What is the future of sport in 2040? You’d be surprised how many big-time athletic directors have never thought about this. Well, maybe you wouldn’t. But Ray Anderson of Arizona State University, whose law degree is from Harvard, has. Recently he engaged in a “Delphic Oracle” exercise frequently used in futures thinking to focus CEOs on the long view. The idea is – suppose you were introduced to an entity who knows everything about how the future will turn out, but you only get to ask one question. What would be the most important thing you’d want to know?
Folk who participated in this brainstorming session included Ray Anderson, vice president for university athletics and athletic director of Arizona State University in the Pac-12; Rocky Harris, chief of staff, Sun Devil Athletics; Cyndi Coon, co-director and executive producer of “Emerge 2016: The Future of Sport 2040,” http://emerge.asu.edu/ , which will climax on April 29th in Wells Fargo Arena; and Joel Garreau, faculty in the ASU College of Law, affiliated faculty in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and founding co-director of Emerge and Future Tense.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Joel Garreau: Okay, imagine we are introducing you to the Oracle who knows everything about sport in 2040. But this entity will only allow you one question. What is it?
Ray Anderson: Will competitive tackle football exist in 2040?
Joel Garreau: Really? The amount of change we’ll see in the next 25 years – technologically at least, according to Moore’s Law – will be at least equal to the amount since the 1930s. Back then, the three biggest sports were baseball, boxing and horse racing. We’re talking about facing change that dramatic. And that’s your question?
Ray Anderson: I’m thinking about what drives fundamentally, financially, the rest of college athletics. Football funds and supports every other sport except for probably men’s basketball in most institutions. I want to know if the primary revenue driver for women’s basketball and lacrosse is going to still be there.
Joel Garreau: Your real question is how will college sports be funded in 2040?
Ray Anderson: Yeah.
Joel Garreau: You don’t really care that much about the football, you care about the funding?
Ray Anderson: No, I care about the football tremendously because I think football is a great game and hopefully will continue to be one, and it teaches life lessons and it’s really good for the folks who play it, notwithstanding the injury. But without football at the college level, all these other sports that we love to go see and enjoy, like women’s volleyball, they don’t exist because they can’t financially support themselves. College football and basketball have probably been the only two sports at the collegiate level that have been able to do that.
Joel Garreau: Never?
Ray Anderson: Ever.
Joel Garreau: Not even in the heyday of baseball in the ‘20s was that a big deal at the collegiate level?
Ray Anderson: I don’t believe so.
Rocky Harris: Collegiate football then was clubs basically going back and forth, Yale playing Harvard, and Williams playing Lehigh —.
Joel Garreau: Television fundamentally change the equation?
Ray Anderson: Big time. I think the driving question is what’s going to be the collegiate sport out there that’s going to provide the interest, that then will drive the revenue to support all the other sports.
Is basketball or baseball going to all of a sudden be perceived as a sport that’s become so popular that it’ll drive revenues to support men’s swimming and diving? Because that’s never going to support itself in my view. Track and field, cross country, women’s volleyball, wrestling, women’s tennis, men’s tennis. If it’s not at this level of men’s football, my concern is Mr. Oracle, Mrs. Oracle, what’s it going to be, and what do I have to start preparing for?
I’m not really worried about 2040, I’m worried about 10 years from now. Because unless there’s some dramatic changes, the trend line’s going to continue to go down. I think at the end of the day the quality of the tackle football that we’re presenting at the collegiate level and the pro-level, it’s going to go down, because there’s fewer skillful folks to choose from to come fill these rosters, because moms aren’t letting them play, fathers aren’t letting them play. You’ve got guys who made their living playing professional football who are now publicly coming out and saying, “I’m not so sure I want my child playing.”
When you get the Troy Aikmans and others who made a living doing it, but they’ve gotten their bell rung a few times, and now they’re getting the impact of it, they’re starting to verbalize, “Well, not so sure” –. It’s not 25 years from now for me.
Joel Garreau: So you have a dismal future in 10 years in the scenario you just laid out?
Ray Anderson: I don’t think you would do it on ticket sales alone. I think you have to have sponsorships, philanthropy. We have a lot of work to do. We have a lot to think about.
Joel Garreau: Is there any sport in your mind right now that could explode the way football did?
Ray Anderson: That’s the big—could it be soccer? Maybe, but soccer’s been making efforts here for years and years, and it’s popular, but it’s not supporting anything now in terms of being able to generate the kind of revenues. Does it have the potential?
Joel Garreau: Is there any possibility of something that is now minor or just on the horizon that might explode?
Ray Anderson: No. I see the MMA and all that martial arts stuff. But I don’t see that rising to the point of being able to be a sport at the collegiate level that could elevate to where it could have people fill in 60,000 seat arenas and spend money at levels that will then provide support for the other 25 sports that we provide here.
Joel Garreau: Of course in 2040, it’s not impossible to imagine a sport that attracts several billion spectators on a Saturday—
Ray Anderson: Yes. Because you’re reaching the whole world through your devices. Yes. Could that be ice hockey?
Rocky Harris: Hockey?
Ray Anderson: Hockey’s international.
Joel Garreau: Why hockey? Because of the violence?
Ray Anderson: It’s skillful though.
Cyndi Coon: Football on ice.
Ray Anderson: Men and women can play it, and compete at the highest level.
Joel Garreau: All right. You’ve got two variables here, the future of football and the future of television revenues, right?
Rocky Harris: Digital assets are at some point here and they will be as valuable as TV in the future—in the near future. Package it.
Ray Anderson: Yeah, package it. A lot of us—I still watch TV because I’m one of the older guys, but everybody else is on these laptops, these mobile devices.
Rocky Harris: The industry trend in the future with media is that fans have more engagement and control over what happens in the competition. Almost like fantasy football but live experience where you’re either virtually or really changing the way the game is played.
Ray Anderson: You want robots out there—
Rocky Harris: No, no.
Ray Anderson: – or you want live human beings out there? [Laughter]
Rocky Harris: Yeah, no, I mean, with virtual reality, at some point there’s going to be sports that are going to be managed by the masses versus a coach. That’s just my guess though, right?
The reason baseball was so popular in the ‘20s is, it’s a stat-driven game. Newspapers were media perfect for baseball because it was numbers; you could put a lot of information in there. As it shifted to radio, basketball became very popular because it’s quick paced. When TV came out, football was so well packaged with quick hitting moments. The future of whatever that media is will probably drive whatever the most popular sport is. Let’s take fantasy football and take it to a new level, which is not that you’re drafting players and they’re on your team, but we actually have in-helmet stuff that allows you to be one of the players for the game or switch among the players.
Joel Garreau: The fans?
Rocky Harris: Yes, as a fan you suddenly do that. So the game survives, but the funding mechanism of television suddenly is undercut by some new technology.
Joel Garreau: Concussions have been around for a long time. What’s new is functional magnetic resonance imaging that allows you to find out what is going on in your brain when you take a hit.
Ray Anderson: Therefore, the potential threat to the game because mothers and influencers and families are not pushing them out there at four, five or six anymore. Which means the interest in the next generation in football’s going to go down.
Rocky Harris: Football’s trending flat in the last five years. It’s been replaced by alternative sports. Even video games and other things.
Ray Anderson: Skateboarding.
Cyndi Coon: The X Games stuff. Snowboarding.
Rocky Harris: Now it’s more lacrosse and even volleyball – huge increase among female participants.
Joel Garreau: Have you given thought to the rise of intentionally dangerous games?
Ray Anderson: We’ve talked about that – whether we get back to that gladiator type thing. Hunger Games or something. That’s scary. I’m glad I will be gone—
– from this earth when that comes.
Joel Garreau: Okay, but automobile racing, people love the crash.
Ray Anderson: Absolutely. You lose, you lose big.
Joel Garreau: Suppose you have a technological breakthrough comparable to television. You have this immersion experience. Does that push things towards ever more edgy—?
Ray Anderson: Yeah, where you don’t have to die per se, but you are an actor and at some point during the contest it says, “You are now eliminated,” then you have to hit the ground. Like paintball.
Joel Garreau: Experiencing a gladiator sport without actually having to personally die?
Cyndi Coon: One million people at a time with their own helmet, glasses, whatever it is, all over the world.
Joel Garreau: Okay, so suppose the Oracle has just given you an answer to your question. The popular future is not going to be wussy concussion-proof football. It’s probably going to involve deeply immersive fan technology. That’s going to be monetizable like you can’t believe. There’s still a premium—a huge extra premium— on face-to-face – ?
Ray Anderson: For in-stadium and arena.
Rocky Harris: Right, the social component of it.
Joel Garreau: Okay, what do you do tomorrow?
Ray Anderson: I want to go to our innovation, our research and development, our folks who are over at SkySong, and get in front of it, and then take an equity position in all that new development. Because that will additionally drive us early into a revenue situation where we can, heck, hopefully endow the rest of these sports so we don’t have to worry about their finance going forward, and then be at the cutting edge of this and advance it, not just technologically, but make a whole bunch of revenue opportunity streams for this institution as the lead. That would be fun. Then to the extent that President Crow would allow some of us to take some equity positions personally – those of us in this room, we’d be doing that.