David Owen

I have been waiting for this year's PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Sports Survey for some time.

A snapshot of executive views from around the sports industry – on this occasion, PwC says it received 780 responses to its online questionnaire – I thought it would provide some much-needed insight into the pandemic's impact, and expected future bearing, on the sector.

The picture painted is not especially pretty.

For one thing, growth in what has hitherto been a pretty buoyant area is expected to slow markedly over the next three-to-five years, from eight per cent per annum in the recent past to 3.3 per cent.

It is worth pointing out here that PwC's sample appears to be fairly Eurocentric, with 45 per cent of respondents claiming to know the European market best, against 17.7 per cent for North America and just 1.6 per cent for Africa.

Be that as it may, that forecast for a halving of growth, more or less, comes with two further health warnings.

First, no fewer than 30 per cent of respondents are pessimistic enough to expect annual growth over this three-to-five year period to be "zero or below".

Second, many will also be concerned that much of the strongest growth – over seven per cent a year – is expected to come from the betting/fantasy sector.

The PricewaterhouseCoopers Sports Survey paints a grim picture of the pandemic's impact on the industry ©Getty Images
The PricewaterhouseCoopers Sports Survey paints a grim picture of the pandemic's impact on the industry ©Getty Images

This is partly a consequence of the opening of the United States sports betting market following the lifting of the federal ban two years ago.

Anticipated growth from other income streams lags far behind, as follows: licensing and merchandising 3.4 per cent; media rights 3.2 per cent; sponsorship and advertising 2.2 per cent; and ticketing and hospitality zero growth.

Also sobering is the expected duration of the COVID-19 crisis.

Asked when the industry would have "fully recovered" to pre-COVID-19 levels, nearly half – 43 per cent – said 2022, with almost the same proportion in total opting for a year between 2023 and 2025.

Plainly the warning that a vaccine would not provide an instant solution has been taken on board.

The survey pulls few punches about the sector's state of preparedness for a crisis that it estimates will trigger revenue shortfalls of between 30 and 40 per cent.

"The sports sector is just not used to external crises," it writes, "as its major blowbacks often come from within the industry itself (eg corruption and doping).

"This has shaken the sense of security and untouchability in which the sector has wrapped itself in recent years.

"In many instances risk management and contingency plans were not in place.

"Short-sighted funding, cash flow and cost management practices were drastically exposed."

As for the future, some of the findings are terribly interesting.

A large majority of respondents – 78 per cent – appear to think that digital transformation will be accelerated as a consequence of COVID-19, so we should expect this to happen.

Yet almost half seem to believe governing bodies will avoid making structural changes, focusing instead on short-term financial relief, ie what you might term the sticking plaster approach.

Strongest growth could be seen in the betting/fantasy sector ©Getty Images
Strongest growth could be seen in the betting/fantasy sector ©Getty Images

Most alarming for traditional-minded sports fans such as myself, a narrow majority of those questioned think – albeit when offered an artificial bipolar choice between two extremes – that the pyramidal system of sports is now "under existential threat".

I fear, in football particularly, that this assessment is correct, not least because it dovetails with other conclusions.

For example, the survey states, no doubt rightly, that the crisis is "widening the gap between bigger and smaller sports properties".

It was already a chasm.

PwC also points out that sport's "underlying vulnerability" and tumbling valuations have "further boosted the existing interest of private equity funds".

It goes on: "If transactions were to materialise, we would then witness a form of convergence towards the top-down North American model, where sports would increasingly develop under the wing of private companies driven by return on investment".

Having said that, the world rarely changes as quickly or as cleanly as management consultants might predict or even wish.

I was very struck that, notwithstanding the buyers' market for media rights that COVID-19 has undoubtedly accentuated, not far off three-quarters of respondents appeared to go along with the statement, "Premium live sports content will continue to generate value as a highly preserved and exclusive asset".

Furthermore, the proportion of those believing that the tech giants will acquire premium live sports media rights remains comfortably under half.

Are there any chinks of light?

Well, yes, a three per cent growth-rate is still faster than most countries, and, as the survey suggests, the crisis has engendered – needs must – a spirit of experimentation.

In this context, the report's authors are positive about the prospects for "hybrid" sports, channelling real-life performance into virtual competitions.

"All things considered," they write, "we believe that participation sports will have to go hybrid to overcome the downturn". 

This may be so, but I have difficulty believing in the long-term dynamism of most hybrid formats.

Premium live sports content is tipped to still provide value ©Getty Images
Premium live sports content is tipped to still provide value ©Getty Images

While they might amount to the least-bad option at present, much of the appeal of, say, a day at the Tour de France from a spectator's perspective, or a run-of-the-mill race for amateur bike-riders, resides in a day out with like-minded people in the open air.

Six months ago, we were inventing any excuse to Zoom, from the sheer thrill of it.

It has quickly become, for the most part, just another business tool which we tend to avoid where we can.

Hybrid formats will have their place, but I am a tad sceptical about their long-term income generating potential.  

For what it is worth, two tentative conclusions that I have reached during this eerie and humbling year of a plague that has now claimed over a million lives worldwide are:

a) Given the apparent link between physical fitness and improved survival prospects, sport for most of us will be a little more about doing and a little less about watching for the foreseeable future; and

b) while the very top footballers, basketball/tennis players and boxers will remain among the best-paid individuals on the planet, the number of fully professional athletes will shrink quite markedly.

The survey can be accessed here.