Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

Angela Ruggiero has seen sport’s future - and it works. Digitally. More than a decade's worth of hard evidence backs it up.

As founder and chief executive of Sport Innovation Lab, a technologically powered market research firm helping sports to identify trends that can be understood and monetised, Ruggiero has a unique viewpoint on how sport is likely to develop within society.

She was a member of the United States ice hockey team that won four Olympic medals, including a gold at Nagano in 1998, before retiring in 2011.

Between 2010 and 2018 she was a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) through the Athletes Commission, and as chair served on the IOC Executive Committee from 2016 to 2018.

A graduate of Harvard Business School, where she did her MBA, of the University of Minnesota, where she took a Masters degree in Sports Management, Ruggiero went on to become chief strategy officer for the Los Angeles Olympic and Paralympics bid which was rewarded with the Games for 2028.

Now she is engaged in communicating the research from her company’s most recent piece of work, entitled the "Fan Project", which provides hard data to back up the idea that the way men and women are now enjoying, appropriating and consuming sport is changing swiftly and profoundly from the models that have been in place for decades.

Angela Ruggiero, pictured at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, has just completed a massive piece of work called the
Angela Ruggiero, pictured at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, has just completed a massive piece of work called the "Fan Project" which looks at recent trends in sport ©Getty Images

Ruggiero’s company, working for a dazzling host of top names in the sport including FIFA, the National Football League (NFL), the National Hockey League (NHL) and the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), has been able to analyse anonymised social media data freely given by fans of women’s sports that in some cases goes back more than 10 years.

It has clearly demonstrated the development a new, empirical model of viewing and enjoying sports that have not, in the main part, been part of the mainstream in terms of coverage. While the remit has been to look at women’s sports, it is a pattern that Ruggiero fervently believes is applicable to sport in general. It’s not a theory – the report is simply a reflection of something that has already evolved – what Ruggiero calls the "fluid fan".

"On the men’s side you’ve got, $100 million (£72 million/€84 million) for the NFL for 10 years,” she says. "Or Thomas Bach signs a long-term broadcasting deal or a new TOP sponsor comes in and everyone is like – big, stable cash flows. You pay attention to the numbers, the reach, the longitudinal stability.

"And you should, because that’s fantastic. But this new model does work on the men’s side, and right now we are not looking at it or quantifying it.

"What Sports Innovation Lab specialises in and focuses on is this fluid fan, quantifying this new age consumer that’s doing all these things. And we are literally saying: map their behaviours for the last four years.

"We are now measuring those behaviours. Oh and by the way in women’s sports people are already doing this out of necessity. You’ve forced them to do these things. You can’t watch it on TV. You can’t go to a game.

"But women’s sports fans are out there. They’re avid.  And they are the future of sport - and not just women’s sports.

"Naturally the men’s market will eventually be moving into this community-based monetisation model. Maybe the percentage of ticket revenue goes down, because you have more of an opportunity to make money on the OTT and digital.

"And your linear might go down, but again you might sell more merch. For fans of women’s sports there is a huge e-commerce merchandising opportunity that no one ever talks about. There should be a huge merch store of licensing deals for all of these groups.

"Because these fans love those athletes, love the athletes that are a reflection of who they are. Because it’s such a small sliver in the traditional market it doesn’t get a lot of attention but it’s a big, big market.

Athletes such as footballer Megan Rapinoe have become not just entertainers but influencers within world sport ©Getty Images
Athletes such as footballer Megan Rapinoe have become not just entertainers but influencers within world sport ©Getty Images

"It’s like ‘I’m a fan of Black Lives Matter, look I’m wearing a WNBA hoodie, or I’m about social justice, so I’m about Megan Rapinoe here in the US. It’s like: ‘That’s me, I’m like that athlete. They are freakin’ amazing, and I can reflect that I love that athlete even if they aren’t on TV as much, they are a reflection of me.’

"We know that you are more likely to spend on brands that you love and reflect who you are. People are spending money and aligning with their values now. You can really see that in the women’s market.

"So this report isn’t only about women’s sports, it’s a blueprint of how you make money for women’s sports today but how you will make money for men’s sports in the future.

"They don’t have to worry, because linear, and tickets, will always be a big source. But if you don’t unlock and understand the behaviours of these fluid fans you are missing something big.

"We are working with the NFL, the NHL, and Google and Intel - our client roster is very deep - and we are working across the whole ecosystem asking: how are fans changing.

"By understanding that data it can better help you build the right experiences for you to service those fans today and in the future. It’s about understanding how technology is changing.

"That’s women’s, that’s men’s, that’s all of sport. We are blown away by this research. There is such an opportunity if someone gets it."

Asked about how the process of obtaining these insights came about, Ruggiero says:

"This came out of us looking at the market consistently for the last four-and-a-half years. You’d expect me to say that we should invest in women’s sports. You hear athletes and ex-athletes all the time saying that.

"But let’s go look at the data and let it speak for itself. And what is great that the data aligns with what I have been saying, or what I have been feeling, and there is massive market for fans of women’s sports.

"This is men, this is women, any person that follows women’s sports, that has allowed us to see how they have participated. Which is very different to previous work on women’s sports that have been survey-based.

"Because in a survey you are asking people: 'Do you like women’s sports?’ And you are going to say ‘Yes.’ You might be asked when was the last time you bought a ticket, when was the last time you went to a game, or went to your sports communities?

"Our approach was let’s literally just study social behaviours. Let’s look at viewership. What have they actually done, what are they watching. So it’s way more objective than a survey-based model that inevitably has bias, which I believe gives this research more credibility.

"The 27 partners that we worked asked their fans on our behalf to give us their social media data. Which is a very profound thing. It’s the first of its kind, it’s all GDPR compliant,

"We said - if you believe in women’s sports, you care about women’s sports, or if you just want a free t-shirt, download your Twitter history or your Facebook. With new data regulations you have the right to your data and its portability.

Ruggiero, pictured at an NBA game in 2016 with IOC President Thomas Bach and former player Magic Johnson, uncovered some interesting new trends in her Fan Project ©Getty Images
Ruggiero, pictured at an NBA game in 2016 with IOC President Thomas Bach and former player Magic Johnson, uncovered some interesting new trends in her Fan Project ©Getty Images

"And those fans actually gave us their data. We could see what they were as far back in some cases as 2007. You can see their spikes in interest, what apps they are downloading, what players they were liking, what brands they were talking about, basically their online activity.

"It was all anonymised. We were asking fans to help us to this really critical study for the industry."

So what was in it for fans?

"They cared," Ruggeiro replies. "There’s this fanbase out there of women’s sports - and it is almost equally men and women. Men actually love womens sports.

"Too often the pattern has been that you underfund the women’s sports and then say they aren’t selling. You are using the wrong model. In any other industry you start with your consumer. Fans of women’s sports are different beasts, are different consumers and what this says is that they are actually the most fluid of all.

"Out of necessity they are forced to be digitally savvy because they find most of their content online on OTT, on Reddit, on Twitch, on all these platforms that if you are a men’s sports fan you turn on the TV, you go to the game, you do the traditional.

"And that’s fine, there’s a lot of money in that, but what we’re saying is that the pathway for the whole industry is understanding this fluid fan.

"You need to understand that the world’s heading towards this community-based monetisation model and it’s a case of, how are we going to turn these fans into revenue opportunities?

"These fans want to access athletes. These fans want to digitally co-watch. That was a really interesting part of our findings.

"With video games, everyone is in the sports industry and shaking their heads and saying, why is everyone playing Fortnite? You’ve created a digital community, a digital platform where people can come together and talk about…their school day. Yeah, they happen to be playing e-sports or e-games. Those fans actually want to do things together in a digital space - they are digitally savvy because they are fluid fans who don’t have one specific behaviour.

"I’ve been saying why isn’t there more co-watching in sports, why can’t you watch the Olympics together? Coming together and having a chat box for comments somewhere. There are companies that are starting to do this."

Ruggiero believes that the media is going to be increasingly shaped by this data to extend and modify its coverage.

"So what people are going to be doing in future is to produce more content that is around the athlete, that is both short form and long form,” she says. “And in the Olympic world they do it better than most professional sports.

"In the run-up to the Olympics you worry about the athlete, you care about the athlete, you understand their story. And that is really different from what we’ve found in the professional sports, where the focus is on the event and the statistics and the game playing.

"And we are saying these fans love the 24/7, 365 degrees behind-the-scenes. The athlete is the influencer, the athlete is the personality. And if you get that you are going to create more content for the fans that want that. They want the shoulder content.

"If you are going to distribute it differently you are not just going to rely on linear, because by the way when sports get just four per cent of the coverage it’s a chicken-and-egg thing where you are only on TV four per cent and people are saying well the fans aren’t there…

"It’s hard to be a fan of women’s sports. So rather than tackle the chicken-and-egg problem which I hear about all the time, it doesn’t matter, because avid fans are out there. So find the right content. Put it on more of your OTT channels or digital channels or social channels.

Angela Ruggiero believes more research needs to be done before a clear answer can be found as to whether athletes can receive permission to protest on the Olympic podium as Tommie Smith and John Carlos did at Mexico 1968 Games ©Getty Images
Angela Ruggiero believes more research needs to be done before a clear answer can be found as to whether athletes can receive permission to protest on the Olympic podium as Tommie Smith and John Carlos did at Mexico 1968 Games ©Getty Images

"That’s the community. They want this different contact, they want to comment around it. So it’s an online future. A digital future for sport. We are already seeing those behaviours in women’ sport.

"And the final piece in this is that you measure success differently. Typically it’s what is your viewership, its about reach, reach, reach. And we are saying it’s about quality and about depth of engagement with fans.

"We found that if you are a brand, and a sponsor of a women’s sports, that the brand affinity skyrockets. The levels of interest in your brand. Budweiser is an example. It had a 1,000 per cent increase in correlation with their sponsorship of the National Women’s Soccer League here.

"Year over year interest in their brand with these fans of women’s sports. So it’s not just a case that people are appreciative of you helping women’s sports. This is actually going to help you drive business.

"And when you invest in these values in the men’s game, like you do in the women’s sports, we have seen equal spikes of brand affinity. It’s the proof that it’s not just right thing to do, it’s good for business."

Given the depth of identification among "fluid fans" for the core values of the athletes they follow, how does Ruggiero feel the ongoing controversy over the IOC’s Rule 50, which forbids athletes to demonstrate on the podium in the manner famously employed at the Mexico 1968 Olympics, is going to play out?

"Our research within the Fan Project shows that, increasingly, fans want to understand who the whole athlete is. What are the things that they care about, what are their likes and dislikes, what are their values, what are the issues that they support?

"It’s not surprising that the discussion over Rule 50 is going to come to a head and it is already in the Olympic space. This issue isn’t going away.

"Athletes are expected to be and are increasingly not just entertainers, but influencers. They can speak up and drive people to the polls. They can speak up on social justice issues or gender issues, or whatever the thing is that the care about.

"Athletes have always been influencers but technology has enabled them to go direct to consumer and there’s now more of an expectation that they take that advocacy on in some way, that they show who they are and what they represent, that it isn’t just on their social platforms it’s in everything they do.

"My personal thoughts on this are I think the podium - well look, if you don’t have permission of the other athletes that are on the podium with you and you in some way take that moment away from them because of your protest I think it’s a tough one for me.

"Because if that’s your only moment in time and because of the issue the snapshot isn’t about you as an athlete it’s about something else. I can relate to that.

"But you may have permission of those athletes. Or you can decide that you just want to keep that one site clean and all the athletes agree on that, which I believe is what the IOC’s Athletes Commisison came back with. The recommendation was you can protest in other areas within the Village., on your own social media and other platforms that you have.

"So it’s a tricky one because I just feel like its heading in this direction and everyone is trying to figure it out. But a clean venue and a clean podium is something that the IOC has had for ever so it conflicts with what that is."

If athletes on podium all aware and accept a protest, as in 1968 Mexico Olympics - does she believe a podium protest could then be morally justified?

"That’s what I would love the next iteration of Athletes Commission research to address," she says. "Because right now the assumption is that you are taking that moment away from your fellow athletes and so that we should keep that venue clean.

"I would be curious to know what athletes think about this. Because you could do it individually, but there are repercussions on the Olympic Movement. It s moving in this direction so I just feel like, we need to learn more, we need to talk to the athletes directly.

"I’m encouraged that we are having more of those conversations, but again, if this is my one opportunity to win a medal, and someone takes that moment away from me without permission, that’s been I think a big part of the conversation."