Morgan Campbell On Sportonomics, Sports Business Journalism And Tank For Wiggins


If you lived under a rock for the past 20 or so years, you might not be aware that the public’s interest in the business of sports has grown with every passing season. No longer satisfied with memorizing lengths and amounts of player contracts along with league salary caps, we’ve gone far beyond that over time with not only stories that creep into the business or “hard news” sections of our favorite mediums, but with dedicated platforms that satiate an increasingly high demand.

The latest foray into this arena comes from the Toronto Star, as friend of TSFJ Morgan Campbell hosts a new Web series, Sportonomics. With curiosity-piquing topics and clever interviews, Sportonomics is already establishing itself as a destination for those who want to see more about where and how the games are played. As Campbell said, “There is a growing appetite for stories that come from beyond the field, whether they deal with straight human interest or finance of whatever has to do with sport.”

After a trip to Buffalo where he chatted with Bills wide receiver T.J. Graham about the transition to electronic playbooks, Campbell spoke with TSFJ about the show, sports business journalism as a whole and the potential impact of Toronto’s own Andrew Wiggins as he patiently waits for Adam Silver to call his name in next June’s NBA Draft.

TSFJ: How did the concept of Sportonomics come up?

Campbell: Four years ago, I had a really short-lived weekly Web series called Fighting Words where we covered boxing and MMA. Every week, we did a video online because these UFC stories were getting a lot of clicks. When the plug got pulled on that, I got to do one-off videos in the meantime, but it took a while to get back into a series with regime changes at the Star and different directions with digital content. It took a while for the Star to get comfortable with weekly videos.

Last year, we pitched different ideas, and I pitched a sports business series. One day, the digital director, John Ferri, and I were talking, and he asked, “Well, what do you do?" I said I work in the business department, but I write a lot about the sports industry. He said, “Well, you think you could do a video series on that?” and I said, “Absolutely!”

TSFJ: Save for the newspaper’s resident curmudgeon, the sports television critic, it’s not often that you’ll see a prominent paper such as the Star dedicate columns and Web shows to the business of sports. Does the Star see Sportonomics as a way of adding something extra for its sports and business section readers, or is the show a way to attract those who would otherwise go to ESPN or Sports Business Journal?

Campbell: If you look at the different business sections in Toronto, the Financial Post from the National Post and Globe and Mail’s Report on Business both cater much more to the Bay Street crowd, which would be the Wall Street crowd in the U.S. At the same time, there are a lot of people who would like to read about business without being intimidated by all this (financial) jargon.

At the Star, there are a lot of us (in the business department) who came from different departments. Even though very few of us came from a strictly finance background, we all have an expertise that has a business element and the freedom of the editors to explore. It’s a matter of telling a different kind of story.

When you can write about the sports industry, you wind up adding a lot of color and excitement to a section that wouldn’t necessarily have it. If we’re going to go with the stereotypical business reader, speaking to men, mainly … well, men like sports and sports sections speak to men. Sports sections do speak to men, although Sportonomics will do stories that reach to women as well.

While there is overlap between us and the sports department, I have free reign to find a sports story with a business connection.

TSFJ: You stayed home for the first episode with a visit to the Air Canada Centre to take a look at the management of in-arena concessions. Fans have discovered that the premium dining experience has become a staple at nearly every major league venue across the continent over the years, especially after seeing the prices of food and drinks. As much as we gripe about the prices, did you gain an understanding on why sports venues charge so much for those very concessions?

Campbell: On the one hand, part of it is that they can charge so much because they can. Are you going to pay $2 for an apple anywhere else but a basketball game? You’re a captive audience in this arena, and what you have all around you are these really delicious, fattening foods, and you’re one of the few people in the arena that says, “Nah, I can’t eat all these french fries.” So, they say, “Well, you can have this apple for $2,” when you can go to the grocery store and get a pound and a half of apples for $2, but this one here costs you that much.

I understand why they do it, but at the same time, they have so many different options catering to the different strata of sports fans. You have the guy who can get the $90 steak because the company’s paying for it and the guy who’s bringing his kids and they go once a year. He just brought enough cash for the hot dogs and the poutine.

TSFJ: At least Stateside, there have been at least several sports business shows that struggled to find their traction on television. What stands out about Sportonomics that will allow the show to become the destination those programs wanted to be?

Campbell: We try to keep it dynamic. If you followed my writing, I take that same attitude to Sportonomics. What we don’t want is, week after week, boring people reading annual reports and giving us really dry numbers. What we want to do is tell stories creatively, get dynamic people on camera. The reason why we started telling sports-industry stories in the business section is to give people something a little more exciting and a little more engaging than most of what you read in a lot of business sections. A story where this aspect of sports industry is a starting point, but is exciting and engaging, it photographs well and videos well.

It’s different from the television shows because they’re locked in to time slots, but they’re not appointment television the way a game is. The beauty of the Web is that we publish every Monday morning, but if that’s not a convenient time for you, you can go whenever you want because we have a page with all of these episodes archived. The appetite for sports business journalism is only growing; it’s just a matter of tapping in to it.

TSFJ: So, I have to ask about Andrew Wiggins, the Canadian prospect that many expect to reach superstardom in the NBA after his one-and-done with Kansas. Of course, with his high school success, he’s been likened to a Canadian version of LeBron James, whose economic impact to Cleveland-area sports was realized when he was drafted by his hometown Cavaliers. What are your thoughts to any potential economic impact that comes with Wiggins?

Campbell: The thing we have to understand is that Wiggins isn’t guaranteed to come to the Toronto Raptors. It cracks me up to see fans talking about “Tank for Wiggins” because there’s a draft lottery.

What’s happening in Canada right now is that basketball’s profile in Canada is higher than it’s ever been. From a business standpoint, corporations are really taking notice. Whereas five, 10, 15 years ago, a corporation looking to use a sport to connect with potential customers would almost by default choose hockey first. A lot more are trying to get involved with basketball and with the Raptors, with Canada Basketball, because there’s this cohort with basketball talent, and Wiggins is at the top of that.

If he plays in the United States, he’s still in a good position to connect with endorsers on both sides of the border. A Canadian company might not strike a deal with an American player playing in the U.S., but a Canadian player in the U.S. is a different story.

There’s going to have to be a new face of Canadian basketball (Steve Nash is on the way out), and because Wiggins has so much more natural talent than any of the guys that came before him, [we expect it to be him]. But what we don’t know about him is — and this is crucial in terms of crossing over from a great athlete to a great “brand” and a pitchman — we don’t know what his personality is like yet. He doesn’t interview that often, and the folks at Kansas understandably are very selective about how much they make him available to the media because he’s under such an intense spotlight, much more than any prospect we have seen in a long time. LeBron James is a transcendent athlete, but he also has a personality. Imagine if LeBron was boring; then the branding of NBA and the Miami Heat would look a lot different.

TSFJ: If there is a dream show for Sportonomics, what would it be?

Campbell: So many aspects to this.

To keep stuff local, it would be finding Toronto’s best chicken wing and exploring how chicken wings and sports have become so attached. Funny that’s the first one that comes to mind.

Another would be to get people who may not be famous, but who are really good on camera and really have a lot to say about sports and business, and just have a conversation. Two cameras, me and so-and-so, maybe another Star columnist, might be a professor, might be an executive, might be somebody like (ESPN's) Bomani Jones. Two cameras, here’s a topic, Drake and the Raptors, let’s talk.

You can catch new episodes of Sportonomics with Morgan Campbell every Monday morning on the Toronto Star. You can also follow him on Twitter at @MorganPCampbell.

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