So South by Southwest is adding a sports component. That’s pretty big news, and something I must comment on given my a) previous work with SXSW, b) passion and knowledge of the sports industry, and c) constant monitoring of all things that may advance Austin’s creative and entrepreneurial scenes. I should preface this by saying I believe the fact that most of their directors are men leads me to believe this move makes way more sense than what I was trying to do with lobbying them to add an official, fully-budgeted style component because men (at least Austin men) are far less familiar with GQ and the like than Sports Illustrated and such.
Regardless, the context I can lend start with my previous work with SXSW. Many of you know that I was the co-founder of Style X, the official style showcase of SXSW in 2011 and 2012. I conceived of Style X in late 2009 when I was launching Sneak Attack and shared the idea with Brent Grulke – the co-founder and then-creative director of SXSW even before I started working with Jon. Brent liked the idea enough for me to get a meeting with one of the directors and Brad Spies. Brad and I hit it off immediately and I’ve become good friends with him. I think he’s the smartest, most creative person at SXSW and I’m not just saying that because we’ve become friends. I’m saying that because after working with SXSW pretty intimately for 2.5 years of my life I learned that SXSW’s core business isn’t really that creative or entrepreneurial. It’s a convention / conference business. They make money selling badges then selling sponsorships to target those people who buy the badges then having those sponsors show things (usually new products or technology or films) to those people who bought badges. It’s a cycle of creativity, but the company SXSW itself hasn’t really been the key contributor of that creativity for a decade now as much as it’s the house with all the rooms for creatives to play in. No small feat, but you must look at their business through this lens to understand why sports makes sense.
While, Style X made SXSW a fair amount of net income (profit) both years – no easy task for a first-time endeavor – and generated considerable press…which has further enabled SXSW to monetize through both badges and sponsorships to fashion brands, it wasn’t considered a runaway success by SXSW’s higher ups. There are two reasons for this: 1) we were outsiders. Since I was an outsider rather than a SXSW employee, the higher ups had an entirely different set of expectations and justifications for success and going forward than I anticipate they will apply to the new sports component because Rebecca Feferman, the woman spearheading the project, is already on the staff and has fought the internal fights, lobbied to the directors and proven herself to them, and 2) the sports component will have the benefit of having learned from Style X even more recently than Music, Film or Tech, about how to make it work, where to scale back, where to invest, where you get more press, how to market, etc.
That being said, my passion for sports (not to mention I’ve worked for/consulted everyone from the Texas Longhorns and Pac-12 Conference to the Beijing Olympics and ESPN X Games) leads me to believe SXSW has no choice but to view this new sports component as a far more natural fit than an official style component because a) Austin is on the verge of becoming a major alternative sports hub thanks to Formula 1 and ESPN X Games and b) the media dollars in sports are so much greater than the media dollars in fashion (e.g. ESPN is worth billions while Vogue is worth only hundreds of millions), and b) that sports, unlike fashion, speaks to SXSW’s pre-existing male-dominated audience (both internally at the director-level and externally) which means they already have a pretty significant baked in audience to sell badge upgrades and sponsorships to whereas we were really trying to help SXSW attract more females with Style X (something we accomplished).
Overall, what this means for SXSW is that they are realizing that Music, Film and Interactive no longer represent the areas of growth for them…at least not in Austin (which is why V2V took place in Vegas, instead). Now, SXSW has to start killing itself like any smart company by creating new avenues like Eco and Edu and Sports to leverage and target trendy audiences and monetize through the corporate sponsors dollars that are being pushed into those areas.
For example, brands like Pepsi and Target and Bud Light know that SXSW Music may not be a better investment than, say, Lollapalooza Festival, but SXSW overall may reach more of the masses because of its social media influence and reach, its timing (March gives brands more time to build in campaigns than Q3 and Q4 where experiential budgets tighten or get more detailed in advance of the holiday season), its relative low cost compared to TV advertising, and, most importantly, its continued ability to attract some of the biggest names in the world be it Bruce Springsteen or Mark Zuckerberg or, now, Bill Simmons aka ESPN’s Sports Guy.
I’m a fan of SXSW, but I think the next 2 or 3 years are going to be critical – and could go either way - because holding onto people like Brad and Rebecca and Lizzy Newton, another friend in the Music department, is only possible if the directors give them new and bigger opportunities to pursue their passions because – to my earlier point – their core business is actually rather boring: conferences/conventions. That’s something I learned working with SXSW first-hand, and more recently in the tech industry where top talent leaves companies like Bazaarvoice the moment they go public because most of the interesting problems are either a) gone or b) being handed to non-creative, executives who’ve “been there, done that” instead of young, energetic, highly-motivated creatives.
The sports industry isn’t really known for being full of creatives, per se, so this will be a bit of an odd match for SXSW, which really is like spring break for creative professionals. Still, the fact that SXSW is smart enough – perhaps even smarter after the early success followed by internal disappointment of Style X – to know that there are many new avenues to go down is a good sign. It means that Brent’s passing didn’t have to mean the passing of SXSW’s creativity either, it may just mean the passing of the torch to people who don’t have director titles, but bring the same kind of energy and passion that Roland and company brought way back in the mid-late ‘80s when SXSW was created or in the early-mid ‘90s when Film and Interactive were introduced.