Boasting one of the most evocative titles in sport, and having grown from a light-hearted entertainment show into an international franchise watched by millions, it seems disingenuous to label the Worlds Strongest Man (WSM) as small or niche.
Then again, in an industry swarming with billion dollar broadcast deals, eye-popping viewing figures, and lucrative commercial partnerships, it is a mark of the times that even WSMs feats of superhuman strength have not been able to keep up with other sports properties in the search for expansion.
A reported annual global viewership of around 220 million would certainly challenge the assumption that WSM is on the fringes of global recognition. But if you really break it down, the sport, while capturing the imagination, has yet to fully immerse itself in the public consciousness.
Aside from the cream of the crop, who get the majority of their income from sponsorships, few athletes make a living out if it. Even Eddie Hall, WSM 2017 winner and the first man to pull a 500kg deadlift (for context, that is heavier than a polar bear) could only afford to turn pro in 2015. He is one of the few select strongmen, certainly in the UK, who qualify for household name status. The other being Geoff Capes, who claimed two titles in 1983 and 1985 during the sports fledgling years.
A staple of the Christmas TV schedule during the past five decades, that reliance on linear broadcasting has perhaps held WSM back given audiences propensity today for digital, on-demand content. Even a 170kg bloke pulling an airplane is not as attention grabbing as it once was.
But that could all be about to change. In June, sports entertainment company Wave.tv struck a partnership with IMG to strengthen its content offering across the agency giants properties, one being WSM.
The deal secured Wave.tv rights to distribute WSM content via an array of digital media brands on Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and YouTube channels, meaning keg tossing, axle pressing and tyre flipping were all at the fingertips of the Wave.tv audience.
We believe that a formula of fandoms, plusprogramming formats, plus IP equals new hit programming, Brian Verne (pictured right), Wave.tvs chief executive and co-founder, tells SportsPro. When we started Wave.tv,we set out to go sport by sport, or fandom by fandom, and create this portfolio of digitally native media brands, covering everything from traditional sports to non-traditional sports to anything in between.
We wanted to do it squarely on the core and emerging social and digital platforms, where we saw young fans really migrating to for their sports entertainment experience.
We felt like if we were able to do that, and take this view of providing fans with a true breadth of programming, and then also marry that with mastering different programming formats, then we'd be able to go and work with rights holders or IP holders.
We simply reimagine a lot of the same stories and narratives that fans have cared about for years into new hit programming for the platforms on which our media brands live.
Wave.tv had already tested the waters with IMG through the launch of The Pump on Snapchat. Described as the destination for the strongest content on the planet, the show features strongmen and other fitness personalities hitting the iron. Over a 12-month period, WSM content generated more than 345 million views, with The Pump now boasting a dedicated fanbase and becoming one of Wave.tvs top performing properties.
Over the last 18 months, Vernes operation has also been distributing WSM content across the Wave TV, Highlights WAVE, and Greatest Highlights channels, demonstrating bold plans to take the rights holders IP to the masses.
I think in general, there has been this massive misconception in the market that fandom is decreasing with the next generation of fans, when in fact it's actually at an all-time high, explains Verne.
People's viewing habits have changed. Today, yes, that younger fan isn't necessarily behaving the same way as previous generations. But they're consuming more content than ever on their phones across the social and digital platforms where our brands live.
So, if anything, I think its a reminder to the industry that people still love all sorts of sports for all sorts of fandoms.
There are all these amazing stories or moments that are happening on a daily basis and just because it might not be soccer, football, basketball, baseball, or hockey, doesn't mean there isn't an incredible story to be told. That was our worldview as it relates to Worlds Strongest Man.
Magns Ver Magnsson and Bill Kazmaier won seven WSM titles between them during the 1980s and 90s
Indeed, WSM has been packed with engrossing storytelling since its first edition in 1977, adding some brains to its considerable brawn.
The 1980s saw Capes, the US Bill Kazmaier and Icelands Jn Pll Sigmarsson, who called himself the Viking, trade titles and insults during the decade. The mid 1990s to early 2000s saw more Nordic power reign supreme, with competitors from Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland again dominating the field.
From 2010, weve arguably seen the highest standard of competition in the sports history, with ydrnas Savickas, Brian Shaw, Eddie Hall and Game of Thrones star Hafr Jlus Bjrnsson breaking numerous world records.
Savickas fittingly known as Big Z and regarded in many circles as the strongest man in history was described by strength icon and WWE star Mark Henry as being the Michael Jordan of lifting. Yet, his profile pales in comparison to the fastest man who ever lived, Usain Boult, or even Jordan himself.
Considering the quality on show today, staunch WSM fans could make a case that the sport does not need to drastically alter its broadcasting approach for fear of pampering the most masculine of vocations. But, facing competition from the likes of the Arnold Strongman Classic, it would be short-sighted not to tap into a digital methodology as more established sports already have done.
ydrnas Savickas is an icon of the sport
Crucially, the Wave.tv tie-up ensures WSM, along with other IMG properties such as EuroLeague Basketball and Edge Sport, will enjoy a flow of organic coverage and engagement with Gen Z and millennial audiences. Currently, 80 per cent of Wave.tvs viewers are aged between 13 and 34.
Added to that, since being founded in 2017, Wave.tv has become the fourth largest sports media entity in the US and fastest growing overall globally, according to measurement solution firm Shareablee. Boasting more than 3.2 billion monthly views, the company has over 60 million followers and subscribers, reaching at least 200 million fans each month.
I think that the beauty of sport is that its truly this universal language, continues Verne. We often say that fandom cannot, and should not, fit within a singular box.Regardless of what your favourite sport is, that doesn't mean youre not equally as passionate.
If you think about how many different fandoms exist and manifest globally, it is very limiting as a media company to only focus on a small subset. Thus, we took this approach that whether a sport is traditional or non-traditional, or anything you can even imagine, we want to develop a media brand and programming for it.
Other IMG properties including EuroLeague Basketball and Edge Sport are part of Wave.tvs content deal
Verne notes that he expects rights holders to lean even more heavily on digital content in the ongoing battle for increased exposure. Linear TV will continue to be the bread and butter, certainly with the biggest leagues, for the foreseeable future. But the added potential of opening up further sponsorship inventory, coupled with the Covid-19 uncertainty, would suggest social media has an even more sizeable role to play.
At the end of the day, it increases fandom, which drives enterprise value. From a pure commercial and revenue generating point of view, we see this as massively valuable sports sponsorship inventory, says Verne.
You think about the industry at large and, every single year, every white paper talks about the value of the ecosystem increasing. Now, we're in the midst of this paradigm shift of sorts where all sorts of things are changing.
So we view this type of programming that lives across core and emerging social and digital [platforms] as being incredibly valuable and lucrative to all sorts of rights holders. Weve certainly found a way to differentiate ourselves by working with a lot of non-traditional sports to date.
If you think about how many different fandoms exist and manifest globally, it is very limiting as a media company to only focus on a small subset.
The clamour for properties, not just WSM, to grasp the next wave of fans is all the more urgent as they look to shore up their earnings amid the economic downturn. An exact formula is elusive, given the variable nature of each generation. But, Wave.tvs youthful audience offers some clues to maximise digital engagement.
Don't overthink things. Regardless of whether it was year 1900, 1960 or 2020, sports is escapism. Its entertainment for people, explains Verne.
The same underlying pillars still exist today when you talk about developing effective programming. People want to learn something, they want to be entertained, they want to laugh, they want to be motivated, they want to be inspired. If you take that approach to your programming, irrespective of the medium or the format, then I think it's going to be effective.
For whatever reason, over the last decade or so, there has been a little bit of a misconception or over complicating a lot of what we do. We're not solving quantum physics. Were just taking the same things you and I grew up with, that our parents and grandparents grew up watching, the same interests, and just adapting it to how fans across the world are behaving today.
That's why I always tell people that the beauty in our business is truly the simplicity.
Without mammoth TV and commercial contracts to fall back on, the post-Covid future is even more uncertain for non-traditional sports. However, for WSM, its collaboration with Wave.tv offers a chance to leverage content old and new for an untapped demographic.
Boosting those prospects further arethe considerable resources Wave.tv is able to allocate to its partners. In June, Verne closed a Series A funding round worth US$32 million to further build Wave.tv's roster of media brands, while company acquisitions are on the agenda too.
With consumers watching more content during lockdown, Wave.tv was able to sustain its business by drawing on it deep archive. Whilst other media brands have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, Verne claims Wave.tv is on target to see about 100 per cent year-over-year revenue growth meaning it has enough budget to target the addition of between 12 and 20 new staff this quarter.
WSM athletes may be competing bicep to bicep, but Wave.tvs approach to having ardent fans from varying sports at the centre of its approach highlights the value of putting passion into practice.
Weve always viewed ourselves as this modern day sports and entertainment enterprise. From a media point of view, we have 18 media brands within our portfolio, each covering some subset of fandom. That's made us well positioned to continue to add media brands to the roster, says Verne.
Our worldview is that we can develop a very successful, digitally native media brand for a particular area of sports fandom. So, you'll definitely see us expand into new categories.
Given the time that were in, were at the convergence of a lot of change within sports sponsorship. Sports betting, especially in North America, is one of the fastest growing sectors, so that's something that we're looking at really heavily.
Thats on our roadmap from a programming and commercial opportunity point of view. Well be continuing to diversify and add assets to our portfolio as things evolve. Were very much in growth mode.
How Wave.tv is making the World's Strongest Man think bigger with its digital plans - SportsPro Media