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Pitchside Puzzle | Why Fifa is not ready to commit to digital replacement technology

Fifa, football’s governing body, is likely to kick the use of digital replacement technology on advertising boards for the 2018 World Cup into the long grass, because it has yet to find a solution that it trusts.

DRT allows sponsor logos and graphics to be represented ‘virtually’ on LED advertising boards on different broadcast feeds. For rights-holders, the technology provides extra inventory and potential revenue from the same space.

Fifa had initially identified DRT as a money-spinning asset for its Regional Supporter packages – the set of rights that replaced National Supporter packages after the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

The packages are open to four Regional Supporters from each of five global regions: North America, South America, Europe, Middle East and Africa, and Asia.

So far, Fifa has sold just one of the 20 packages – to the Russian bank Alfa-Bank in July – and experts believe that the absence of a DRT solution has been a factor in the slow uptake. Given that the regional packages are thought to be worth at least $10m each, Fifa faces a $190m funding shortfall in this cycle if they remain unsold.

Fifa stresses that at no point was the value of the packages based on the availability or non-availability of DRT. It has continued to hold talks with various suppliers to understand how the technology could develop in time for the 2018 World Cup.

However, SportBusiness International now understands that the chance of the DRT option being taken up is increasingly small.

“If it was simply a question of driving innovation through technology, I doubt they would do it because the risks are high and their level of technology understanding is low,” one expert says.“So it goes back to how much of a financial opportunity is being lost. With so much money on the table, can they afford not to take this more seriously? If I had to call it now, my feeling is that they are not going to take the risk and will keep their powder dry until Qatar 2022.”

Infront decision

From a technical point of view, the issue must be decided quickly if deployment is to take place at the Confederations Cup in 2017, the dress rehearsal for Russia 2018.

Key to any last-minute turnaround on DRT is the Swiss-based sports agency Infront Sports & Media, which has worked as Fifa’s LED advertising solutions agency over the last two World Cups. SportBusiness International understands that Infront was awarded the LED board advertising contract for the next quadrennial over the summer.

The contract announcement has been delayed, in part because of changes at the top of Fifa’s marketing department, where former Uefa marketing chief Philippe LeFloc’h has replaced Fifa marketing director Thierry Weil, who was the main driver behind the regional deal concept.

Infront declined to comment when approached for this article, but it is clear that the agency has an interest in finding a DRT solution for Fifa, either through joint-venture initiatives or a partnership with a third-party supplier.

For the last two World Cups, Infront has used the Chinese supplier AOTO Electronics to provide its LED boards. In August AOTO said that it had successfully tested a virtual overlay LED display system in Chinese National Basketball League games. However, this is unlikely to be taken up for the World Cup after such a limited testing period.

Infront has itself tried to solve the DRT problem through a joint venture with the Norwaybased production company Vizrt. The Vizrt solution, called ‘Viz Eclipse’, claims not to require any physical camera or board installations onsite and to work both on static or LED boards – though some commentators remain skeptical about its deliverability.

The technology is not expected to deliver for the World Cup 2018, leaving Infront with the option of partnering with other LED overlay providers, including the only provider that has already deployed for top-level sports events – the UK and Finnish technology company, Supponor.

Supponor option

In football Supponor’s DRT solution has been used over the last three years to provide digital replacement of static perimeter advertising boards in LaLiga, in tandem with the Mediapro agency, which holds broadcast rights to the Spanish football league. This season LaLiga action is being delivered via seven feeds featuring region-specific perimeter board advertising to broadcasters, including a domestic (Spanish) feed, a rest-of- Europe feed, plus feeds targeted at the Middle East and North Africa, South America, China, Asia and a rest-of-world feed.

Supponor has also been tested by the English Premier League, German Bundesliga, Serie A in Italy and by Uefa.

Its latest LED-compatible technology, which could be suitable for a Fifa World Cup deployment, is currently being tested and refined at English Premier League club Watford.

Unlike the solution envisaged by Vizrt, Supponor DRT requires the installation of compatible LED boards with associated costs. This tends to suit tournaments or competitions where limited numbers of board sets need to be installed and could be viable for the World Cup, where the estimated $10m cost of installation across multiple venues would be offset by the sale of regional packages.

In September the technology was used at the World Cup of Hockey – an ice hockey tournament that took place at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto – for all 16 matches.

According to tournament insiders, overall sponsorship revenue for the tournament was between $25m and $30m, of which 75 per cent of the value was estimated from branding on the ‘digitally-enhanced dasher board’, the key asset in the sponsorship offering.

Four different dasher-board feeds went to broadcasters Sportsnet and TVA in Canada for the English and French feeds, ESPN in the US and to global broadcast partners via the international feed.

Scott Moore, president of Sportsnet and NHL Properties for Rogers, the host broadcaster, said that the system had been “great for the advertisers” and looks forward to the point where it can be used as a separate media platform within a channel whereby graphics and statistics will be projected onto the boards.

According to experts, buy-in from broadcasters like Rogers is at least as important as buy-in from rights-holders if DRT is to succeed. In this respect, the signs from Fifa are that DRT will be more smoothly integrated at Qatar 2022 than Russia 2018. The Fifa 2.0 mission statement, published in October, said that the governing body would be looking to centralise production, making deployment of DRT far more controllable for the rights-holder.

Meanwhile, Fifa remains confident that it will sell many more of the 20 available Regional Supporter packages given the scope of the inventory on offer, even without DRT (see box). Fifa says it does not have a deadline by when all sponsorship packages must be sold and will not discount prices for a last-minute fire sale.

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