David Owen ©ITG

Restless - that was how I would sum up the atmosphere at the Sportel international sports marketing and media industry convention in Monaco last week.

Why? I think because even by the standards of this fast-moving sector, the crystal ball appears particularly cloudy at present.

The problem is those pesky kids. I would say that the jury is still out on whether sport will end up mattering as much to millennials as it has to the last couple of generations. What is not in doubt is that, having never known a world in which the internet was not a mass communication medium, their consumption habits are radically different, and markedly less inclined to involve the device that has been the staple of in-home entertainment in industrialised countries for around 60 years – the old-fashioned television set.

That in turn hangs a big question-mark over the business model that has enriched many sports and sport practitioners over the past quarter of a century. Since it is by no means clear what, if anything, would take its place, this is unsettling for a lot of people.

Which brings us to the media that the young people of today are using: social media.

With representatives of three of the big social media brands - YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, present and onstage in Monte Carlo, one could legitimately hope to leave the Principality with a clearer idea of what their medium-term role in the coming shake-up is likely to be.

How young people consume sport has undergone a big change in recent years ©Sportel
How young people consume sport has undergone a big change in recent years ©Sportel

Best-case scenario for sports federations and other event owners would be if Facebook and co simply appended their names to the list of OTT/digital and traditional linear media companies hunting hungrily for content, helping to propel prices for the most sought-after and popular events even further into the stratosphere.

Worst-case scenario would be if social kept its collective cheque-book steadfastly under lock and key, while enabling the circulation of so much, or so compelling, free content as to undermine the market.

As SportBusiness Group’s Frank Dunne pithily observed: "Dollars haven’t migrated as quickly as user habits". The disaster for sport would be if they melted away altogether.

After Sportel, I have arrived at the following - limited - conclusions:

1) Nobody, least of all the social media brand representatives, professes publicly to have all that much of a clue how things will pan out. For all their happy-clappy presentation style, indeed, I was amazed (and frustrated) at Twitter’s defensiveness.

They allowed no on-mike post-presentation Q&A and I was stopped from posing follow-up questions face-to-face by a Twitter UK "communications" man with the phrase, "We are letting the keynote stand for itself".

"Can I put the questions to you then?" I asked, whereupon it was suggested that I write them down and send them, presumably by email. This struck me as a bit like the Post Office advising me to use carrier pigeons. I stormed off.

2) I picked up no indication that the social crew are likely to be in the market for exclusive live rights to the biggest events any time soon.

What I suspect we will see is a further period of them fiddling around at the edges while sports execs and others study the data that social spews out with extraordinary profligacy. What these execs will be on the look out for is catnip capable of enticing more youngsters to try out broadcast partners’ expensively-acquired live coverage without persuading habitual live sports viewers that the social offering is now rich enough to enable them to switch off and/or cancel their pay-TV subscriptions.

"I don’t see social media as a primary distribution platform," said former International Olympic Committee (IOC) marketing director Michael Payne when I bumped into him among the exhibition stands. "I see it as a very powerful secondary distribution platform.

"Property owners need to convince primary rights holders to either release enough content to have a meaningful presence on social media or form a partnership.

"Otherwise you lose a generation."

I suspect too we might see more property owners opting for the security of long-term contracts with their main broadcast partners, if and when such deals are on offer.

This is not to suggest that social media brands will be entirely absent from the sports rights market. Twitter, indeed, is already simulcasting 10 NFL American football matches. But this deal is non-exclusive and has been reported by TVSportsMarkets to be worth only about $14 million.

Facebook's Dan Reed was among the speakers at Sportel who explained how social media could television drive audiences rather than take viewers away ©Sportel
Facebook's Dan Reed was among the speakers at Sportel who explained how social media could television drive audiences rather than take viewers away ©Sportel

A chart displayed by Facebook’s Dan Reed, which I interpreted to suggest that spikes in social media activity during a live event sometimes prefigured spikes in the actual audience for that event a few minutes later, implies that event owners and their rights-owning partners might well be able to navigate a path in which social media can be harnessed to lift rather than erode their live viewing audience.

But this will take skill and nerve, as the price exacted on those who get the balance wrong may be a high one.

For now there seems to be a consensus that live rights holders are more prepared to countenance a certain relaxation of restrictions – allowing, for example, circulation of short clips of dramatic incidents to try to drive social media users to view what remains of the live action - than a couple of years ago,

I think this may have been part of what Twitter’s Alex Trickett was getting at when he said, "the confluence of live and video is particularly exciting now".

Then again, it has been widely reported that viewing figures of some blue riband content such as the NFL and Premier League have been declining lately in their respective home markets. If that continues, it might engender a more defensive mindset, particularly from pay-TV.

Meanwhile, Reed’s observation that, "Athletes get more distribution on Facebook than leagues, teams and sports media combined", leads me to think that, in the short term, the big stars of the big sports will most probably find it easier to derive substantial financial benefit from their social media activity than other members of the sports firmament.

As one who believes Test cricket is perhaps the highest form of human culture, I also left Monaco with a sinking feeling regarding the prospects for long-form sport.

Gravity seems simply to be pulling against it - from two directions.

So much creative talent inside sports federations and other competition organisers seems at the moment to be channelled into devising new short-form formats.

By chance, I met a man from Singapore, Jeff Chue, who is commissioner of a table tennis league in which matches will be timed and last for 24 minutes. The number of 11-point games won by each player at that point will be totted up.

At the same time, social media users are showing themselves to be avid consumers of bite-sized formats such as video clips. "Video is by far the most engaging and viral content on our platform you can post," said Facebook’s Reed. While Richard Young, managing director of the NFL’s Shanghai operation, acknowledged that, "A lot of people do watch games purely by clips". Clearly the time difference between the US and China might have something to do with that.

Yu Hang, second right, chief operating officer of LeSports, a Chinese company, believes some sports need a radical overhaul if they are to have a long-term future in this new age ©Sportel
Yu Hang, second right, chief operating officer of LeSports, a Chinese company, believes some sports need a radical overhaul if they are to have a long-term future in this new age ©Sportel

If sport is increasingly boiled down to such marquee moments, it will not be in the least surprising if pressure continues to mount to make the intervals between them shorter and shorter, even if logic tells you that the key moments of an event are often shaped by the effects of pressure built up over time.

You have to ask yourself whether the next generation will any longer have the patience or attention span to bother with events lasting longer than the 90 minutes of a regular football match. "It is becoming harder and harder to keep people’s attention," as William Field, a partner with Prospero, a sports and media strategic advisory firm, observed.

When I mentioned these concerns to Yu Hang, chief operating officer of LeSports, a Chinese company that offers access to a wide range of sports content via its OTT service, he told me that in his view, "some traditional sports need to have a revolution of the format of the game.

"Those events specifically like cricket, or even baseball, which last for three or four hours, which is difficult for millennials. That’s my own view, nothing to do with the company."

For cricket of course three-to-four hours, as opposed to the deliciously extended 30-hour, five-day schedule of a Test match, is short form.

These are testing times.