The relationship between sports and technology is one that continues to evolve – and at a pace. This much was clear from the discussions taking place in the Sports Zone at CES.
One notable statistic presented by the Sports Innovation Lab in its opening segment was that there has been a three-fold increase in the number of dedicated sports tech companies entering the market in the past 10 years.
What was most encouraging for those working on the commercial and marketing sides of the sports business is that more of these companies and more of the conversation is focused on the way tech is shaping sport for the audience – the fan – than ever before.
The implications and opportunities this is creating for brands – sports brands, tech companies, sponsors – are significant. And underneath the hood of the relatively well-worn topics discussed in Las Vegas were a few key themes.
New players are changing the way we consume sport
Much of the conversation in the sports industry over the past few years has focused on the influence of new entrants to the sports media market (Amazon, Twitter, DAZN etc) – specifically, around the growth of over-the-top services and subsequent fragmentation of both sports rights and viewing audiences.
But, while this is a significant development, those new players and the technology they bring with them are having a far broader impact on sport.
Josh Walker, president of the Sports Innovation Lab, explained how companies such as Amazon are investing in a broad range of technologies that are changing how fans consume sports. From platforms that enhance interactivity (for example, NFL’s partnerships with Overwatch and Twitch) to game updates to information delivered through voice interfaces and virtual assistants such as Alexa.
With these new technologies comes new opportunities for brands.
Voice provides a highly interactive channel for brands to deliver compelling messages around the sports experience, such as a beer brand recommending products in a stadium or a sponsor taking ownership of information on a team. O2’s recent "Wear the rose" Alexa skill with England Rugby is a good example.
Greater interactivity around sports content allows brands to be a bigger part of the conversation. For certain categories, they will even be able to see direct return from sports content as it becomes clickable or shoppable.
But perhaps the most important lesson for brands is that these new players have brought the characteristic "test and learn" mindset of the tech sector to sport – an approach that I would encourage all sports brands and sponsors to fully embrace.
Tech is affecting the fundamental nature of the sports fan
"You can change your wife, your politics, even your religion. But never your football team." That's a quote from Eric Cantona that Walker used to kick-start the discussion at CES. The idea is that, for the first time, there is challenge to this notion of fandom. And it’s a challenge driven by technology.
Social media, gaming, OTT and immersive media are creating a generation of sports fans who aren’t unwaveringly loyal to the team their parents followed.
Rather, they are fans of individual athletes and of the most captivating experiences. Their preferred sports and teams might be driven as much by their favourite video game as by their home town.
For brands, this has several interesting implications.
First, they will have to re-evaluate what matters to the fan to effectively engage them – something that, according to IBM’s Elizabeth O’Brien, will only increase the importance of accessing the right data about audiences.
Second, the individual athlete may become a more powerful marketing asset than a team or competition. Long-term agreements with sportspeople could replace some traditional sponsorships, while partnerships with teams may be tied more closely to access to specific players.
Lastly, we could see a significant shift in brands' advertising strategies around sport. A combination of artificial intelligence and programmatic tech will enable brands to adjust advertising around games as they unfold, based on how exciting a match is or the performance of a specific player.
Immersive media is ready to make a real difference (finally)
Virtual reality has reached the point when it is able to match the expectations of sports fans – that is the view of Danny Keens, vice-president of content at NextVR.
VR has, until now, suffered from some fundamental flaws when it comes to sport: affordability, quality, accessibility and shareability. But recent breakthroughs in headsets, camera technology and connectivity are set to tackle many of these issues. The size and simplicity of the equipment is much improved. The price is more manageable. Screen resolution is higher.
More radically, volumetric video is enabling a far more immersive view of the action. And, according to Geoff Reiss from Yahoo! Sport, the portability and interactivity of next-generation VR devices will spearhead a "golden age of collaborative viewing".
The evidence for this can be seen in higher average viewing time (from seven minutes to 38 minutes over the past three years) and increased total use, with some estimates suggesting 10% of sport will be viewed in VR by 2020. That would put VR firmly in the sights of the biggest rights holders, media owners and broadcasters.
Consequently, brands and sponsors should not ignore the potential that VR now has to create a more immersive, interactive point of engagement with sports audiences. It's no longer an activation "gimmick", but a powerful channel for innovative campaigns.
Brands can unlock access to new experiences previously off limits to fans, offer virtual seats that enable distant audiences to experience every game like a local, or integrate VR-ready advertising directly into the virtual environment. The most-talked-about ad at a future Super Bowl may well be one delivered in VR.
Jonathan Drakes is strategy director at Fuse and author of Merge Sport: How Technology will Revolutionise Sport for Fans