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Rebecca Hopkins | The technology that came to the fore in 2020

Rebecca Hopkins, CEO of The STA Group and partner in Sightline Ventures, reflects on the way sport has relied on technology during the Covid-19 pandemic and asks which adaptations are here to stay.

Rebecca Hopkins

Which of us didn’t watch with increasing dismay as the promised golden year of sport rapidly lost its shine? However, as with most things, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody good and 2020 proved pivotal, in a positive way, for some key parts of the sector.

In many respects the biggest learning from 2020 was that a tech-forward mindset is a crucial facet of a successful sports brand or organization in today’s market. When the live sport hiatus hit, the brands which could pivot to esports, maintain fan engagement through creative and targeted activation, and create and broadcast content through tech-led remote production, emerged as the industry’s success stories.

The factor uniting these bodies is that technology runs through their corporate DNA; they didn’t turn to tech to solve problems in the short-term, technology had been woven into their thinking over many years. They all understand risk, tolerate it, and have an instilled open-to-innovation brand ethos, which proved to be their strength in testing times.

2020 was a year where the technology landscape was skewed by short-term fixes, the key one being artificial crowd noise. Impressive though these were, not least in the speed with which they emerged, will they still be a feature of live sport in 18 months’ time?

More useful is to consider how the past 12 months has irrevocably changed our thinking in terms of tech. Financially times have been very tough, so every line on the P&L is under scrutiny; whether the talk is of fan analytics, engagement, content, broadcast, venues, digital. What now unites our approach to these is a greater need to see demonstrable return on investment. This is being achieved through speed of service, rationalization of human resource, cost savings in areas such as travel, or increased revenue through improved insights.

Without doubt, Artificial Intelligence has come to the fore and is proving exceptionally effective at unearthing new insights and challenging thinking. It is a rare organization which hasn’t committed to a data harvesting on several fronts and AI is making that data more valuable.

The most notable movement expediated by the pandemic was probably esports. After years of discussion and debate around its relationship with ‘traditional’ sports, the genie is truly out of the bottle. What is now clear is that any sport which isn’t reviewing an esports strategy for 2021 is likely to be found wanting for a second time.

With the gradual return of crowds to live sport, venue design is going to come under scrutiny. While the vaccine is fundamental to this, it is likely that even if fans’ thinking hasn’t changed, venue operations managers will be cautious about optics; crammed F&B areas, questionable toilet facilities and transactions in cash might not prove acceptable in sports’ ‘new normal’.  Technology, such as in-seat ordering and blue light hygiene, can address many of these issues but will require investment to adopt.

The other challenge for venues, and one to which they were sensitive to prior to this year, is that of safety. Fans must be able to return to live sport confident that better controls are in place to ensure their security. It has been proved, tragically, that human diligence alone is insufficient to achieve this, so venues will be turning to technology to ensure their events are delivered in the safest way possible. As fans flock back to live events, venues will be upgrading on many fronts.

The other security issue which increases is the threat from cyber-attack. Although many brands and sports people have been victims, 2020’s highest profile casualty was Manchester United, which appeared to deal with the issue in an exemplary fashion. This shows that as hackers get smarter and data hauls get bigger, the hazard is greater. Whilst this isn’t sports tech per se, it is a huge consideration of technology’s importance in the business of sport.

The world moving to working from home has made us reflect on the necessity of having people in specified places to do their jobs. Exciting strides have been made in remote production over the past few years and wise broadcasters – as well as rights holders with robust OTT assets – adopted these to great effect. The pandemic certainly influenced us to think differently in this regard, and hopefully we’ll see it make an impact in the areas of sustainability and environmental awareness too. If it does, the types of outside broadcast mobilizations traditionally seen for major events might eventually be consigned to history for good.

With everything that we’ve witnessed in 2020, it’s clear that the sports technology sector remains vibrant and diverse and continues to evolve. 2020 has thrown the bottom line into sharp focus and if there is to be one take out, it’s this: ensure technology makes a difference for you in 2021.

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