Variety Intelligence Platform recently held a VIP+ Exchange webinar between AEW CEO, GM and head of Creative Tony Khan and VIP Senior Media Analyst Gavin Bridge. Khan is also the Chief Football Strategy Officer of the Jacksonville Jaguars and GM/Sporting Director of English soccer team Fulham F.C., bringing credible amounts of sports knowledge to the event. In case you missed it, Khan had plenty of insights on the key issues within televised sport in the U.S.
1. Sports Leaning into Alternative Distribution Platforms: When asked about sports’ current commitment to linear TV networks, Khan noted that leagues are well aware of the opportunities that are opening up, arguing that there isn’t a ceiling to the big increases seen recently for rights.
Mentioning both the NFL’s ongoing commitment to being available on broadcast TV, and AEW’s role on linear cable (which has subsequently grown with the announcement of new show “Rampage” and quarterly supercard specials on TNT), Khan said that linear remains the best way to reach the largest possible audience, but added, “Digital is going to be massive, there’s huge money in digital properties. None of us are blind to the possibilities. We want to make events available to as wide an audience as possible.”
When asked about the relatively slow embrace of sports toward free ad-supported streaming TV services (FAST) such as Pluto TV, Roku Channel and IMDb TV, Khan mentioned that getting to grips with what FAST offers has been difficult for some sports, noting that he himself had learned a lot from VIP as to what FAST offers.
“There are a lot of digital outlets right now, and there’s not enough penetration on these FAST platforms,” Khan said. “I think it’s inevitable that sports will move to FAST once everything starts moving that way, which will be a good thing as these services are very accessible.”
2. The ‘Forbidden Door’: Partnerships and Unpredictability in Sport. During the webinar, Khan discussed in detail how unpredictability in sports is key for viewers. “Unpredictable matches help viewership,” he said. “You definitely want unpredictability in whatever you're offering, and that’s one of the key strengths of the NFL.”
When discussing VIP analysis around how postseason games tend to be won by higher seeds, Khan added, “Tournaments like the NCAA March Madness offer the premise of unpredictability and see stronger viewership as a result.”
When it comes to AEW, Khan has unveiled a novel form of unpredictable content: partnerships with other promotions. Dubbed the ‘Forbidden Door’, Khan mentioned that AEW has made deals with rival organizations both domestically and internationally.
The result of this is that new talent and match-ups are often available on AEW shows and their partners, with surprise appearances adding to the spontaneity. Khan added that such a deal has additional benefits, saying, “A lot of AEW wrestlers hold belts in other companies. It’s great for us, it expands our reach, and it shows what great wrestlers we have.”
3. The Importance of Stars in Sport: The conversation between Bridge and Khan touched upon the notion that one of the reasons behind audience declines for some sport postseasons is due to the number of games being played and fan perceptions that the playoffs drag on forever.
“I’d totally agree with this,” Khan said when asked if there are too many postseason games in some sports. “One of the reasons the NFL postseason has held up is we haven’t made major changes to the percentage of games or added another big round or anything like that.”
The discussion turned to what would be needed to bring fans back to watching games. Khan mused that audience is related to having major stars on teams, saying “If you have stars you can still draw, and stars can draw across anything.”
When asked how a league could create stars in order to boost interest, Khan explained, “You can create stars, but it happens gradually and not overnight. It’s hard work and a lot of factors have to collide to bring a star about. But the more popular a league is, the easier it is to create more stars, with the NFL a great example.”
Another way to use stars is to borrow them from another sport. There hasn’t been a successful player active in two major sports since Bo Jackson in the early 90s, but wrestling has traditionally offered stars like Dennis Rodman or Kevin Greene an outlet between seasons.
Khan’s AEW recently brought in ex-NBA star Shaquille O’Neal for a match on AEW Dynamite, the first time in five years that a sports star participated in a major match-up (the last appearance was also Shaq, in 2016 during WWE’s Wrestlemania).
When asked what the impact of using crossover stars was, and whether such appearances can drum up interest and create spectacles, Khan said “It’s a great tool to bring in fans. We had a huge audience and great engagement when Shaq appeared on our show.”