own channels, but suffer from the inevitable bind of needing to maintain a certain level of neutrality for their key stakeholders (i.e. teams and athletes).

Furthermore, the content, types of story and even the ‘storytellers’ (the talent) required to gain traction on these platforms often varies subtly but importantly from traditional media channels, which the sports have become innately set up to service.

There are many examples of ways this challenge can be navigated, but one group doing so successfully could offer a lot of lessons quickly, and these are influencers.

Despite much sneering of traditionalists, KSI and Logan Paul sold 1.3m PPV streams of their fight, including to swathes of non-boxing fans. KSI’s influencer boxing promotion outfit Misfits Boxing has now got a long-term deal with DAZN.

In September 2023, The Sidemen staged a sell-out charity match with 67,000 attendees and 2.6m watching live concurrently online. The teams were entirely composed of YouTubers such as Chunkz, MrBeast and iShowSpeed.

In Spain, Gerard Pique’s King’s League takes this further, with weekly 7-a-side games featuring streamers and the occasional professional, all distributed on social media, with behind-the-scenes access to managerial conversations, owner decision-making, player transfer negotiations – some of which literally take place in an online forum.

There are two main things that these events have in common, which it may be possible for traditional sport to make use of to reassert itself as the dominant entertainment proposition, with the scale it merits.

First, these events and everything to do with them are fundamentally creator-centric. Creators are at the centre of the format, the content, and even the distribution. This can mean one of two things for traditional sports. Firstly, they could use influencer partnerships in a more radically creator-centric way, right at the heart of the action – in the dressing room, at the training ground, with the owners – not just once, but year-round.

They should then let them distribute the content, without much cleansing, to their own channels.

It’s a radical thought, but one that could breed swathes of new fans with lifelong attachments. Alternatively, there might be an existing athlete who can take on this role, such as the next Ben Foster, who can authentically show access-all-areas, both on and off the field of play.

Secondly, creators are excellent at playing with traditional tropes in the name of entertainment, in a manner not dissimilar to WWE or The Traitors. There’s a suspension of rationalisation required from the audience, but in return they get a great story to engage with.

KSI and Logan Paul took their (already fantastic) pre-bout media slanging online, calling each other out in videos on their social channels, despite going on to become close business partners and friends working on the viral energy drink Prime.

Kings League adds ‘Secret Weapons’, which unfairly advantage players or teams at any given moment, even though the principle the league is based on is that the best team wins.

Tweaking rules or formats is a long legislative process which may not actually enhance an established sport, but what if there were feeder or marketing events that did so - even just as one-offs? Could that help open doors for a generation of gamers used to quirks and caveats – not to mention the brands that want to reach them?

Fiddling with the perceived sanctity of sport, its protagonists and operations ,feels radical, hard to accomplish, and unsettling. What this new generation of disruptive influencers have shown is that the prize for such radical thinking might be hugely significant, particularly if your goal is attracting and engaging new fans.

Robbie Spargo is managing director of Little Dot Sport.