Lewis Wiltshire | Web 3.0 and The Third Age of Sport are upon us

A new age of the internet is being formed by technologies including crypto, blockchain, NFTs and enhanced VR. Lewis Wiltshire of Seven League says sport will soon be operating in a very different digital environment and it is time to begin addressing it.

As we head into 2022, two things will happen.

1) Having spent 2020 trying to stay afloat during an unprecedented global crisis, and then 2021 trying to bounce back from it, people will realise they don’t have a business plan for the 2020s, and they’ll panic because we’re two years in.

2) These people will dig up from their subconscious a recollection of someone banging on about ‘Web 3.0’. Didn’t Facebook announce something about a ‘metaverse’? They’ll assume these things ought to be part of their plan and will scramble to understand what they mean.

Lewis Wiltshire

If that’s you, and you join us from that Google search, welcome! You’re not too late, but we do need to crack on.

Before we get into the exact details of what is coming, we can probably agree that something is coming. For the first time in a long time, the internet is fundamentally changing.

For any of us who were around and involved during the transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0, the tell-tale signs are there. I was in a meeting last week where someone referred to ‘the metaverse’ with a mildly embarrassed smile while doing quotation mark signs with their fingers. Let me tell you, that is exactly how people used to say ‘social media’ in meetings in the mid-00s. Almost certainly that’s how people said ‘the internet’ in meetings in the 90s.

During the mid-00s, I was working at UK public-service broadcaster the BBC and was obsessed with the idea of a new internet – an internet of personalisation and participation for every user. Within BBC Sport, my voice began to be heard and we started to take the social web seriously. I became editor of the BBC Sport website and took on responsibility for BBC Sport’s social media presence, becoming its first social media editor.

It was an exhilarating, revolutionary time. In 2004, Facebook was launched. In 2005 came YouTube. In 2006, Twitter. In 2007, the iPhone. It was a period of constant innovation that transformed how the world interacts.

The consumer-facing platforms and products built during that time would define everything we did online for the next 15 years. Web 2.0 was built around mobile and social.

So what’s changing?

The emerging technologies of Web 3.0 – crypto, blockchain, NFTs, dramatically enhanced versions of virtual reality technology – are so fresh that it’s undeniable we’re moving into something new. None of this terminology was central to Web 2.0, but in 2021 all have become commonplace in marketing and digital media discussions.

But what these concepts mean for the future of the internet changes depending on who you talk to.

Mark Zuckerberg sees a third age of the internet in relation to a ‘metaverse’ – a virtual world where we can work and enjoy leisure pursuits, experienced via VR technology. Facebook has created a new, umbrella company for its suite of products, called Meta. This is a sign that even Facebook thinks we’re moving away from the dominance of social media apps (including Facebook) and a pointer to what Zuckerberg thinks the new world will look like.

VR is not new, but what Meta envisions is so new that it could take the rest of the decade to build, if it gets built at all. The sports industry should be aware that we would consume entertainment in that world, as well as potentially paying to access it via that world’s (crypto) currency.

For other people, Web 3.0 means a move towards a decentralised internet, freed from the ownership of a handful of tech giants, with power returned to the people. This vision would be delivered via blockchain technology. Blockchain is a digital ledger of transactions not owned by one gatekeeper, but instead recorded by connected systems. Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) – the hottest topic in sports right now – are possible because of blockchain.

The result of this battle – between Web 2.0 tech giants who want to usher in their version of Web 3.0, and those who feel the entire point of Web 3.0 is to move away from centralised tech giants – will define what the new era of digital looks like.

The history of the internet has been a struggle between those who see it as a democratising force, owned by nobody, and those who end up owning it, often by accident, and then having realised they own it, would prefer to not lose it. Without a shadow of a doubt, the struggle will continue in Web 3.0.

Will the internet ever really be decentralised?

When you search Google for ‘Web 3.0’, you will mostly find articles that paint an optimistic vision. It will be decentralised! It will be open-source! We’ll throw out the gatekeepers!

The funny thing is, Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 were both supposed to achieve these goals, but did not.

Web 1.0 was controlled by ISPs (internet service providers) and big publishing companies. We accessed the internet via AOL or Yahoo and were presented with portals showing us lots of news and other information. It was refreshing to no longer have to choose one source of news.

But we hadn’t democratised news or removed gatekeepers. We just had new ones (ISPs) who created or curated content, while the big beasts of traditional media (newspapers and broadcasters) created flat, one-dimensional websites that were a click away from the ISP portals. They published news at us, with absolutely no thought that we might want a voice of our own.

Enter Web 2.0: blogs, social media, app stores, Kindle stores, participation, personalisation. The barriers of entry to publishing news and other content fell, and everyone gained a voice.

This time, we really did democratise the internet, right?

Again, no. We allowed everyone to have a voice but, in doing so, we created yet another generation of gatekeepers.

The social media companies – initially seen as liberators because of the platforms they gave us – inevitably came to be seen as gatekeepers, and in some cases oppressors. In the sports industry and other sectors, trust has been eroded by issues around data, piracy and harmful content.

I genuinely believe the world is a better place because of Web 2.0. I will always argue that the good of giving everyone a voice has outweighed the bad.

But let’s be real: it became an advertising duopoly controlled by Google and Facebook. And there has been some really nasty stuff unleashed on Instagram and Twitter – from a minority, but no less serious for that. In the optimism of 2004-07, none of us foresaw the exact way all of this has played out.

A decentralised internet could bring further, fascinating change. Today, we can be outraged by the latest Facebook controversy and the company’s executives may be summoned before committees of the houses of Congress or Parliament. Would it feel more or less scary with a decentralised internet, when officials know they should summon someone, but have no idea who?

Sport’s learnings

When you read articles that breathlessly gush about a decentralised, open-source internet in the Web 3.0 era, it’s wise to learn the history and proceed knowingly.

This applies within sport. I propose that sport’s learnings from Web 2.0 have been:

  • We can use new tools to reach millions of new fans around the world, grow our audience, and monetise it.
  • New technology is exciting, but the way people use it can be terrifying. The tribal nature of some of our sports is rarely, if ever, anticipated by tech companies when they build products. This puts our athletes and fans at risk and becomes our problem to police.
  • Unless we’re incredibly early to build our own tech – which is not comfortable territory for sports rights-holders – we have to this point been forced to reach our fanbase mostly through third parties.

The sports industry’s success in Web 3.0 will largely be driven by how these three issues evolve and how we respond. We can start now, by creating strategies for new technology while learning the lessons of Web 2.0.

To give one theoretical application of blockchain in sport, a team’s season ticket could be resold unlimited times, in effect as an NFT, and the club could take a percentage of every sale, because every transaction for that ticket is recorded. That’s a new, Web 3.0 revenue stream, plus we’ve solved the problem of ticket touts!

As good as this sounds, it could also be the moment you feel a sudden, Web 3.0 loss of control: our season tickets are just… out there, on sale, and not by us? Will bad-faith actors exploit that relinquishing of power? What issues will we have to deal with alongside that new revenue stream?

To give another example: it will be very possible for season ticket holders to attend a special, VIP briefing from a team manager ahead of a game and, after hearing a star player is injured, to sell their ticket for that game via blockchain to someone in China, who attends it virtually. During that sequence of events, we can anticipate which platforms will be involved, what our relationship will be with those platforms, and who controls the data and revenue.

Strategy time

The one thing the sports industry can be clear on is that not having a strategy for Web 3.0 is not an option, any more than it was an option in 2005 to suggest social media was a fad that would blow over.

At Seven League – now part of IMG – we believe that, as well as Web 3.0 technology coming down the line, sports audiences are changing. We foresee a ‘Third Age of Sport’, where rights-holders must compete harder than ever to reach and engage audiences, but where the benefits can be greater than ever.

Gen Z grew up during Web 2.0 and have never known a world without smartphones, social media, and a voice of their own online. In the 2020s, Gen Z are our customers, our new hires, and our future leaders. They will use their voice to bring about social change and will demand that we meet them on their territory, in every sense – in the real-world, in the metaverse, in how we speak to them, and in how we treat their data.

There is very good reason to be optimistic: the one constant from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 has been the love that sports fans have for our product. In Web 3.0, the passion for sports will endure. It’s then about whether we’re ready to provide products and services that work in that world. Not having a plan for this is not an option. Let’s go!