SXSports: Alternate universe or the beginnings of a brave new sports world?

Lana Berry

Austin's South by Southwest Festival has always been on the precipice of change. With the development of a sports conference -- dubbed SXSports -- SXSW is providing a looking glass into the future. Whether that's into the future of sports or just the future of its own conference is up for debate.

Ah, South by Southwest. Where sports and technology collide.

Wait, no, that's not it. Where people who would normally be watching sports but are so sports-starved at the beginning of March they come out to enjoy live music and tacos?

That's more like it.

South by Southwest (SXSW for short) has certainly transformed throughout the years. What began as a small film festival in Austin, Texas in the 80s, eventually started to include music. In more recent years it has become the central focus for technology and everything related to it, dubbed SXSW Interactive.

This has all has become less "festival" and more "conference." What was once a fun place to check out a film or an obscure band, has somehow become an un-ending TED talk with a Justin Bieber cameo. It is simultaneously the most stereotypical Austin and non-Austin experiences in one 10-day vainglorious extravaganza.

And now, it has sports. At first glance the addition of sports seems disjointed, unless you think about the impact of sports on the blogosphere (I am legally obligated to use that word in any piece regarding SXSW).


Photo: Mike Deeroski

But therein lies the potential problem of SXSports, as they have coined it. Marketing a sports segment within a conference marketed more toward programmers, social media gurus, and techie kids strolling around town in Google Glass, means the audience becomes more limited to those people as opposed to a "typical" sports crowd. I look through the panels for this year's SXSW Interactive and see a beautiful assortment: "Online Lego Fans & the People Who Love Them" (sure), "Star Power: Innovative Ways to Engage Millennials" (ugh, ok), "What Would Cesar Chavez Tweet?" (wait what) and "Welcoming the Robot Workforce" (whoa whoa whoa I did not sign up for that).

But wait. I live in a world where sports fans ARE nerdy bloggers (myself included) and care about the robot workforce (hello robot refs). A world where stats are fun and coding is cool and hey, maybe Cesar Chavez would have live-tweeted Monday Night Football. And now we have a conference that essentially caters to that segment of sports fans? THIS IS AWESOME.

Mention anything involving numbers or the words "online presence" and people flock straight to you.

I arrived on Friday fully prepared. This is my sixth SXSW and I will continuously point this out to people to prove how prepared I am and how unprepared they are. Sure I forget where the best parking is but I am prepared to sit in my car for an hour looking for a good spot. I accidentally wear uncomfortable shoes, but I am prepared to know that this is a devastating mistake. I roll into the Driskill Hotel in an outfit completely inappropriate for the weather (who wears a skirt when it's cold and windy out?), but the good news is they've compiled most of the SXSports events into one location so this won't be much of a factor. This also means less confusion and foot travel, two things that continually plague SXSW and my feet.

Walking into the Driskill, a moment I dread comes to pass: I don't recognize anyone. No one seems the least bit familiar. I feel like I'm in the wrong place. Am I in the wrong place? I wander into the SXSports lounge next to the entrance, which seems to be the only sign that there would be anything sports-related happening in the building. There are four people standing almost silently, trying to avoid eye contact, and apparently a basic discussion with anyone. There is also a putting green.

I back out slowly and settle on sitting in the lobby for a bit to assess the scene and figure out if I'm in the right place. (Side note: awkwardly staring at strangers in the lobby of a nice hotel while wearing a short skirt is not advised. That was a mistake.) I finally spot a friend of mine amongst a sea of hipsters and head upstairs to watch people talk about various sports-related topics.

And thus begins the SXSW whirlwind. I attend panel after panel after panel with topics ranging from data to branding to concussions in sports to a debate over whether college athletes should get paid or not. But a trend becomes glaringly obvious to me very quickly: Everything is the opposite of a normal sports-related event. The panels related to social media and branding are packed with people, while I listen to Kliff Kingsbury talk about college football in a room with half of the seats mysteriously empty. Mention anything involving numbers or the words "online presence" and people flock straight to you.

I begin to wonder how many of these people are even sports fans or maybe just here to master a new angle for their social media gig. None of them are even listening, they're either furiously taking notes on their laptops or live-tweeting every word that's said. I'm assuming Google Glass takes notes with their minds, otherwise why would they be wearing that?

It's all a brief reminder that I'm in a world where Nate Silver is a rockstar and Bill Simmons is "the other guy speaking with Nate Silver". A world where the guy who creates cool infographics for sports data attracts a larger audience than some of the biggest college football writers in the country. A social media manager attracting a larger audience than one of the top college football coaches in the country. Everything seems backwards and confusing, but it doesn't feel wrong. It almost feels like I've just discovered a brave new sports world.


Photo: Jack Newton

A friend of mine has dinner plans with Nate Silver. He asks me where they should eat because he is worried Silver will get bombarded with fans. "Do you think he'll get mobbed?" he asks me. I just laugh. Nate Silver has reached a level of fame on par with the athletes. The thing about SXSW is you always feel like you're on the precipice of change. I can't help but wonder: is this the future of sports-- or just the future of sports at SXSW?

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