Battling for the fan in 2016: a year in sports technology

“… In a tech based world, you have to change or die. That hasn’t been the case with sports. It’s an industry that has lived on in much the same form for 100 years”.

Casey Wasserman (founder of Wasserman Sport and Entertainment Group) said this in 2015. Last year, that changed.

While sport may well have been locked in a beautiful past, last year it found itself locked in the middle of an ugly tension: playing catch-up while being disrupted. Because sport is finally – rightly – being challenged to engage its fanbases in different, newer, more modern ways.

Technology offers the solution and made 2016 an eventful one with the incursion of some transformative developments across sports tech:

Live streaming actually went mainstream; the in-stadium experience got heavy-handed with the experience part of itself; VR finally registered on the radar of normal people (with varying successes and failures); while ‘hackathons’ became a ‘thing’ and the general adoption of technology in sport generally increased.

That is the abridged version.

This post gives the holistic view of what it all may mean.

SO FIRST, THERE WAS LIVE STREAMING

Live streaming is the new game on the scene, and it is playing to usurp the traditional live broadcast.

From an audience’s point of view, the appeal is down to very few barriers to entry, but its magic all about access – the real-time interactivity of it, how you can incorporate live stats into a programme, see new camera angles in a broadcast, while discussion and direct interaction between the broadcaster and the viewers happens right there.

It is changing the way sports are viewed so much so, that the dominant behaviour of viewing sports in the future may well be less televised and detour completely to being streamed instead.

The real tipping point for that moment comes down to broadband infrastructure and the point at which users can receive TV quality picture via internet delivery methods. But until that point, other developments are occurring – the biggest from 2016 being Twitter’s move beyond the 140 characters they are known for to move into live video with their Thursday night deal to stream the NFL.

What that wasn’t about was bringing fans to Twitter’s platform; it was a commitment from both the NFL and Twitter to bring better content to a bigger audience and take sports broadcasting to a new level.

It certainly wasn’t the only one. Contrast it with some other threads, such as the large swathes of teams and broadcasters turning to Facebook Live:

  • The NBA’s Atlanta Hawks gave fans the opportunity to see the team’s new players in action for the first time ahead of the 2016 season by live-streaming a pre-season practice session on Facebook. The 80 minute training session received more than 1 million views.
  • Or how Real Madrid TV chose to go down the Facebook route as they looked to move beyond the linearity of traditional broadcast and reach a wider global audience (partnering with the cloud-based video platform for live media rights, Grabyo to do so). From 128 live broadcasts, they had generated more than 110 million video views.

And others have opted to venture down different paths to Twitter or Facebook in their live streaming adventure:

  • In the first deal of its kind between a streaming service and a major professional sports franchise, sports startup Sportle is trying to crack the increasingly crowded streaming space in a partnership deal with AC Milan, giving US fans access to the entire team’s content in one place, rather than spread across a range of channels.
  • US sports teams were especially vigilant in establishing a live presence on Snapchat in 2016. NBC’s Snapchat deal saw them run stories at the 2016 Rio Olympics to complement its more traditional TV offering and capture a different set of viewers in the process.
  • Or take Perform Group, the world’s leading digital sports content and media group, in their attempt to build the Netflix for Sports with the launch of DAZN, a dedicated platform for live sports streaming giving fans access to over 8,000 live events a year. Initially only available in a few select countries, they followed with a launch inJapan buying all the rights to the live coverage of J-League football for £1.5bn for 10 years.
  • Manchester City haven’t been quiet in sports tech, and not content with their CityTV YouTube channel being the second most popular club football channel in the world (with a staggering 150 views every minute), their app now allows fans to stream its unique CityTV content (ranging from behind-the-scenes tunnel access to Pep Guardiola-led training sessions and player interviews) directly onto a connected TV through Amazon Fire TV; a deal which is likely to only further strengthen the global distribution of its content.
  • And then there was the UFC who became an early adopter of Twitter’s Periscope-360 video. They incorporated the perspective Periscope gives an audience into their broadcasting environment – pitching the experience as being one step closer to actually being there – and gave fans a special behind the scenes view point by live streaming fight weigh-ins (starting at UFC 207 to 13,000 live viewers).

What’s driving all of these investments is a rights model that’s becoming far more relaxed about what content is freed up on social and a realisation that it’s reductive to think about monetisation in sport as just selling rights. And that’s because fans are no longer prepared to be slaves to a rights-holder’s rationing of the broadcast they own, because today fans don’t respect where the ownership comes from.

But couple this with the even more serious amounts of money pouring into the medium (from clubs, rights holders and media entities alike) and there is no doubt the format could prove to be the prevailing tool for fan interaction among leading sports teams in the future.

Facebook proved they may also believe this by rounding out the progress they made in 2016 with the launch of an ad campaign encouraging fans to use the live streaming service to capture real-time content.

Live streaming is a natural progression for sport, and one which is less a question of whether fans will continue to embrace it, but rather, what more could fans expect from it?

THERE WAS THE SUPERCHARGING OF THE IN-STADIUM EXPERIENCE.

The expectation of today’s general public, let alone sports fans, are for things which add value to their lives. But when it comes to sports fans especially, their idea of ‘what constitutes a sports experience’ has changed spectacularly.

And there were plenty of cases from 2016 of clubs going grander on the in-stadium frills made available to fans in terms of taking them to places which their match ticket or TV subscription couldn’t.

Out of everything in 2016, the Sacramento Kings really got this right. Their owner, and notable Silicon Valley legend, Vivek Ranadive made reference to their new stadium being “a giant Tesla”. Except on reflection, it is not just a stadium.

This is a club which has taken technology and pushed it to it’s full potential. The result is the $557m Golden 1 Centre, a smart building catering to just about every need going, and truly putting the fan at the centre of it. They have taken the basics of what is now commonly expected and supercharged them for the Sacramento masses, and in the process, redefined what an arena experience is.

With a hyper-personalised app designed to let fans navigate the building, tell them where to park, allow the to order food and merchandise from their seats, or find the shortest toilet queues as well as watch live action and replays from numerous angles. On it, Sacramento Kings fans no longer need to check in to the stadium because the stadium will be checking into them.

Bolt on beacons, virtual reality, mobile payment, an in-house wi-fi x17k faster than the average home, an 84ft scoreboard (the largest indoor electronic screen), plus 600 video displays, and you have yourself near-on the most advanced stadium in the world. Literally the only thing limiting this place is the capacity of a fan’s mobile device.

  • Another leading example: LAFC’s partnership model. First was their announcement of working together with IBM to develop the first cloud-enabled stadium in MLS and transform the live game experience in the process. This isn’t just wifi; together, this is two brands taking a fan-centric design approach that will define and a unique environment intended to reinvent what it means to be “connected” while in a stadium. Then there is their recent Panasonic partnership which is centered on bringing the stadium to life by ushering in the most technologically-advanced soccer stadium in the MLS.
  • Take Watford Football Club’s adoption of Eleven Sports Media’s Stadium TV’s featuring live stats and social media feeds. Their plan for it? To make Vicarage Road amongst the most advanced in-stadium experiences in Europe where fans will be able to interact with live data stats installed on screens around the ground.
  • Then there is the NBA’s introduction of Brizicam allowing fans to live-control a fan cam mounted within the stadium and call it over to their seats to get on the big screen.
  • Or Tottenham Hotspur’s proposed new stadium which could make a play for being the number one stadium experience in the world. As well as all the technological bells and whistles for letting fans do things that have never been done before at a football stadium, a new feature they are introducing (not strictly technology based) is very simply the development of a glass wall. This is a wall which will let fans get closer to the action than ever seen before, as they will be able to line up alongside the players as they line up in the tunnel pre-game.

The explosive growth of an immersive fan experience has been propelled – and in contrast, paralleled – by sky- rocketing ticket prices without any sight of halting (increasing at twice the cost of living since 2011) meaning disgruntled fans are wielding their rightful power to expect more from the experiences they pay for.

But as these expectations of experience inside the stadium are elevated, clubs are trying to meet them. And those winning at it are those who are a strong proponent of using technology to take fans into the inner sanctum of their team’s environment. Not only does doing this well offer the chance to create new content verticals to monetise, but a way to engage a fanbase by giving them more than they paid for.

Looking to the future, the stadium experience is only going to be further impacted by technology, which can only be a good thing.

THEN THERE IS VIRTUAL REALITY (VR)

VR has been on the surface of going mainstream for a while, but the technology really reached a tipping point last year.

It was an understanding of the basic rules – what works and what doesn’t – in VR which saw it move from gimmick to increasingly become a way fan can get a better experience of a sport.

Where it was best applied was when it operated on a very basic insight: that every fan has dreamt of playing or getting closer for their favourite sports team, and VR can let them do that.

And some clubs and brands really committed to it in 2016, falling head over heels with what the tech can do:

  • Manchester City’s continued experiment with new and immersive technology to improve on the fan experience extended to VR with the launch of their new football-watching experience, the ‘CityVR’ app – giving fans a way to enjoy game highlights and exclusive content, such as access to player information and in-game statistics so they could delve deeper into the match with greater insight into what’s happening, all in virtual reality.
  • But arguably the standout VR application in sport in 2016 was from the NBA. First their partnership with VR broadcasting company NextVR to show one weekly NBA game live-streamed in VR in a 180-degree field view, with some of the content played in 360-degrees. Fans were able to switch camera angles and the broadcast included it’s own dedicated announcers. They followed it with their broadcast of the playoffs, NBA Finals: Follow My Lead. This defined a turning tide – a 25-minute piece of VR film, which was a masterpiece from beginning to end.
  • Other sports clubs pioneering in this space include Brighton & Hove Albion’s VR experience to take its supporters behind the scenes on a matchday, providing an up-close look at player warm-ups, the tunnel, and into the heart of a goal celebration.
  • Or the NFL which announced it is producing an original, and first, VR content series. Giving fans a 360-degree perspective of life in and around the NFL, covering players, coaches, executives, cheerleaders and fans, as well as giving an insider’s look at gameday preparation and team cultures.

Audiences want proximity and closeness and with VR, that is exactly what they are getting. VR gives brands and clubs the ability to take a game day experience to fans anywhere. Fans can walk into dressing rooms, get closer to players by sitting on the bench, or being part of a warm up or celebration with them.

It is a vehicle for storytelling and high-end experiences and it’s potential (both as a medium and as an industry with a marketplace for it) for emotional engagement can’t really be disputed.

As it reaches a true tipping point, it will be live VR which eventually becomes the reason consumers decide it’s time to buy into this as they’ll want to be teleported in real time to the things that are happening around the world before they’re over – fans no longer need to worry about a match selling out because they can get a virtual reality ticket to it. They can be there even if they are in a different city half way around the world.

It is also set to set revolutionise the e-commerce industry (with a value predicted to hit $150bn by 2020). The future could see the likes of Google looking to sell you the 1st team kit, or the boots players are wearing during the match; you’ll be able to bet-in-play and interact more widely with the various advertisers on display (but, more importantly, should a viewer wish to).

2016 gave us a taste of what VR can do, so we owe it to 2017 to build on that.

DATA AND HACKATHON’S

An example of wanting the edge can be seen with hackathons which has become a recent trend in the U.S. with clubs hosting hackathon’s or tech accelerators as they can be called in a bid to get to grips with the torrent of data being thrown at them.

The sheer volume of data in sport is a problem in itself and will only get more complex as viewers and everyone else around the sport are exposed to even more of it than ever before. Getting to grips with it is a critical priority.

  • NFL side Minnesota Vikings opened a new headquarters which will house a tech accelerator for primarily startups with a key focus on the sports technology sector. While NBA team, the Philadelphia 76ers, and MLB’s Los Angeles Dodgers are launching similar projects.
  • The NBA recently held an invite-only hackathon in NYC to establish new ways of looking at game stats, and proposing hypothesis around the style of play – it’s a way for the NBA to increase its stats know-how for commentators, coaches and players in recent years.
  • And then there is Under Armour betting heavily that big data will help it overtake Nike. The company has recently invested $710 million in acquiring three fitness app companies, including MyFitnessPal, and their combined community of more than 120 million athletes and their data, and along with a partnership with a wearables company, these acquisitions will drive a strategy that puts Under Armour directly in the path of where big data is headed: wearable technology that goes way beyond the wearable part of itself.

Hackathons give an opportunity to address all of the many datasets and offer a way to enrich the fan experience.

More niche that the others sports tech developments in 2016, but hackathons and any other initiatives to try and get a handle on data certainly played an important role, and more of them will be seen popping up in future.

SO IT’S A BRAVE NEW WORLD, BUT WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

It means that habits are changing.

The habits of sports consumption are shifting in the face of developments in technology. And this same technology is also allowing clubs, brands and rights holders to develop more advanced relationships with their fans as they unlock a wider ecosystem for them, and allow sport to be consumed more and more as an entertainment product.

We are seeing game changers in terms of raising the bar on the fan experience all the time as they augment a fan’s viewing in different ways.

Live streaming offers content developers and marketers a platform to create more in-demand live content; virtual reality is emerging as a platform that enables content experiences with a truly unique vantage point that brings fans closer to the game – we are not too far away from camera’s being embedded in players’ kits and giving fans the chance to see what it is like to be a player.

So in the face of disruption, the sports industry has done a good job at playing catch-up. And now change is afoot, but even as the paying fields level, more developments will only continue to follow.

As for the future, no longer passive spectators, the sports fan will continue to wield power. And irrelevant of what will happen exactly, sport will be the winner as fanbases are engage in different, newer, more modern ways with more immersive, authentic experiences.

The die has been cast…

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