I am not a technophile. Seems a crazy thing to say considering what I have been doing for the past decade. In that time, I have spent eight years looking primarily at Sports Technology investments, quite literally putting my money where my mouth is, and then was responsible for the business technology strategy at Fifa. On the surface I look and sound like a tech aficionado.
The reality is I simply look at what the information is and where the data is pointing. At the same time, I am a realist and understand that the world is only headed in one direction when it comes to technology and as such look to tackle that problem appropriately.
So, what is the data telling us?
When we look down at the myriad of information that we read and see on a daily basis and take it from the helicopter view, we can see a couple of macro changes taking place that we should accept and embrace.
The first is that we are already using technology. First it came in the form of radio, then broadcast, and more recently via digital formats. This is normal progression and is no different to the fact that we have gone from sending letters, to faxes, to emails, and for some now the progression to Slack and other instant messaging services.
Equally in our personal lives it would be challenging to find many senior sports executives who did not have a smartphone, iPad (or equivalent), and a laptop alongside their cable subscription, Netflix account, and all-pervasive Amazon Prime membership.
Not everyone is as fortunate, but the data is clear that mobile and broadband penetration is now extremely high and not about to go into reverse. Technology is a necessary part of our lives and is impacting our sports – not just the other facets of how we live.
The other key data point is that people want to take part.
Technology has changed what that means. We use the loose – and increasingly irrelevant – term of ‘fan engagement’ when we should update our language to reflect what is happening in the world. Involvement or participation is what is truly occurring.
This has not changed, though the format has. Watch children after any major sports event, the World Cup for example, and you will see them in the back garden or parks mimicking what they have seen on screen. For me it was about holing a putt to win The Open, for my son it is celebrating like Cristiano Ronaldo.
Where we truly differ is whilst I could do it only with whoever was on the course with me, our children can video it and share it quite literally with the world. Why? Well, the dream has not changed but the distribution method has.
We used to have the water cooler moments, but now they exist in real time and everyone wants their say. The participation on social media around major sports events shows that people of all shapes, sizes, creeds, and places want their voice to be heard, and they want to be more involved in what they watch.
And we are just at the beginning.
The major themes in the technology revolution are just starting. The internet may have been a mass consumer product for two decades, but it will be the next decade where we start to see what it is truly capable of.
The reality is that the information age has been interesting and disruptive but as the internet finally comes alive the speed of change will accelerate. This is because the other major technology changes are all accelerating and coming online. These include: Big data, 5G, AI/ML, augmented reality, the internet of things, and blockchain. As 5G emerges and we have everything linked and on the internet our speed of change will only accelerate.
What can we do about it?
The good news is that sport has not wasted the past twenty years. Far from it. The progress we have made in terms of broadcast technology, including OTT and remote production, as well as with athlete data and betting and gaming, mean the business has continued to grow.
And nor should it stop growing. Whilst some of this has felt disruptive and painful it has mostly been incremental and supplementary to the business of sport, in that it pushes the content we create to a waiting audience which is keen to consume it.
That has not changed even with social media or our growing acceptance of direct-to-consumer. Sports rights-holders create content and push it via ever-increasing forms of distribution whilst constantly trying to adapt the business model to suit.
The approach to fan engagement has been much the same. Create content and push. Count the number of likes and engagements and tout the numbers as success. That is not of course engagement and certainly is not at the level of involvement that we are seeing across all generations – especially Gen Z and Millennials.
It can seem odd but it is no longer unusual to be in a place like an airport terminal and see youngsters practicing moves in front of a screen as they prep their latest TikTok video. Along with the other social platforms we have seen emerge, and the ones yet to appear, the ability for the fan to also be the creator is the single biggest shift we have seen in sports and entertainment. In fact, the amount of content created by our audience is probably greater than that created by the rights-holders.
How can sports adapt and solve the overarching issues mentioned above?
With the use of technology of course. Our audiences are embracing tech at an ever-increasing speed and are changing their behaviours accordingly. Yet the very same technologies enable sport to reach, engage, and involve more people than ever.
Ignoring technology, or the changes in the broader consumer environment means we will get left behind. Technology is therefore a prerequisite. A foundation stone, if you like, to the future of the sports industry.
Technology should be seen then in two buckets.
First is what technologies can be used to continue to innovate and update the current business model.
Second is what business models can emerging technologies empower sports to seize the opportunity afforded to us by the fact that audiences out there want to create and a become a part of our ecosystem?
It is not that younger audiences are not interested in sports, it’s that we are not communicating with them the way they want to be communicated with. Sport turns a blind eye to the vast majority of user-generated content or actively looks to dissuade it. It is not unlike the original conversation around WiFi in stadiums where you often heard that the clubs did not want to distract fans from watching the field of play – completely missing the point of view of the consumer/fan.
As we will see in the features and articles in this new section of SportBusiness there is no lack of ingenuity and entrepreneurship coming in the sports, media, and entertainment industry – much of it is coming from the Gen Z and Millennials we have apparently left so disinterested.
What we need to see next though is real thought as to what the underlying core technologies can enable in terms of the strategic shift that will need to come to enable sports to both engage and monetise audiences.
5G, Big Data, AI and AR will all enable us to bring interactive sports coaching to the masses. Chelsea Football Club have launched their Perfect Play app, which understands that people all around the world are keen to learn to play like the pros and that there are ways to have them involved in a way that is not just another sponsorship deal.
Blockchain and Digital content can also be brought together to see how the fan as a content creator can be brought together with the rights-holder as content owner to forge a new model where both sides can be rewarded for their symbiotic relationship. Foundation Labs, Dapper Labs and others are showing that both sides of the equation can benefit.
I am not a technophile. Yet the future will be dominated by technology. It’s not about transformation, it’s about acceptance that the strategic model will shift. Tech will simply be the conduit to our audiences and enable our wonderful industry to connect and profit in a way that is as-yet untapped.