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Revenge of the jocks: sports invades tech's Texas utopia

Revenge of the jocks: sports invades tech's Texas utopia


SXsports brings panels that appeal to the more athletic side of innovation

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In previous years, the fierce competition at the Gaming Expo was the sportiest part of the event.
In previous years, the fierce competition at the Gaming Expo was the sportiest part of the event.

The typical South By Southwest attendee, according to the comedian Alex Blagg, is a "guy who wears cool stuff," and sports a "sweet mustache and glasses," "fancy blazers with tons of zippers and straps," and a "black backpack full of batteries." In other words: hipster meets geek.

Even as SXSW has expanded from music, to film, to the startup world, to the eco movement, the show has maintained a consistent theme. The world of SXSW attracts a young, creative, college-educated, liberal-leaning crowd whose interests often bleed over from indie flicks to web design or from music to music streaming apps. But this year, SXSW introduced a new track that seems a bit… out of place.


Your typical SXSWer is somewhere between hipster and nerd

"We've long featured a bit of sports-related programming at SXSW — a few sports films in the film festival and a handful of panels on the interactive side," Rebecca Feferman, head of programming for SXsports, tells The Verge. "We felt we could offer a perspective on the world of sports that's uniquely SXSW — exploring cultural impact, focusing on the future of sport, embracing the entertainment and innovation — and give the sports industry an opportunity to gain access to an entirely different audience."

The SXsports events are open to attendees who registered for the film and interactive parts of the show. There is a panel for "Media and the Personal Brand," hosted by Grantland’s well-known editor-in-chief Bill Simmons and embellished with a bit of star power from former New York Times columnist Nate Silver. There are about 30 panels in total, including "The Printed Athlete: Sports Embraces 3D Printing," "Drones in Sports: The Sky’s the Limit," and "Disrupting the Hockey World."

Barry Kahn, CEO of the ticketing company Qcue, lives in Austin and has attended the last six SXSWs and spoken at the last two. He’s slated to speak again, this time on a SXsports panel called "Stop Pricing Tickets Like It's 1999." "Our panel is at 9:30 in the morning on Saturday, so if we're not there alone it'll be good," he jokes.

People from the sports industry have been coming to SXSW for years, he says, even though there was no sports-specific programming, because the advertisers and vendors tend to overlap with the music industry. Beyond that, industry reps from the NFL and NBA have started coming down to speak and attend panels at Interactive, he says.

"I'm the world's tallest geek."
—Shaquille O'Neal, at SXSW 2013

When Green Bay Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings appeared on a panel about fantasy football last year, Deadspin took the opportunity to snark about how fluid SXSW’s identity has become. "As everyone knows, come this time of year Austin, TX is the Panel For Just About Anything Pop-Culturally-Imaginable Capital of the World," wrote Sean Newell. Jennings wasn’t even the most high-profile athlete there: Shaq was interviewed about social media onstage last year and is returning this year for the panel "Wearables & Beyond With Shaq."

The germs of SXsports already existed before the festival gave it a name. "Even before they'd done anything with formally putting sports on the sessions, you had started seeing somewhat of an influx from people in that space coming down," Kahn says. And even though the SXSW crowd may not play sports — or even watch sports — they certainly have ideas for how to disrupt, innovate, and build apps for the industry. That means the sports industry and the tech industry are ready to make some deals, and that means they’re ready to engage in the SXSW ritual of bonding through drinking, eating barbecue, and snoozing through panels together.

The germs of SXsports existed before the festival gave it a name

The sports industry may not have hipster cachet, but SXSW can’t really make that claim anymore either. The festival, especially the interactive portion, has moved increasingly into the mainstream, drawing Pepsi- and Verizon-level sponsors and Jay-Z-level music acts. Meanwhile, the mainstream has moved increasingly into tech, as Ashton Kutcher takes up startup investing and we see a spate of Silicon Valley-themed TV shows. It’s not surprising that athletes and sports execs have started showing up too.

"It’s a very different culture, a very different industry," Kahn says. "But you almost need to have some representation across the full scope of the entertainment industry. If you don’t do it, it’s going to happen organically and it’s going to happen on its own."