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In digital era, CEO's job is to score with tech

About 20 years ago, Bill Gates at Microsoft, Steve Jobs at Apple and Larry Ellison at Oracle formed a fairly exclusive club — CEOs who knew a thing or two about technology. Of course, they led tech companies, so they had little choice but to immerse themselves in their companies’ business. But typically, chief execs were known more for MBAs than for advanced degrees in computing, the ability to assemble a team rather than a database, corporate over tech know-how.

That was then. Today the CEO’s job exists in a very different, digitally focused business world. A working knowledge of technology and how it can advance business is practically required of most chief execs today. Lisa Pearson, CEO of Umbel, which sells data management and analytics tools to sports teams, needs to live and breathe tech to collect a paycheck. But she also sees technology as having seeped into the CEO role in any organization as a matter of necessity.

Lisa Pearson

“I don’t see how you can fund a company without a basic mastery of technology,” Pearson said. If cybercriminals hack into a company’s systems, for example, it’s the CEO’s job that’s on the line. “You see the stock price plummet when there’s a security breach, so I think that has been a way of calling attention to older-school CEOs that they have to become tech-literate.”

Spectators’ sports

It’s not all about cybersecurity; it’s about growth, too. In the world of sports, where Umbel operates, CEOs have not always been the most tech-savvy group, Pearson said.

One CEO of a sports team told her that he used to look out in the arena where the team was playing and glower at a sea of heads looking down at glowing smartphones. “‘It just made me so mad,'” she recalled him saying. “‘How could you disrespect the team by not watching them play?'”

But chief executives in sports are realizing that Millennial and Gen Z fans don’t engage in sports the same way older generations do, Pearson said. They often don’t even buy tickets and go to stadiums, and many aren’t watching games on the tube either, because “they’re not watching appointment television.”

So teams are starting to look at digital technologies for whole new ways to “activate fans,” Pearson said. Take the NBA. A 2017 Fast Company article described a tool the basketball league is using that automates the production of game highlights — just seconds after a slam dunk or a three-pointer — and pushes them out to phones of fans at the game.

The NBA has committed to pushing the limits of tech in sports, forging partnerships with companies peddling the latest innovations.

“As a whole, I would say the NBA is probably the most tech-savvy amongst the leagues,” said Courtney Brunious, the associate director of the USC Sports Institute, in the article.

CEO’s job: Reaching the ‘superpower consumer’

Enthusiasm for tech has reached other sports as well, with football, baseball and soccer all experimenting with new ways of reaching fans. Golf, not so much.

“Golf is doing very little to cultivate a young consumer — same thing for tennis,” Pearson said.

They’d better start swinging. According to a 2017 Nielsen report, Millennials and Gen Zers make up 48% of the media audience — that’s TV, radio and digital. Together they constitute a “superpower consumer,” Pearson said, and it’s the CEO’s job — in sports and elsewhere — to make them customers.

“Anytime a business owner has the realization that their business is not going to be relevant to the consumer who will pay for it, they better shift gears pretty quickly.”

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