Friday Five: R/GA’s Kyle Bunch

My conversation with Ian Thomas of Front Office Sports, about the implications of COVID-19 on the sports landscape, from the earliest days of the pandemic.

Originally published by Front Office Sports on March 27, 2020:

As vice president and managing director of the Global Sports Venture Studio at R/GA Ventures, Kyle Bunch is tasked with helping partners like Adidas, MLB, MLS, and the Los Angeles Dodgers find new ways to improve the future of the athlete and fan experience through technology and innovation.

However, there has been no moment in the history of the modern sports business that has made it harder to predict what that future looks like due to the complete shuttering of the industry due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The preface that everyone has to give in this kind of moment is there is so much near-term uncertainty that it makes it difficult to even have a great sense of what the rest of the year looks like, let alone future years,” Bunch said. “Sometimes we can overestimate the short term impact while underestimating the long term impact, but it’s even hard to predict what consumer behavior looks like after this, or even what the sports calendar might look like going forward.”

However, in Bunch’s view, while there are questions around what is next for the industry, on the technology side, “it doesn’t necessarily create anything we weren’t already thinking about, but there is going to be a shift in priority.”

Bunch spoke with Front Office Sports Editor Ian Thomas about the role technology might be able to play in navigating a new normal, what innovations might become even more crucial, and if he believes technology investment will slow down in the industry.

Front Office Sports: Leagues were spending a lot of time trying to figure out ways to use technology to enhance the fan experience. That seemingly has gotten completely turned on its head – where do we go from here?

Kyle Bunch: I think there will be a refocus of the innovation agenda. For example, there has been a lot of usage of computer vision to assist in things like security and to create a more frictionless experience, while finding a balance between things like facial recognition and security. Everyone is trying to answer the question of how they can get lines to move faster and get fans in their seats quicker.

Well, all of a sudden, that question takes on a new life – having people linger on a line longer is now a different issue. Thinking about the applications of computer vision, is there a future where thermal cameras can detect if someone is running a fever?

FOS: I’d imagine that applies to the at-home fan experience as well. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver used his NBA tech summit address this year to showcase technology that could turn a room into the inside of the United Center, which seems like something that would be ideal when discussing the idea of having games in front of no fans.

Bunch: I was going back through some old notebooks as I was cleaning up my home office, and I saw some notes referring to the idea of a virtual sports bar from 12 years ago. We’ve all had those thoughts and ideas, but is this the time when it takes on a new priority as we’re in a world that, at least in the near term, we might be coming back to sports without being able to go to arenas, or even frankly to a sports bar?

We’ve waited for so long with VR, and I think everyone has seen the [Oculus Go] ad with Jonah Hill and Adam Levine watching sports together. That potentially seems a lot more appealing right now – is this an inflection point where we start to say we want that immersive experience that I don’t have to leave my house for? There is a real question if the value proposition of letting me stay home has increased because now I’m looking at the potential cost of going out in a different light.

FOS: It remains to be seen what the true economic impact will be from the shutdown on sports – do you expect leagues and teams to slow their spending on technology and innovation?

Bunch: People tend to fall into two main groups. You have ones that are very much active investors. If you look at our client partners, the Dodgers fit into that category. They’re owned by Guggenheim Partners, a company that is in the business of investing. In some cases, this may be an opportunistic time to get in there and work with different companies, especially those you know will be raising capital because they have to. In the last few months, those deals might have been hard to get in there and find because we were in a market where valuations were going threw the roof, and so much money was being thrown around.

Then you have those who kind of just jumped into this space, and maybe it’s been a bit more of a luxury thing that will fall by the wayside.

I think there will be an increase in acceleration because building a pipeline where you can pilot new technologies and innovations and work with thought leaders is one of the lower risk ways to stay ahead of the curve and innovate because most people don’t want to try to build some whole new system from the ground up.

If I were talking to senior leaders in sports, I would say that it’s definitely not the time to slow down, and it’s not the time to run out the clock and wait until we get back to the old world of sports. Now is the time to look at your strategy and make sure you’re well-positioned, whether through investments or partnerships with outside innovators that allow you to move quickly because the next six to 18 months are certainly going to call for you to be adaptable.

FOS: What is the impact on athletes in all of this?

Bunch: I remember a time about ten years or so ago when Shaq was an early adopter of Twitter, and how when he would reply to a fan’s tweet, or at the time give it a star, it was like the new autograph. I used to wait outside baseball games to get autographs, and now it’s more like ‘wow this guy retweeted me.’ I think we’ve laid this great groundwork where we are closer to the athletes than ever before, and now we’re in this moment where we all feel like we’re all literally in the same boat together. I think in the near-term, we’re going to see an expansion of that relatability even more, and that will play out across every channel – athletes streaming on Twitch, hosting Instagram Live videos, and just finding more ways of doing things like that.

We’ve already seen a major trend from a data standpoint of fans spending more of their sports-related time directly connecting to an athlete versus watching a live broadcast. I’m curious to see how that continues to evolve.

FOS: What do you think this break in live sports does to fandom?

Bunch: I think as we come out of this, everyone is going to have a different perspective, a different niche of the sport they love, and even who they appreciate watching and why. That may be because of a very human connection that they have forged watching an athlete who they didn’t really know, but now they have a connection because that athlete was out there talking to fans directly or was playing video games with them. There are also those sports that we might all go back to – within hours of that first AFL match I watched, I found my way to their website and started an AFL fantasy league.

It’s a totally different landscape – it is that moment when the cable goes out for a day, and you pick up that old comic book, and all of a sudden, even when the cable is back, you say I’m going to keep reading this. That doesn’t mean people won’t come back to sport, but I think it’s just going to sit within a different set of options for the average person, and hopefully, in that process, there are new fans that have new emotional bonds with a sport.