NEW YORK — The stars turn over, uniform designs head to the dust heap, even franchises change cities.
But for much of the modern era, sports fandom has remained fundamentally the same, evolving only incrementally when it moves forward at all. Fans may have different relationships with athletes today thanks to social media. But the experience of watching, consuming and rooting for teams isn’t that different from 25 years ago.
David Stern has some ideas to change all that.
Imagine, the former NBA commissioner says, if virtual and augmented reality could allow TV viewers to switch camera vantage points at will, so that we’re suddenly hovering over a thicket of arms tangling for a rebound or hanging out next to a quarterback as 300-pound linemen close in.
Or if on-screen statistics could flash player biometric information like heart rate and lactic-acid levels as casually as they do assists and free throw percentage, turning the human body into the latest sports data set for fans to argue about.
Maybe a single group of network-hired broadcasters will also be a thing of the past. Games instead would be called by hundreds of citizen commentators with their own styles and interests, available to fans at the swipe of a finger, a kind of in-game spin on podcasting.
Or numerous other modifications (it’s impossible to talk about sports' future without discussing gambling , for instance) that will zoom the fan experience quickly ahead, personalizing, socializing, immersifying and commoditizing games in mind-scrambling ways.
“First we watched broadcast, then we had cable, then satellite, then social media,” Stern said. “Now technology is going to make us evolve and improve far beyond that."
Since leaving the NBA five years ago, Stern, 76, has surprisingly been remaking himself as a digital visionary — an angel investor, godfather and all around-kingmaker of a radical sports future. Rather than fade into a golf-dappled retirement as so many of his counterparts have done, he has stepped behind the sports curtain in a bid to aggressively shape the years ahead.
Stern’s second act suggests a potential new day for sports consumption, one that will be as scary to some as it is thrilling to others.
It certainly won’t be easy, or simple. But if Stern has his way, the coming years of athletic consumption will look as different from today as Americans at a contemporary sports bar do from Depression-era fans huddling around a radio.
On a recent afternoon, Stern was at his office in midtown Manhattan, a warm living like-room space not far from Central Park. Adorning the walls were mementos of a life in sports and beyond: basketballs from championship games, photos with the likes of Nelson Mandela.
As the commissioner who helped usher in the modern era of sports fandom, Stern knows a thing or two about anticipating the future. Stern transformed the NBA from a niche league to a global powerhouse over a three-decade tenure as commissioner that ended in 2014.
His NBA résumé, though not without controversy, went deep. With talent like Michael Jordan and LeBron James at his disposal, he helped build the modern sports-entertainment architecture: its worldwide reach, its national-television ubiquity, its inextricability with Madison Avenue.
His new act, though, is a different matter entirely. The challenge now isn’t managing a vast empire but peering into a crystal ball to determine where the next one might be built; it’s more shoe leather research than shoe-endorsement deals.
Stern has put millions of his own fortune into more than a dozen start-ups. He regularly attends these companies’ meetings, gives their entrepreneurs advice on navigating the network and league minefields and often digs into his own Rolodex to make calls on their behalf — all to serve a vision of how sports should be experienced in the years ahead.
“You have to look to the future,” he said, succinctly summarizing his personal philosophy, “or you die.”
Though on the verge of knee-replacement surgery, Stern has continued to travel from his home in Westchester County to the office, just a few blocks from where he commuted for years to NBA headquarters.
The NBA gig came with a maintenance quality in its later years — making sure a billion-dollar brand was on-track, whether by keeping TV rights-holders happy or, more controversially, keeping the players from dressing informally. (That dress code was announced in 2005.) Basketball was largely a legacy business; there wasn’t much room to innovate.
His current role takes a different shape, offering the chance to think about what the future would look like. (Stern declines to offer dollar figures but says that his stakes are mainly in the single-digit percentages and that many of them are doing well. He was nominated last week for the prize of “Outstanding Investor” by the influential publication SportTechie.)
Stern says he didn’t intend to move in this futuristic direction. He began his post-NBA career just looking to extend his knowledge base. He first put some money into Fubo, a direct-to-consumer live-sports service and one of his portfolio’s most traditional assets. It soon snowballed into a much deeper engagement.
“My initial view was i wanted to understand where sports was going,” Stern said. “Then I just wanted to see what VR is, what artificial intelligence is, what wearable technology is. And when you have that knowledge, you start to see the ways they can be brought together.” He soon had invested in 13 companies, many closely held, serving as adviser and board member to many of them.
A wearable, personalizable future
With their implicit promise that athletic performance can be more perfect and the fan experience more immersive, Stern’s companies offer some radical propositions.
Among the most intriguing is Sportscastr, which allows anyone to call a sporting event and then broadcast it to the world. Kevin April, the company’s CEO, believes there is a market for what is basically the sports equivalent of narrowcasting — a German who can call a Dallas Mavericks game from a Dirk Nowitzki perspective for a Teutonic diaspora, say, or a three-point tactician who can commentate on a Warriors game focusing exclusively on the form.
Basically, it’s taking a conversation that’s already happening haphazardly and parallel to the game on social media, and turning it into a more integrated audio commentary. (April said that Sportscastr’s app exists mainly on a second screen at the moment, but the company is negotiating with networks to integrate the options within a broadcast.)
Stern said that despite the fact that networks that pay sports leagues billions hold an interest in professional broadcasters; this could all change when they realize their younger audience doesn’t value broadcasters the same way.
“I walk into a room and hear Marv [Albert] calling a game, and I think God is in his heaven,” Stern said. “But that’s not what people who would otherwise be playing video games care about. They want a personal experience.”
Also in Stern’s portfolio is Whoop, a wearables company that takes countless measurements of the human body. 100 times each second, every second of the day, making those Fitbits seem like a lazy annual trip for a physical.
The idea is for players to wear them all the time, with the Whoop then spitting out info for coaches and trainers to act upon.
Whoop, along with the in-game wearable firm and fellow Stern investment ShotTracker, also has a major fan application: In a future world, fantasy players, fans and gamblers can access the information too, then use it to improve their own decision-making.
If that seems like information overload, company executives would like to have a word with you. “People didn’t think fans wanted fantasy information either, and look at how common that is now,” said Mark van Deusen, a Whoop executive. “Imagine you can judge a kicker’s heart rate when he steps up to take a game-winning kick. Who wouldn’t want that?”
Meanwhile, VR is a hugely promising medium, putting viewers inside a game in entirely new ways.
It’s also, unfortunately, a largely theoretical medium, as anyone who has scoured for evidence of massive adoption or tried to fire up and strap on a brick-like device has figured out.
Stern has found his way in with LiveLike, a New York-based company that allows viewers both to commune with friends in a virtual luxury box and switch up viewing angles of the action. (The company has a deal with Fox to power its VR efforts.) During the network’s broadcasting of the World Cup last summer, LiveLike allowed viewers to hang out behind the goal and watch penalty shots fly at the keeper.
Stern remains skeptical about the technology’s unwieldy hardware but says that its ability to immerse viewers can provide plenty of value.
And of more literal value: gambling, which builds into the future the possibility of economic incentives. With the Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that struck down a federal statute banning sports gambling, a whole new layer of start-ups has been feverishly preparing for the states that will legalize it.
This extends, Stern says, beyond results to in-game turns, known in the industry as “prop bets,” so that every at-bat, field goal and power play will be watched intently across the country by viewers with a keen interest in their outcome.
Among those outfits is the Stern investment RotoQL, a data-crunching and crowdsourcing platform that, while created to give fantasy players information, can easily be converted to gambling use.
Justin Park, the company’s CEO, said RotoQL’s offers data that anyone with a stake in a game’s outcome would wish for.
“The speed of our software generates 100 optimal lineups within a fraction of a second,” he said. “You can’t get that in too many places.” Among its other uses is asking subscribers how a given player might perform in an upcoming game, providing a gambler — er, fantasy player — the chance to instantly know how hundreds of other knowledgeable people feel before making a choice.
Betting the under?
Yet for all the tantalizing possibilities these companies present, there is reason to think they could take years to catch on, if they succeed at all.
That’s true because many fans may not want the fundamental experience of sports fandom to change; not for nothing has the experience stayed so similar in a time of tumultuous upheaval in other parts of the entertainment landscape
And that’s true because of a dizzying number of questions surrounding each of these applications.
For instance, many of the pro leagues have been wary of allowing wearables during games. In the NBA, the players union has opposed them — thus far successfully — fearing such information could be used against free agents in contract negotiations. Building the future is a lot easier to do in the realm of a VC than on a basketball court.
Meanwhile some purists are likely to object to widespread gambling as antithetical to the spirit of fandom. (Stern says he and other entrepreneurs are simply getting with the times: “I’m neither concerned nor am I excited. I’m a realist.”)
The idea of podcasting games is also fraught, not only because it’s an open question whether fans will want an army of amateurs but because the networks themselves have financial reasons to fight the change. They have invested years of relationships and hundreds of millions in fees to pro broadcasters; encouraging the competition may not be high on their list.
Stern has called networks to reassure them, saying he believes Sportscastr’s citizen broadcasting could well strengthen their ratings and increase the exposure of their games, not limit or undermine them,
(Miheer Walavalkar, the chief executive of LiveLike, says the former commissioner has ensured that the company is taken seriously in more stodgy traditionalist quarters, where an established business model and still comparatively strong television ratings, could keep networks from innovating.)
Experts say that, as a result of many of these initiatives, sports consumption will undoubtedly change. It just may not be as dramatically as Stern and other dreamers hope.
“Some of these start-ups will certainly find that their ideas catch on,” said Patrick Rishe, the head of the sports-business program at Washington University in St. Louis. “And some may find the public will judge them as gimmicky and they’ll go away.”
Of course, for some fans the bigger fear is massive success. Is it too much to ask that the purity of the game be preserved, protected from those with overfancy camera angles, gut feelings on prop bets and information down to the last sweat gland?
Stern says he hears those concerns but still thinks they’re asking the wrong questions.
“There’s going to be a range of interests, and I think sports can serve all of them,” he said. And besides, he added younger fans need to be served in this way if they’re going to stay in the fold.
“We have so many new ways that people, especially younger people, can interact with sports.” If these seem too fanciful compared to where society currently sits, that’s to be expected, he said.
“Sports is always the canary in the mine for both improvements and developments in society.” If that means a few wings get clipped along the way, Stern doesn’t mind. Enough people will always want to bet on them. Or watch them fly in VR.