The year ahead | What to expect from sport in 2020

As the new year begins, figures from across the industry predict the technological innovations, content initiatives and hosting strategies that will be making the news in 2020.

Premier League will get rid of VAR | Phil Carling, managing director, football, Octagon

“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning”. If Jeff Bezos’s insight has any validity, then VAR will almost certainly be canned by the English Premier League, pending further assessment. The system has fatally undermined the live experience and the match-going part of the fanbase, its most knowledgeable and dedicated segment, have already voted. The overwhelming sentiment is now negative and the powers that be will act.

In 2020 sponsorships which owe their raison d’être to mission, purpose and values will become far more prevalent. While not replacing the time-honoured metrics of exposure and reach, a values-based proposition will become central to more sponsorship decisions by brands. This will be good news for sports that are high on purpose and low on audience. In football there will be a strong trend to invest in the women’s game and rights owners in the men’s game will need to invest greater resources into evolving their values and core brand proposition. Expect the pathfinding brand campaign by Liverpool “This means more” to preface “More like this”.

If values and purpose are elevated in importance, there could be a storm brewing in relation to the changing and accelerating axis in sponsorship, media rights and ownership towards Chinese and Middle Eastern money. Chinese wealth is now a key focus for football’s elite from Fifa to the leading clubs. Media-rights values have rocketed for the top competitions with China and the Middle East emerging as key markets. The Saudis are preparing to go head-to-head with beIN Sports and have made the first steps to becoming a hub for major sporting events. The storm, however, will break because, as the NBA and Mesut Özil will tell you, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

Bob Iger, chairman and chief executive of The Walt Disney Company. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images).

Streaming wars could get bloody, and fans need more guidance | Frank Leenders, director general, Fiba media and marketing services

At a (very) macro content level, the general “streaming wars” may get bloody and could have their first casualties, starting in the USA. Apple and Disney have launched and now compete with established players like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu with many others yet to come. Some will be more successful than others and there will probably be a shake-out.

From a sports content point of view, I expect that the trend to deliver sports content via streaming (OTT) platforms will only continue and get stronger. Cord-cutting is a reality and new generations are used to (only) subscribing to OTT and skinny bundles. The assignment of Uefa Champions League rights in Germany to Amazon and DAZN demonstrates this, even for very premium and widely distributed content.

However, I think that sports rights-holders will realise the idea that everyone can go D2C and be successful is an illusion. Fans and consumers need support. For this reason, I think that there will be a growing need and trend to aggregate sports rights vertically, within the same sport, and horizontally, across different sports (as DAZN are doing in most markets).

I think sport will look to provide better tools to help fans navigate their way through the digital jungle, with artificial intelligence playing a prominent role, offering suggestions based on historic consumption patterns. Expect platforms to facilitate transactions, provide more a la carte viewing options and attempt to reduce the hassle of multiple subscriptions.

Your next big signing will be virtual | Pete Clare, consulting partner, Seven League

You might be the biggest team on the planet with the ultimate household names. However, it’s not always possible to get players to say what you want, support the causes you’d like them to, or even, frankly, to be engaging.

At Seven League we believe that 2020 will see more sports creating virtual IP. Animated or virtual characters, or even mascots, are much easier to imbue with values and messaging that fit with those of a brand. They also offer the opportunity of an ‘always on’ entertainment vertical supporting the on-pitch/court action.

DJ Marshmello performs at the Fortnite World Cup Finals. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

This year, a DJ called Marshmello played to more than 10 million gamers inside the made-up world of Fortnite, while, in the NHL and the US, Philadelphia Flyers mascot Gritty became a household name. Just recently, Manchester City announced ‘Sky Blue Academy’ – an animated, 26-episode series made for children aged 8-11.

Ranging from virtual influencers to animated stars, it begs the question: why hire a sports star or even a social media influencer to market your product when you can create the ideal brand ambassador from scratch?

We expect 2020 will see more sports creating virtual IP and year-round entertainment properties in an effort to diversify their revenues, access new audiences and spread positive messages.

To download Seven League’s Seven Digital Trends in Sport 2020 report, click here.

AI will start to deliver and simplicity will be the watchword | Charlie Greenwood, Sports Loft tech hub

Sports tech has been growing fast in 2019, and that’s only going to continue in 2020. However, there is going to be an element of the market maturing – with people looking for technologies to provide genuine value, rather than being innovative for the sake of it. There are two big areas that I think will play into this.

AI has been a widely used term, often thrown in as a buzzword. 2020 will start to see AI-based companies start to deliver genuine use cases as the data sets grow, the machine “learning” gets faster and the applications in sport become more commonplace. AI-based companies to watch include Zone 7 in injury prevention, Satisfi in conversational AI for stadiums and Formalytics in skills analysis from mobile footage.

Simplicity is going to be even more valued in 2020. As data and content become overwhelming, companies who can make workflows and user experiences easy and friction free are going to do well. Companies to watch include Slate for their easy workflow in content creation, Who Knows Wins for their simple UX in gaming and Pumpjack for identifying key insights from vast amounts of data.

Saudi Arabia will continue to be in the spotlight | Simon Chadwick, professor of Sports Enterprise, University of Salford

Given my specific interest in the Eurasia sport industry, I will be paying close attention to developments in general across this landmass. In 2020, global growth and innovation will continue to be driven out of countries such as China, India, Abu Dhabi and the UK.

Saudi Arabia will continue to be in the spotlight, as the kingdom presses forward with its recently instigated sports policy. Elsewhere in the Gulf, Qatar’s continuing preparations for 2022 need to be closely observed. Abu Dhabi’s deal with US private equity investor Silver Lake (via the City Football Group), should also reveal something to us about the ongoing convergence of sport, entertainment and digital technologies.

Otherwise, my attention will be focused on the Far East. Japan’s hosting of the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games are an important step in the country’s nation branding and soft power projection. In China, we are moving into a new five-year plan for sport, which is intended to secure the country’s place as the world’s biggest domestic sports economy by 2025. Its steps towards this in the new year are therefore vitally important for the government in Beijing.

Tokyo 2020 mascot Miraitowa – robot version. (Image credit: Tokyo 2020 organising committee)

Tokyo takes its bow | Frank Leenders

Japan and Tokyo will take a central role as the country hosts the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. The country will want to encourage tourism but also promote itself to a broader set of stakeholders.

From a sports marketing and business perspective, Dentsu is breaking all sorts of records in terms of sponsorship revenues and activations.

From a personal perspective, I’m looking forward to 3×3 Basketball making its debut as a medal discipline at the Games. “From the streets to the Olympics” is now reality for this urban discipline.

Sports OTT platforms will offer more interactivity | Ivan Codina, managing director SEA, LaLiga

Influenced by the burgeoning esports industry – as seen in the fact that the $3m prize fund for Fortnite outstrips the $2.35m offered by Wimbledon – rights-holders will look to provide fans with personalised viewing experiences and increased control. OTT platforms will look to differentiate and stand out through interactive functions that effectively allow viewers to ‘direct’ their own sports coverage.

Sports organisations will continue to reshape their approach, trying to develop direct relationships with consumers in order to remain relevant and to continue to appeal to sponsors.

Esports will continue to trend with six golf events planned | Michael Cole, chief technology officer, European Tour

Technology continues to transform the sporting landscape and esports is one area that is set to be a key development for the European Tour in 2020. We will introduce golf’s first esports series: the European eTour, in partnership with Topgolf and Dreamhack, which will feature six eTour events alongside our European Tour tournaments with participants going head-to-head playing the World Golf Tour (WGT) game developed by Topgolf.

The eTour is part of our wider commitment to innovation and the response so far suggests the concept will be a big success. In just one week, more than 45,000 players from 169 different countries attempted to qualify for our first tournament in Abu Dhabi in January.

Another area I see as being an important part of 2020 is the implementation of 5G. This enhanced technology offers plenty of opportunities in sport, including high-speed low latency wireless infrastructure, supporting localised operations, remote broadcast, and enhanced media and spectator services.

Data will also continue to be a central focus for sporting organisations, and our new data collection service with IMG Arena will be fully operational in early 2020, allowing us to collect up to 15 data points for every golf stroke in real time. We are also developing our crowd analytics capability to better understand the behaviours of on-course spectators to drive engagement and commercialisation.

Read this: European Tour partners with DreamHack for first foray into esports

Collaborations will become more common | Alexandra Willis, head of communications, content & digital, AELTC

Collaborations will become more common – strength lies in numbers, a rising tide lifts all boats, the clichés go on, but the point is sport can be stronger by working together. The thrilling finale to the men’s Cricket World Cup Final and the epic nature of the longest ever Wimbledon final were both augmented by the fact that they were taking place at the same time, just down the road from each other. That fact brought non-sports watchers in. Where there are opportunities for events, media owners, athletes, brands and games to collaborate, they should seize them.

As the opportunities for fans to engage continue to increase, media companies, brands and rights-holders will acknowledge that being direct to consumer isn’t just about having an over the top platform. It’s about exploring all the many ways to engage directly with consumers, and that means understanding them first.

On this note, the continuing growth of TikTok proves Gen Y fans want to add their own touch of fun, identity and character to content, whether that be adding a filter so that a basketball hoop explodes doughnuts when a player scores, or overlaying new effects over the flight of a ball. The modern fan wants to be involved and not merely a passive consumer.

Read this: The business of Wimbledon: Social media and marketing

Esports will be democratised | Graham Wallace, chief executive, Gfinity

2020 will be the year when esports and competitive gaming goes from mainstream to mega. The democratisation process will be fast-tracked during the year based on four powerful factors.

Expect a convergence of audiences through an increased investment in content from traditional and new networks and platforms. It’s going to be unashamedly big and bold.

There will be a concerted drive to broaden the competitive gaming landscape, offering players of any standard a platform to play against peers – at their level, when they want to play and supported by entertaining content.

The commercial space will also open up, as companies in the sector develop products that bring huge audiences with unparalleled engagement levels to brands.

And get ready for the world’s biggest brands, sports franchises and even countries bringing their resources to the party and changing the gaming landscape with new and exciting offerings.

There has never been a better time to be gamer. New consoles, streaming services, new franchises to support and new games with tournament play built in. And there has never been a better time to be a company at the epicentre of this exciting industry. Bring on 2020!

Most recent

Tom King looks at how China is getting its sporting calendar back on track, and how the global health crisis has affected some of the weaker industry players in the country.

The Abu Dhabi government has turned the majority of Yas Island into a ten-square-mile safe zone just for the UFC, with each of the 2,500 people on site being tested for Covid-19 on five separate occasions during their stay.

USL executive vice president Court Jeske speaks to SportBusiness about the opportunities and challenges of the USL Championship's return in home venues amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last month, the Infront agency announced the launch of its new initiative, #Sport4Recovery. Adam Nelson speaks to some of the founding partners of the programme about how the scheme aims to highlight the social and health benefits of sport as well as the economic ones.