If content were really king then creators would be treated like royalty
So I was thinking.
Thinking about one of those basic questions.
One of those issues which, in my experience, the digital dreamweavers Stateside consider more earnestly than those of us in Europe.
The position of digital storytelling in a sports organisation.
Now at this point, 45 words in and having set up the subject of this particular pontification, it is a legal requirement that we refer to the hackneyed old lie, “content is king”.
In sporting organisations, it has never been the case; no matter who you say is “queen” or “wearing the pants” in the additional clause.
On-field success and making money (in order to create and support the success) are joint monarchs.
The W and the $ rule.
If content were king, then access would not be restricted, interviews sanitised or opinion whitewashed etc.
If content were king, then creators would be higher up the org chart.
Hell, if content were king then creators would have at least a seat (if not a casting vote) at the decision-making table.
But that has never really happened among teams in major sports. Even worthy experiments have often withered on the vine once those who protect the W or $ furrow a brow at the merest hint of inconvenience.
Modern sporting CEOs at major teams tend to be drawn from the legal, commercial or financial realms. Most of the power in the tier below rests with the revenue-drivers, a group whose interest in content exists only as long as it serves their goal. T'was ever thus.
The content team exist several rungs further down the ladder. They will tend to be lesser in terms of age, experience and remuneration. They will measure their success by different metrics and the generation gap means they may struggle even to communicate effectively with the older Head of Departments who, having built their career in one media environment, now depend on content created by and for an entirely different generation.
All tiers would agree that the content teams are crucial as the driver of the club’s story; the tale that augments their success or keeps fans interested when the W is merely a memory.
But so many organisations have a muddled concept of their narrative, a dangerous situation in a world increasingly crammed full of attention-tugging content from all angles and where barriers to entry are minimal.
This occurs for a number of reasons. For starters, there are the silos and egos that can hamstring any senior management team. However, with the content creators mostly divorced from decision-making, clear consensus of the story is rarely a discussion point anyway.
So pursuit of the W often stands in for the story and the $ becomes the uncontested method for providing it. Everything else is subservient.
However let’s remember that, by definition, all but one team in every competition are losers. Even relative success (Wales in Euro2016, Bournemouth in the EPL over the past few seasons etc) is rare and suffers from an acute case of diminishing returns.
Yet, through all this, fans will not consider abandoning their team. Mostly, this is because of the story that they tell themselves about their club; one that the organisation should augment with content created demonstrating care, clarity and compassion.
The fans’ self-talk can be so strong that it can actually overcompensate in times of crisis. Sales of Leyton Orient season tickets reached a 16-year high last summer despite truly appalling results that saw them relegated out of the football league for the first time more than a century. Membership at Durham CCC went up last winter in the face of demotion and the imposition of a hefty points penalty that killed their 2017 campaign before it began.
In contrast, when the old Wimbledon FC morphed into MK Dons and moved two hours north, only a fraction of the fanbase followed despite no loss in playing status.
This all happened because Leyton Orient and Durham supporters could blame outside influences, errant ownership and the cricketing authorities respectively, so their story was fired up by a sense of injustice. Meanwhile Wimbledon fans told themselves that their situation was footballing franchising and a betrayal of their history to such an extent that they formed another club.
Even if there is a clear decision over ‘our story’, the decision-making is often top-down and rarely in collaboration with the team who are going to execute the plan on a game-by-game, day-by-day, minute-by-minute basis. Given the gap in generation, mindset and measurement of success, it is hardly surprising the narrative gets woolly.
There is no other way of putting it (and believe me I tried to find a better phrase), the content team are often a political football. Kicked around to deliver “a set of stories”, as defined by different departments, a number of different ways, not “the story” everyone should be standing behind.
The content team were appointed to create and, if they are any good, will always possess only a fraction of the resources required to fulfil their ideas. So burning them up to meet partner requirements will be galling. And if branded content is that important now, should that not be reflected in the organisation structure?
On the flipside, the commercial teams will be scratching their heads as to why their money-spinning work is not supported because $ should lead to W and that helps everyone.
Of course the creators are getting these requests from all sides. Everyone needs content and they are the obvious place to get it. But unless there is a proper structure, all departments are asking and, remember, the content team does not have the gravitas to just say no.
Add to that, the kudos of sports increasingly attracts big-hitters from business to the top positions. They can find their previous reach exceeds their current grasp. Going cap in hand to the content team for a favour is just not going to wash.
Of course, it should not be this way; the content teams should be cherished and nurtured, especially these days. But at the same time, let's be clear, they are not omnipotent, mini-geniuses or owners of the recipe for “secret sauce”. (If you are prepared to believe that even exists then send me £50 in the post and I will mail you the recipe.)
Experienced, commercially-astute executives are as essential to a team’s success as anyone off-the-pitch. The W and $ make the sporting world going around and creators have nasty habit of turning into peacocks.
However content is so much more important than it was and, when you are obsessed with it, you get to know the best ideas to copy!
Too often agencies or even consultants such as myself are the beneficiaries when there is a specific project at stake. (Or if a content team protests too much, as they sometimes will). It may have the short-term flexibility and economy but, in the long term, you should invest in those on your staff or at least listen to them more.
We have all nodded sagely when prominent digital marketers talk of modern business organisations being "content companies first”. So Uber is a content company who happen to have a car booking service, Airbnb is a content company who happen to have a room booking service etc.
If that holds true then sporting organisations occupy a position of stunning privilege given the stories they can tell and the emotions they can evoke.
The likes of UFC, NBA, MLB, and ONE Championship have performed incredible jobs in adapting their story to a disrupted media landscape. Of course, as a governing body, it’s their ball so they can take it home with them. And this is not about opening up access by tweaking your media guidelines anyway.
It is changing your business for the evolving digital landscape. Not thinking about content as a horizontal or vertical but viewing the discipline as “baked in” to every decision at its inception.
Your digital strategy, your data strategy, your commercial strategy, your communications strategy and your marketing strategy are just too interconnected to split up in such an arbitrary manner anymore.
It is just a strategy now with content the greatest single driving force.
So isn’t it time you treated your creators more like royalty?