Kamran Rosen (reporting and research), Gary Bettman, Wendy Selig, Ted Leonsis, Future Cities Lab, Clay Coffey, Luke Bronson, Blaise Zerega, SF Elite Academy, Rick Abramson, Amy Latimer, Todd Merry, Chuck Moran, John Wentzell, Garrett Law, Peter White, Roger Noll, Mark Charles, Margaret Johnson
Paul Saffo, Salim Ismail, Aaron Frank
We set out to discover the future of sports, on the field and off. Barely had we begun when we noticed that the future seemed to be arriving way ahead of schedule. Scenarios we imagined could happen five to 10 years out instead were happening all around us.
The NCAA’s amateur commandment was ruled to violate US antitrust laws. The month after we talked with experts at Singularity University about the driverless car, Audi put its autonomous vehicle on the road to cross the entire country. A virtual-reality headset called Oculus Rift went from crowdfunding to a $2 billion acquisition by Facebook. (When one of us tried it, he was so hypnotized by the virtual world of the Rift that he fell backward off the stool he was sitting on, disrupting the Singularity University seminar going on in the next room.) World Cup television audiences surpassed NBA finals and World Series ratings.
Teenage video gamers started to receive college athletic scholarships, while others went pro and earned millions competing in e-sports tournaments. A female coach, Becky Hammon, joined the staff of the San Antonio Spurs. Another woman, Jen Welter, joined the Arizona Cardinals as an assistant linebackers coach. We learned that digital broadcast pirates had earned $220 million the prior year on their stolen feeds. The NFL announced plans to livestream a Buffalo Bills game on Yahoo!
Chinese scientists used a breakthrough technique invented in the US to edit the DNA of 86 human embryos, paving the way for the creation of genetically modified superathletes.
Things were getting wild.
Over the next 20 years, the entire sports industry will face a globalizing culture and rapidly changing tastes, demographics, and habits.
The primary driver of all this accelerating change, Moore’s Law—the doubling of computing power every 18 months—will give way to quantum computing. For the athlete, new genetic therapy will be available to make their bones unbreakable and their brains less susceptible to concussions. These advances will pave the way for huge jumps in performance—and a global debate over theoretical limits of enhancement. Star athletes with increasing financial and cultural power will control their own content streams and have ever greater influence over the management of teams and leagues.
For fans, it will be a new age of wonders. They’ll be able to access an unlimited number of games, not to mention the private lives of their favorite players, on a round-the-clock basis. Virtual reality will provide fans the experience of standing next to their sports heroes as the action unfolds around them. By expressing their collective voice through social media, fans will take part in decisions that were once made by small set of sports executives in boardrooms. Every fan will become a content provider: the amount of content streamed by fans from smartphones inside arenas will exceed the amount generated by official broadcasters—and will be seen by more people.
Leagues and franchises will inevitably have to abandon the safe harbor of traditional broadcast deals and embrace the perils and potential of the Internet. Non-broadcast media like Google, Netflix, Facebook, and, yes, Yahoo!, will provide new, highly personalized ways of watching live sports. Franchise owners will create their own Bitcoin-like cybercurrencies that blur the line between real money, loyalty programs, and gambling chips. Stadium designers will rethink the physical space that fans and teams inhabit. New open-concept megaparks that can handle up to 250,000 roaming fans will redefine game day.
We’re grateful to the Jacobs family for sending us on the first leg of this journey. We can’t give you a live tour of the future yet. But this report will serve as a tour of how the future is being imagined by the best minds of today.
Josh McHugh, Editor in Chief
Po Bronson, Contributing Editor
Ethan Watters, Contributing Editor