During a recent rebrand of the IMG sports marketing agency heavyweight, the final integration of the Seven League digital consultancy into its wider structure took place.
Seven League started life as an independent agency in 2012, before being acquired by the Mailman brand in 2018, with Mailman, in turn, being swept up by IMG’s parent company Endeavor in July 2021.
At that point, Seven League became part of the overall IMG portfolio, as the digital arm of the IMG Media sector. Through the rebrand, its original name has now been retired, and the transition to a cog in the much larger overall IMG wheel was complete.
Lewis Wiltshire joined Seven League in early 2017 as a consulting partner, before the Mailman deal, and then became the agency’s chief executive in July 2020.
As of September, he is now the senior vice president and managing director for digital at IMG, having previously held leadership positions at the UK’s BBC public-service broadcaster, and then for four years at social media behemoth Twitter (now X).
Three months on, he has talked to Sportcal (GlobalData) in-depth about the adjustment process that has taken place over the last few years, the changing role of digital content within sports, what the IMG digital arm is now trying to achieve when working with clients, and the future direction of an industry sector that has changed beyond recognition in the last decade.
Wiltshire (pictured), starts by assessing how the integration into the IMG empire has gone so far, firstly insisting that it was the "right thing" to become part of IMG.
“While being proud of what we’ve built, it reached a point where we needed to be part of an organization such as IMG. Nobody else with our digital expertise has access to IMG’s scale, and nobody else with IMG’s scale has access to our digital expertise," he says.
He explains that he and the Seven League team “were working up to the rebrand for a couple of years, and always knew there was a point when we would move on from the Seven League name.
“We worked to make sure that shift felt natural to our clients and not a seismic change. Actually, we spent so long in advance speaking to rightsholders as IMG digital and using their branding that when we did retire our own brand, it felt natural.”
Wiltshire says while not all IMG media clients now avail themselves of the digital services on offer, there are plenty who do, adding: "They don’t all take everything we offer but they tend to pick a range that suits them.”
In terms of how Wiltshire believes Seven League has affected the agency, although he doesn’t want to boast of their achievements, he says: “I do like to think we’ve had an impact … As the latest addition to the IMG brand, it’s inherent on us to be a force for good and transformational change hopefully.
“On the other hand, we’ve come into the business that pretty much invented sports marketing in the first place, so we want to honor what has already been created.
“To bolt a digital specialist onto that, and work with people such as the executive team here, is a privilege for me. To see the full range of services they provide here, and under the wider Endeavor umbrella, was something I hadn’t necessarily been expecting.”
Wiltshire, before joining Seven League almost seven years ago, was the senior director of media partnerships at Twitter, while from 2009 to 2012 he held senior editorial and social media positions at the BBC.
When invited to consider how the role of digital as a whole has changed within the sports industry during the last 15 years, he says there has been a continuous evolution in the mindsets of rightsholders, and “we’re well past the point where a serious rights holder would even consider not having a top-tier digital presence as an essential part of their offer to fans.”
He adds over his 25-year career, he has seen the status of digital in sport become gradually more and more respected, albeit "not in a smooth line of evolution, though.”
The cycle that every new technological development – AI, VR, e-commerce, mobile ticketing – in the sector goes through, according to Wiltshire, is: “A wave of cynicism, followed by acceptance, followed by realizing how it can be utilized in the sports industry, followed by a normalizing process.
“Social media in its early days was derided, for instance, and we’ve gone from that stage to the creation of social media giants that have changed the world in all sorts of ways.”
Given the sector is a continually evolving one, and that new social media platforms and online start-ups seem to be springing up en masse at the moment, how does the IMG digital team stay abreast of the latest industry developments?
Wiltshire explains that inside IMG Digital there is a digital research team that reviews the ever-changing sports technology landscape, “and we provide this as a service to our biggest clients, giving out advice on what other major sports organizations are doing and if our clients could take similar approaches to certain issues.
“There’s a team here which reviews innovations on a daily and weekly basis.”
However, the firm “does not start by offering specific technology solutions – instead, we begin by exploring the specific issues the rights holder is hoping to solve, in terms of their digital approach, by bringing us in.
“We want to know where they are with their digital performance and where they’d like to get to. Once we understand where they’re trying to get to, we can diagnose a technological solution.”
The team’s main job, Wiltshire feels, is to “help the industry understand the different ways it can spend its time and money across digital solutions – there are so many different ways sports properties can look to engage audiences who want to see more of their brand.
“It’s our job to be the glue in the middle between the technology sector and the sports industry.”
He explains that instead of focusing on any one particular solution, such as introducing AI or changing a content management system, when engaged with clients, the IMG digital team instead attempts to focus holistically “on the whole digital ecosystem.”
This can include – but is not limited to – CRM, online websites, mobile apps, social media channels, e-commerce, and more.
Wiltshire also believes that the sports industry has now reached the point where “a property’s digital operations can now be a revenue generator as opposed to a cost center, as they would have been previously.
“Now we’re tied into IMG’s commercial arm and able to access those commercial capabilities for clients, we can start to move that part of their operation to something that can generate a return on investment.”
Indeed, most top-tier sports properties will now focus most of their effort when it comes to merchandise sales, for example, on their digital and online stores, as opposed to in-person sales.
This can be seen in the number of recent partnerships struck between leagues and clubs, and brands such as Fanatics.
In terms of how to prioritize which platforms and sites a sports rightsholder should be present on, meanwhile, Wiltshire says that is one of the main tasks he and his team work with clients on, adding: “Sports rights holders need a clear strategy for every platform they’re on, and to be extremely mindful of why they’re using it.
“Is each online presence fulfilling an objective and getting the client closer to where they want to be?
“It’s inevitable that brands have to prioritize at some point – the number of new social media entrants keeps rising faster and faster, with the number of social media staff at each property growing at a much lesser rate.”
He points out that even looking back over the last two to three years, there have been multiple new sites that investors were at one point very excited about “that now don’t necessarily merit a sports property having a presence on them."
That is where specialized agencies, Wiltshire (unsurprisingly) believes, can help clients navigate through that maze.
He adds: "Digital excellence is a journey, it’s not something you do once – you have to work at it. Rightsholders need to be constantly checking whether their digital presence is delivering its business objectives and achieving what they want it to.
“Sometimes, for instance, those objectives change. Are their digital plans still fit for purpose, do they need reinvesting in, and which ones are a priority."
He also believes that contrary to opinion in some quarters, the global sports industry is not as resistant to new technological solutions and ideas as it might first appear.
On that front, he says that in reality, “What this industry is, is busy – the nature of the sporting calendar and teams playing matches every few days means that there’s not generally much time in-season for them to be thinking about which social media platforms they need to focus their attention on in the long term. It’s hard to take time out and look at other areas of their business that might not be related to on-pitch performance.
“Sports properties are also being cold-called daily by people who want to sell them software solutions, who tell them that this particular product is a must-have.”
“However, having said all that, I don’t find the industry particularly cynical and we don’t get frustrated by it. We see our role as being to take some of the pressure off rightsholders when it comes to having the knowledge to make the necessary informed decisions.”
In terms of where the digital sector will fit inside the wider sports industry moving forward, Wiltshire says that his time at Seven League “has coincided with one of the biggest changes in the tech landscape for a generation.
“When I joined, digital would have been categorized as social media – and not many platforms – as well as a simple website, app, and e-commerce.
“Now, we’re talking about Web3, the metaverse, AI, VR, blockchain, NFTs, and spending lots of time discussing these new technologies … Be open-minded about technology and think about its uses, but don’t try to use every piece and try to tie it all back to what you’re trying to achieve as a business.”
He also thinks the concept of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), often met with cynicism and wariness from sports fans, should not be completely discarded.
Wiltshire, in particular, feels that the blockchain technology behind NFTs can absolutely act as an industry disruptor and that the concept of finite proof of online ownership could eventually be applied to items such as sports teams’ season tickets, for example.
He concludes, summing up the combination of the sports industry’s continued appeal with digital’s increasing role within it: “We often tell clients they don’t need a digital strategy – they need a wider strategy with digital in it.
“The sports industry is one of the most loved in the entertainment sector globally, people feel more passionately about sport than about almost anything else. They’ll willingly spend money on it and give it their undivided attention, and it’s one of the few areas where people still consume live content.
“Combine that with this agency’s knowledge and digital expertise, and I think we’ve built something really special that sports rights holders wouldn’t get anywhere else.”