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Unpacking Innovation: Stephen Sidlo

Stephen Sidlo is the Innovation Strategy lead at Engage Digital Partners, a data-driven content agency that has worked with major sports organizations like Arsenal FC, Wimbledon, and World Rugby. Stephen has spent a decade working within digital distribution, audience development and user-generated-content within the news and sports industry. Stephen advises and manages innovation strategy and audience development products for Goodwood, Godolphin, World Rugby, Sport360 and MLB International.

Stephen's responses to the Unpacking Innovation questions emphasize the importance of data to convincing the entrenched world of sports to consider adapting to new operations and new strategies, a perspective we are especially sympathetic to at the Sports Innovation Lab.

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Sports Innovation Lab: What does "innovation" mean to you?

Stephen Sidlo: Evolve for the future. In short, innovation to me is how technology affects people for the good, through creation or transformation. I'm quite blunt, adapt or die.

While there is a multitude of directions "sports innovation" can take, my own experience is bringing new people to a sport using innovative audience development methods.

Why do you feel it is important for companies to focus energy, and personnel, on innovation?

Stephen Sidlo: Innovation is the byproduct of a changing marketplace set by demand. By having innovative personnel, companies can be more adaptable to this marketplace and look to bring in extra revenue or vanity metric. Understanding key trends and relaying that to clients both internally and externally on a regular basis is key to culture change.

It's a struggle to have larger clients adapt to a new culture, so by having a more innovative workforce dedicated to stress-testing products and researching new technology trends adds to case studies. You are fighting an old-school mentality that says, "this sport has been here for 200 years, it will be around long after Snapchat—so why change?"

Innovative employees hold the key with data. Data on declining attendances, sentiment analysis in stadiums, lack of digital ticket access, better video content elsewhere, giveaways at a rival club—all provide the writing on the wall for rights holders and ultimately sponsors.

Sports Innovation Lab: What is the most common way that you see companies fail when it comes to innovation?

Stephen Sidlo: Public Relations departments can stifle innovation and creativity if given enough air. Historically, tickets were bought at a ticket booth, player announcements via a newspaper or web page, and highlights viewed after the 6 o'clock news. The legacy of these departments still lives strong as they're the voice of the brand, so when external agencies look to GIPHY their latest announcement or create vertical Instagram video with an influencer fan to millions, it becomes mired in politics. You are constantly innovating your approach to politics in some cases.

The employee needs support from above to push through innovation with a client, through an embed program and backed up with successful case studies to win this political warzone with change.

Through no fault of their own, rights holders live in a bubble where trends and culture change happens in other industries, so their failure is a failure to see change.

Sports Innovation Lab: What is the most important quality or characteristic that an Innovation Officer should have?

Stephen Sidlo: It's a characteristic I'm always learning: influence. Passion for innovation will buy you friends, but it won't get clients to sign-off company transformation, that's why influence is essential. Knowing how to influence the right people aids in making changes. Lots of client face time, passion, and case studies is the key.

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