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Futurists sketch a bold look at sports over the next 25 years

As the Buffalo Bills huddle up, holograms ignite above the turf. The lighted figures re-enact the previous play to the delight of the fans. A group of die-hards sitting at the 50-yard line notice the wide receiver with the stem-cell injection repeatedly getting open, so they text the coach and insist he call a pass play.

It could happen, based on a fascinating, frightening and stimulating look into the future of sports.

Jeremy Jacobs and the futurists hired by Delaware North believe anything will be possible during the next 25 years as computing, medical and architectural advancements merge with the world of sports. They’ve laid out the potential blueprint in a 50-page report titled “The Future of Sports.”

“This got way beyond what I expected it to do,” Jacobs, chairman of Delaware North, said from his company’s new office building on Delaware Avenue. “The whole idea was supposed to be space age. It was supposed to be out there a little further. It provokes your intellect. We like where it’s positioned.”

The project offers predictions on stadiums, ticketing, broadcasting, athletes, fans, sponsorships and other athletically based topics. Some prognostications seem straight out of Frankenstein’s lab (national

sports federations conducting genetic tests on children to find superathletes) while others are already becoming mainstream (mobile phones replacing paper tickets).

“What’s interesting is you spend some time with these futurists, they’re out there,” said Jerry Jacobs Jr., co-CEO of Delaware North. “The scariest thing about that report is pretty much all of that is happening to some degree or on some level. That’s the real spooky part. This isn’t all pie-in-the-sky stuff. You bring these guys in, and they’re showing you what they’re already doing.

“That’s really the purpose of the document is to wake you up to the things that can happen and are likely to happen.”

Jerry Jacobs’ encounter with futurists at a conference in Colorado led to the report. He told his father of the changes the scientists and forward-thinkers were predicting. They set about determining what it meant in their world. Delaware North has an expansive reach in sports as a concessions conglomerate that owns arenas and teams.

“It’s an industry issue,” Jeremy Jacobs said. “It’s a role we can play in the industry. It says we can do more than just sell your hot dogs.

“After 100 years of experience, we have a little insight into what’s happened but also where it’s going.”

New ideas

So where will sports be going? Here are some of the predictions offered in the report, which is available at FutureOf.org/sports:

• New stadiums that can handle 250,000 fans will redefine the game-day experience. There will be an inner-bowl with seats and an outer concourse that gives other fans a way to enjoy the pageantry and party atmosphere.

• An online company like Google will outbid television for the broadcast rights to a sports league, pushing viewership from the flat screen to the laptop or mobile device.

• The wealthiest sports teams will ditch their leagues in order to make more money on global barnstorming tours.

• Women will become the No. 1 target for franchises, with many clubs creating female teams to build good will.

• Decisions on and off the field will be made with near-instantaneous input from fans or algorithms that predict fan reaction.

• Natural and genetically enhanced athletes will have their own leagues, with championships pitting the sides to determine whether gifted individuals are better than those created in labs.

“The ideas that came back were pretty staggering,” said Jerry Jacobs, who was impressed by the futurists. “The things that we don’t think would work, that we think about the way we consume and say, ‘We’d never do that,’ they don’t even bat an eye.”

Without going into specifics, the younger Jacobs said the report has already led to changes inside Delaware North. The key is deciding which predictions are plausible and how the company can benefit from them. For instance, the use of mobile devices rather than paper tickets allows organizations to determine who their fans are and what is the best way to market to them.

“We want the people to use their phone,” Jeremy Jacobs said. “It gives me a basket of information and access that I didn’t have. If you walk in with a paper ticket, I don’t have that.

“If nothing less, I know your name, know you’re a fan and identify you as a fan. A lot of times you can get a lot more information out of it. You know if they’re coming in on their birthday. There’s just so much information out there that you can put to better use if you have access to this.”

The section in the report regarding stadiums is particularly pertinent to Buffalo. The Bills will be looking for a new or refurbished home in the coming years. “The Future of Sports” predicts new stadiums will have extended security perimeters, putting more restaurants, stores and giant video screens inside the zone to create a larger footprint capable of handling more people who want to feel the action.

Jeremy Jacobs reiterated Delaware North’s desire to help Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula with any new project.

“We hope to play a role in whatever we can,” the chairman said. “The Pegulas have had a lot of foresight. They’ve been very thoughtful. They’re very stable in their thinking. I suspect that when they’re ready to move, we’ll try and aid them as best as we can.

“But they’re focusing on getting winning teams right now. Most of their energy is going in that direction.”

Jacobs praised the Pegulas for their work in building HarborCenter at the front door of First Niagara Center. It mirrors some aspects of the Delaware North report.

“They put a lot of money and a lot of future thinking into what they’ve done down here with the two new rinks and 716,” Jacobs said. “I think there’s been a lot of future thought in that.”

Target audience

The Jacobs family says the validity of “The Future of Sports” can be found in the reaction to it. It has captivated its target audience.

Jeremy Jacobs said Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of the company that owns Toronto’s professional hockey, basketball and soccer teams, read it and asked for six more copies. Jerry Jacobs recently visited a client in Texas.

“He said, ‘Yup, I read it. Twice. Then I made everybody on my staff read it,’” Jerry Jacobs said. “That’s when I thought, ‘Wow, I guess it really did have an impact.’ Every person you talk to has very similar reactions.”

The project has been so well-received that Delaware North is going to do it again next year with an expanded panel of researchers.

“One of the issues that came back was you need more women futurists to represent interests of women, and minorities,” Jerry Jacobs said. “That’s the thing we’re going to have to adjust, and it will only make the product stronger and the depth and insight better. And I imagine the audience will be much bigger the next time around considering the reception we got.”

One thing the Jacobs family is certain of is things that were futuristic in this report may already be commonplace when the next one is published.

“You almost hesitate to say, ‘That will never happen,’” Jerry Jacobs said. “Like Dad said, our company is all about avoiding complacency. That’s our greatest risk. This is about staying active and engaged and rethinking our business going forward.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com