“We’re seeing many sports expanding their total addressable market. The next phase of engagement for the industry is figuring out how to convert that interest into proper tribalism.”
What is your background, and how did you initially enter the sports industry? (Yanni Andreopoulos, Co-founder of E1, SeaBird and Partner at ICARUS Sports) So, I studied law at the University in England and practiced law for five years with a firm in London and Hong Kong called Freshfields. At 2 am on a Saturday morning, while working through 20,000 pages of documentation, I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing here? This isn’t what I want to be doing with my life.’ I decided to leave and pursue a career in sports. I enrolled in a sports business MBA at the WP Carey School of Business in Arizona, USA. Following that, I spent a summer at the NBA League office in New York before joining AEG, the Anschutz Entertainment Group. AEG owns iconic venues like the Staples Center (now the crypto.com) and the O2 and numerous arenas worldwide, along with sports teams and massive music festivals. I spent a decade at AEG before transitioning to Formula E as a commercial director. From there, I ventured into entrepreneurship, initiating new championships and establishing a new agency. My journey took me from law to sports, driven by passion, and I’ve remained in the industry for nearly 20 years now, as we approach 2023. It has been a thrilling and rewarding ride.
“This passion manifests in different ways across various areas. In Formula E, it’s about harnessing a young, excited, and passionate crowd that loves fast cars and sustainability.”
You’ve been working with various forms of sports – what is the one thing in common regardless of the type of sport? (YA) I think it’s the passion — that’s very clear. You encounter people who work in sports, follow sports, and truly love it. For them, it’s the most important thing, and that passion is what allows us to build a business out of it. This passion manifests in different ways across various areas. In Formula E, it’s about harnessing a young, excited, and passionate crowd that loves fast cars and sustainability. In other events I’ve been part of, we had to bring in police to ensure fans wouldn’t harm each other in the arena. Regardless, the common thread, both among the people who follow it and those who work within it, is the passion for the product and the enthusiasm for being involved with it. You find a lot of extremely smart, talented, and capable individuals who, for the most part, make less money than they could in other fields. Yet, they choose to work in sports because they love it. I believe that’s the most important common denominator.
“I believe we’re witnessing new media and consumption habits that offer great opportunities for growth.”
Why is the role of media and sports content becoming more crucial than ever for growth? (YA) I think it’s because it allows people to consume their passions in different ways, right? In my generation, we used to have to wait for a game to come on and watch it. Maybe we’d get a brief interview before or afterwards, and you didn’t get much insight into the individuals. Now, what we’re seeing is a trend towards people connecting directly with individuals, teams, and organisations they love, making it a more integral part of their daily lives. This shift means that they consume content in different ways. People still consume in short snippets; audiences for live sports are decreasing, but live sports remain the most significant audience driver for broadcasters. Therefore, I believe we’re witnessing new media and consumption habits that offer great opportunities for growth. I remember in business school, we covered various modules, such as ticketing, sponsorship, and hospitality, and then we got into media. Our professor told us that media is truly the straw that stirs the drink of the sports industry, and that remains the case. Take, for example, the recent signing of the richest NBA contract in history by Jaylen Brown for the Boston Celtics earlier this month. All of this is driven by the increased media revenues coming into the NBA. Even though audiences are shrinking on traditional broadcasters, the content is being consumed much more widely outside. So that’s the exciting thing about the growth in media and sports content — it’s more immediate, more connected and far more individualised, where fans feel like they can build a connection with their favourite stars.
How did the idea of electric boat racing first come about, and what was your role in SeaBird – E1? (YA) I was at Formula E until December of 2019. When I left in December of 2019, I had a three month gardening leave period, which meant that I wasn’t allowed to work anywhere else. If you do the simple math, you’ll realise that that gardening leave expired in March of 2020, which in the live sports event world is probably the worst time in history, potentially for somebody to be in the job market. During this period, there were no jobs going. Then I got a call from the founder of Formula E Alejandro Agag, with whom I’ve been working at Formula E before I left. He asked, ‘Have you found a job yet?’ I replied, No, I haven’t.’ He responded, ‘Well, you’re not going to get one. Come meet me, I want to have a chat with you.’ He told me that he’s invested in a company called SeaBird which was developing electric boats and showed me a design of the boat, designed by Norwegian yacht designer Sophi Horn, known for her visionary work in the yacht design industry. The idea behind SeaBird was to bring together the best of electric mobility and electric racing, to create a visionary boat that could be sold to people. Alejandro proposed running it as a lockdown project to see where it could go. With nothing else on the horizon, I thought, ‘Why not?’ and decided to give it a go. I quickly fell in love with the project, and our goal was to create a design within the company and then raise funds for the next phase of the prototype.
(YA) Now, what ended up happening was about three months later. A colleague from Formula E, Rodi Basso, who was the head of the motorsport division at McLaren Applied, contacted us. He had also been thinking during lockdown about kind of opportunities and he had a great relationship with the UIM, which is the equivalent to the FIA, the Power Boat Federation. Rodi spoke to Alejandro about the chance to build an electric powerboat championship. Alejandro was excited about the idea, suggested involving SeaBird, the company building electric boats, to construct the boats for the racing series called the E1 series. This collaboration made sense as Rodi, with his technical expertise as an engineer, could contribute to the development of SeaBird and the race boat, known as the RaceBird. I, on the other hand, could assist with the marketing and commercial aspects of the E1 series, helping build it out from there. As the world started opening back up, I received a couple of job offers, but after a conversation with Alejandro, we explored the possibility of working things out. Ultimately, I expressed my belief in these projects and suggested that if we could agree on the terms once we raised funds, I would commit to seeing these projects through. I’m going to take the ride and just you know, see this through because I think this is a fantastic opportunity. We launched the concept of the RaceBird and E1 series in Monaco in September of 2020. We got a commitment for funding in late 2020, and we finally went through the fine lines of due diligence and documentation and received the money in June of 2021. We then built the teams for both RaceBird and SeaBird. As of now, the championship is set to launch in 2024 with seven races in five locations. Additionally, SeaBird is in the process of raising funds to develop its own commercial prototype. Both projects are progressing well, which is wonderful.
“We’re seeing this trend of celebrity athletes getting involved in ownership of teams, whether it’s Tom Brady himself buying into Birmingham City, or it’s Lionel Messi getting shares in MLS and goes to Inter Miami.”
What attracts many renowned athletes, such as Perez, Nadal and Brady, to join E1? (YA) I think it comes back to that passion point that I described earlier. All of these individuals are high-level competitors. When we presented the opportunity to them — I must say, I’m no longer involved in the day-to-day because as I’ve started other projects, but this is secondhand information — they’re all competitors, and they love to compete. They enjoy competing against each other in new forums with teams. We’re seeing this trend of celebrity athletes getting involved in ownership of teams, whether it’s Tom Brady himself buying into Birmingham City, or it’s Lionel Messi getting shares in MLS and goes to Inter Miami.
(YA) So I think there’s two factors that are played a significant role. One is the passion and the competitive spirit; these athletes continue competing. The other is the fact that athletes these days are far more switched on in terms of their future careers. Long before retirement, they explore commercial opportunities to maximise their earning potential and future possibilities. Many athletes, even while still active, start funds, venture capital firms, invest their money wisely. They strategically leverage their image, likeness, connections, following to add value to projects and build them up. Attracting celebrities as owners was a stated objective for us, and they serve as the face of the teams, drawing on their audiences. This approach taps into the elements of passion, competitive drive, equity stakes, and future financial certainty. Core messages around sustainability, marine preservation, and technological development also resonate with these athletes. These themes provide alignment with their personal brands, partner brands, or affiliations. In this way, we believe we offer them value in return.
“Live sports haven’t changed that much. However, in terms of content consumption, there has been a significant shift.”
What are the changes in spectators’ behaviours and how we consume sports in recent years? (YA) I don’t see many differences in terms of consumption of live sport. I think it’s back to normal. People still meet up in the pub beforehand, go to an event, maybe there are a few more bottles with antiseptic around or that kind of thing. People are a little bit more considerate if they got a cough, thinking twice whether they go somewhere. But fundamentally, I don’t think things have changed drastically from that perspective. I think the way we consume sports and engage with sports, outside of the live event have changed drastically. I see this with myself as well, I can’t remember the last time I sat down to watch an entire sporting event from beginning to end, including pre-game, halftime post game, and the post event show. This is because the quality and range of content available allow me to quickly switch to something else. I can get an immediate reaction from somebody on social media or find excellent coverage on a digital platform. I prefer to consume directly from the rights holder. Additionally, in the build-up and aftermath, we’re witnessing both an earlier and longer tail.
(YA) It would have been practically impossible, I think pre-COVID, to consider watching an entire season of anything. Yet, that’s exactly what ‘Drive to Survive’ is. It’s challenging to imagine saying, ‘Let’s watch back to back entire NBA season,’ but that’s what ‘The Last Dance’ was. Growing up in ‘90s, as a kid, I used to stay up at 3am to watch Michael Jordan and the Bulls play in the NBA Finals. I’m very much a target audience for that. However, it attracted a whole different audience — people who fell in love with the personalities around the sport, not necessarily the sport itself. Therefore, we’re seeing a significant trend towards content and engagement methods built around the personalities of the athletes. There’s also move towards building a tribe. By this, I mean engaging on a much deeper level with each fan of a particular sport or team, in order to communicate directly and build a business from there. Live sports haven’t changed that much, especially now that we’re about a year into things opening up again, and people have managed to overcome concerns related to COVID. However, in terms of content consumption, there has been a significant shift.
“I think it’s the realisation among athletes that they are brands and can be content creators themselves, and they’re starting to embrace that.”
Have you noticed any other sports that gained sudden popularity as much as F1 did? (YA) You know, what I’m currently watching and find really fascinating to see how it performs is Slamball. If you’re not familiar with Slamball, it’s basketball played on trampolines embedded in the floor. I remember it from my childhood, and back then, you only got snippets—you know, those emails with massive video files that took hours to upload. In today’s era, it seems like the perfect sport for this kind of audience. So, I’m really intrigued to see how it does as a new project. Overall, I think we’re seeing many sports expanding their total addressable market. To use a VC term, there’s a growing interest where people say, ‘Yes, I want to find out about this.’ The next phase or the next level of engagement for the industry is figuring out how to convert that interest into proper tribalism, taking an approach to recognise the value of each individual fan and converting that into actual spending beyond just jerseys and merchandise. Some sports that have seen a rise—I’m not sure if I’m in an echo chamber with my own social and digital followings, but I’m noticing a lot more from individual sports. They seem to be realising the importance of harnessing individuals within the sport for growth. For example, tennis is doing a lot more, and I’ve seen that grow significantly. Similarly, golf, not just Full Swing, or Breakpoint on Netflix. I think it’s the realisation among athletes that they are brands and can be content creators themselves, and they’re starting to embrace that.
(YA) I think one of the other things that has really really really benefited from COVID is the WWE because it’s sport entertainment, because it involves narrative and because the matchups are controlled. These individuals are athletes, no matter what anyone says; what they put themselves through on a day-to-day basis is incredible. But the stories they can build up, even during lockdown, and then come out of lockdown, were so interesting and fascinating. They took a huge pivot towards telling more of the of the behind-the-scenes stories, breaking the kayfabe, which is kind of the rule you’re not supposed to talk to each other, or reveal what’s really going on. They started to reveal a lot more to bring fans into the story. They admitted it’s fixed, if you will, but they brought fans behind the curtain. This was something that was really helped through COVID because they needed to keep pumping out content and keep supporting it.
How did you join ICARUS Sports and what is their focus? (YA) ICARUS sports is a full-service sports agency with offices in Athens, where the company was founded, as well as in London, Shanghai, and Berlin. The company was started by a former world champion sailor who was aiming to qualify for the Olympics. He realised the challenges of securing sponsorships for his 2008 Olympics campaign because Olympic sailing was not on television. It was difficult to film practically, as putting one camera on shore wouldn’t capture the action, and drones weren’t available at the time. In response, he came up with the concept of building a blimp with a geo-stabilised camera attached to a rib to follow these epic sailing competitions. Fast forward 15 years, and they’ve built a company with 50 people in Athens focused on content production and distribution.
(YA) We worked together when Extreme E was launching, an affiliate of Formula E. I was very impressed by them, when I took a step back from E1 and SeaBird, they got in touch with me. They shared their plans of setting up a London presence and expanding services to include commercial and investment advisory for new startups and scale-up sports properties, which aligns with our niche. We joined forces at the beginning of the year, aiming to create a boutique sports agency for startups and scale-ups in the sports industry. Our focus is not to compete with giants like IMGs and CSMs but to assist those with new concepts or ideas in building and growing sustainable businesses, providing support from inception to successful operation.
“eSports viewers like to have the freedom to choose when and what to watch. The flexibility in choosing viewing times is a significant factor.”
We’ve been hearing about eSports being established for a while now. What is your take on the future possibility of this sector? It’s growing, but it’s still not as mainstream, for instance, as legacy football games. (YA) I think it’s really interesting that the eSports model hasn’t yet fully found its footing. The publishers, who theoretically are the rights holders in equivalent of the sports world, haven’t figured out how to manage it effectively. Event organisers, dependent on the publishers for the leagues, are struggling a bit to find their feet. Nevertheless, it’s a massive business. We’ve seen some fragmentation, and now there’s a trend toward consolidation. For instance, DreamHack, ESL, and Faceit have all joined forces to create a large operational conglomerate. I think the reality of the eSports industry is that consumption habits are shifting and changing. It’s just the tip of the iceberg in the gaming industry. What I always find amusing is when we in the sports industry talk about how big our industry is, and someone from the gaming industry chimes in, saying, ‘Yeah, you’ve got nothing compared to the gaming industry. It’s gigantic.’ eSports is an attempt to capture a massive component of this industry, where people play games online together and others watch them play. The key difference is that viewers like to have the freedom to choose when and what to watch. Whether it’s watching one of the stars of the game execute a specific move or something else, the flexibility in choosing viewing times is a significant factor.
(YA) They also want to participate; they want to play. One interesting aspect of these open platforms is that you could find yourself playing against one of your favourite players. I could never have dreamed of playing on the court with Michael Jordan or Steph Curry, but on these platforms, enthusiasts could potentially play against all-star elite athletes. It’s a fascinating experience that has grown significantly and is now entering the consolidation phase. However, the next phase of growth is somewhat unclear, at least to me. Due to the nature of the audience, it’s not going to drive huge media valuations. Many sponsors are skeptical and concerned about getting involved in games, especially those involving first-person shooters or MOBAs, where there is shooting and killing, even if it’s wizards and dragons. Despite the audience being there, it’s challenging to foresee growth beyond endemic brands or broadcasters. It might circle back, and eSports may become the flagship marketing program, as Riot built it for League of Legends, serving as the marketing face for games and the publishing industry. It might not fit the traditional sports entity model in terms of media revenues, sponsorship revenues, ticketing, etc., but it will exist, structured and built in a very different way.