SXsports and the Convergence of Sports & Technology: Q&A with Rebecca Feferman, Head of SXsports

April 29, 2015

Rebecca Feferman is the head of SXsports – the three day sports-focused track of SXSW Interactive & Film that features panels, screenings and events, and explores the future of sports from a cultural and technological perspective. Since the SXsports track started in 2014 as the brainchild of Feferman, it’s become immensely popular and a resource for evaluating the latest and greatest trends shaping sports and culture.  We chatted with Rebecca about the future of the industry, her career and what we can expect from SXsports in the coming years.

POPULOUS: Let’s jump right into it. Over the course of the last 25 years SXSW has grown into a global phenomenon of culture and innovation – from Film, to Interactive, to Music.  What makes this conference so uniquely different than any other in the world today?

REBECCA FEFERMAN: Well, I think the answer is in the question in that SXSW’s success is the element of all these different industries colliding in one place. The content is so geared toward determining and highlighting what is next – technology, sports, innovation – and that creates an electricity and energy for all who show up. Our attendees are invested in both creating content and seeking out meaningful content. Everyone who comes has a predetermined interest in what has happened at SXSW in the past and what is happening. Combine that with Austin, beer and BBQ, and it makes things combust in an exciting way that has no limitations.  It’s a cool event. It’s a fun event.

When you look back to how SXSW began, we started with music. People want to hear the greatest new band. They want to say they saw it first. And that’s still at our heart and soul – the entertainment side of discovery. As we expanded, we realized that same heart and soul can drive things like panels and networking events. In turn, there is no other place where you find so many creative thinkers. It’s completely reflective of our culture. We were founded as an industry event with the hope of providing something different from the typical musical festival, and we succeeded at that. Now, SXSW is built around the business that drives that industry and thousands of others – we combine music with a tradeshow with learning opportunities with a performance aspect.

After music took off, interactive and film came next in 1994. It took approximately a decade for them to become what they are now and there were points, looking back, that absolutely changed the trajectory. In 2007, when Twitter launched, it changed the game. We could see in real time what people were thinking, what they thought of a panel, a band, a film. In 2007 we also got the world premiere of Knocked Up, which was huge and a tipping point for the film festival, which launched us into new territory. The film festival has become a discovery ground for independent films – films that are edgier and raw.  Just two years later, we hired a new festival head that brought in folks with great visibility of the entertainment industry. We now show more than 90 world premieres – nearly doubling where we were before. While film and music became the breeding ground for entertainment trends, interactive became the place where trends in wearables, technology, business and culture could be discussed. We believe that tomorrow happens here.

POPULOUS: Really interesting to see some of the milestones in SXSW’s growth. Could you talk a little about yourself, your career in the entertainment industry and your path that led to your role as head of SXsports?

RF: My background is in entertainment public relations. I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico… and growing up, I couldn’t wait to get out and live an exciting life. I had an older cousin who worked in entertainment PR and thought it seemed like a great career.  I ended up going to college at The University of Michigan and spent a lot of my time interning, studying abroad and eventually, my senior year, ended up with an internship at 20th Century Fox. I was really driven and asked a lot of questions. At one point, I remember asking someone very high up in the organization for advice and said “what more can I do to prepare for the real world.” She told me “Just do something! Do something you’re passionate about. That will make the difference.”  I went back to college with that in mind. Not long after, I was in class with some girlfriends and we were talking about the Maroon Outs at Texas A&M. The three of us realized that we could do something similar at Michigan and we put our heads together to produce the first ever Blue Out in the school’s history. We had a logo, partnered with the university, worked closely with the alumni association and athletic department and sold 4,000 t-shirts that first year. It was by all means a success and became a staple for many years to come. I served on a committee after that to develop a student t-shirt for season ticket holders after that and helped with a large competition held to select a design for it. At the time, Michigan football was everything to me. Once I graduated, I moved to LA and worked at Warner Bros. in the publicity department, and then a company called IDPR, representing actresses and acting as a personal publicist. I was really lucky and had great clients and was able to do a lot of fun, glamorous things – but I realized after years in the business, I didn’t have much else. My brother was living in Austin at the time – and I decided it would be a good place for me to settle down and build a well-rounded life.

I left LA in October 2008. Janet Pierson had just taken over as the head of the film festival and she brought me on board to help with film PR. It was such a cool event and I was running all the media relations for the film festival which eventually developed into a programming role because of my background in LA with studios and talent. After being at SXSW for a few years, SXsports became my next adventure. It was a confluence of circumstances that led to the creation. Based on my love for Hard Knocks, the series on HBO, we realized there was opportunity for a panel on sports filmmaking, so we pulled together a group – HBO, the NFL and ESPN Films – and it was clear people were passionate about us providing sports related content from then on. We proposed the SXsports concept in 2013 and worked quickly to brand and package it for the 2014 festival. SXSW 2015  was its second year in existence and I’m excited to see what comes in the future. The SXSW brand and experience has been the secret sauce as to why we’ve gone so far so quickly with the sports track.

POPULOUS: So you’ve probably gotten to see Austin really flourish over the past few years. Talk a little about how that has coincided with the growth of SXSW.

RF: Austin is growing –  and you can’t discount the impact SXSW has had on elevating the city’s brand. And vice versa, SXSW couldn’t exist without Austin. What people think about when they think about Austin, and what people think about when they think about SXSW really plays off of each other. There’s been crazy growth here since I moved here in 2008 – and it’s a fun and cool and wonderful place to live. People are here because they love the lifestyle and there is a huge influx of people coming… and they are all coming for the same reasons. Austin is so brilliantly supportive of the infrastructure required to be a friendly city. They maintain and create beautiful trails and bike paths. It’s pedestrian friendly. And they incentivize local business to create a really authentic culture.

POPULOUS: It’s a great city! With SXSW, you have a really unique vantage point for evaluating the convergence of sports and technology.   From your perspective, what were some of the real highlights and best moments from SXsports 2015 – some of the stand out trends?

RF: The way we programmed this year’s track was intentionally broad. We wanted to appeal to a mix of people. There needed to be specificity and forward thinking ideas for sports industry folks and relatable and accessible content for non-sports attendees and fans. SXsports can and has the influence it does because it evaluates how sport impacts culture and vice versa. For example, a perfect intersection of this was a session about if MLB data can save the arms of pitchers. They looked at how tracking pitch counts and using other data can respond to the unprecedented number of MLB pitchers having Tommy John surgery.  It was super successful because it incorporated technology, the future of sports and was immediately appealing to anyone who is a parent of a young player. It was really fascinating. We also hosted a panel on whether or not sports mega events have a future that was heated and really compelling. We talked about how sports influences development, affects change in communities and impacts our culture and perception from a global perspective. We also placed a high premium on youth sports related content. For example, we focused on how the Aspen Institute is utilizing technology to make sports accessible to all youth in America by removing the barrier for entry. Other great sessions came from Ronda Rousey, who was on a great, inspirational session with Dana White and UFC up and comer Jessica Eye on what it means to be a female fighter. It was thoughtful, articulate and inspirational… everything we can hope from these sessions.

POPULOUS: The New Cathedral centered on the future of sport stadium design and next gen fan experience.  Where do you think the in stadium experience is headed?

RF: The impact of technology on sports stadiums was a huge topic – we probably had 10 panels on the stadium experience submitted. It’s at the forefront of what our attendees are thinking about – they want to know what the immersive experience will look like. What I really liked about Brian’s (Mirakian) presentation was the evaluation of the actual technology, how will it work and how he combined that with the beauty of stadium and arena design and the art of integrating the experience and brands.  It’s also interesting to think about what is the experience for the team, the athletes and staff … and how that creates a true home field advantage. I also think we will continue to discuss the challenge of getting people to attend as in-home technology and virtual reality technology is increasingly available. I think in the future it will be able to make a stadium experience that goes beyond the game but doesn’t distract from play.

POPULOUS: Talk a bit about the influence sports has on our culture and how that resulted in the start of SXsports. What’s next for SXsports and do you see it evolving over the next decade?

RF: That’s a good question. First and foremost, we want to establish SXsports as the destination for these conversations that move the needle. We want the content to be accessible… so less 30,000 foot pontification and more continuing to get the doers in the room in front of other doers to make an immediate impact. Sports are fun, SXSW is fun and we want to embrace that! I see us adding in exhibition, play and looking at the format to ensure it isn’t overly formal moving forward. In addition to programming, we plan to continue to overlap with film and music and organically weave these together. For 2016, we aren’t going to expand the size but will adjust the format and experience, keeping that three day footprint.


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