Beyond The Lines – Pepper the robot, Neutraliser Boxes and Man of the McMatch

Our weekly series highlights innovation and draws inspiration from sport around the world as it emerges post-pandemic.

Our hope is that we will provide a means by which Sport for Business members will stay up to date with the latest developments in health, broadcast and fan engagement.  Times of great change are also times of the greatest opportunity so let’s see what’s going on.

 

HEALTH 

The most important innovations cropping up in the world of sport are those that assist our athletes, staff and fans to return to action in as safe a manner as possible.

 

THE NEUTRALISER BOX

Top-flight Brazilian Football Club Corinthians have partnered up with pharmaceuticals company Neobrax to install disinfectant machines at their stadium and training ground.

Every person who arrives at the facilities will walk through the ‘Neutraliser Box’ (no, it’s not a killer robot from Doctor Who) and be sprayed with chlorhexidine, which would sterilise the virus if it was present on their skin or clothes.

Although the spray has been approved by the World Health Organisation, who confirm the substance is safe and will not irritate skin, there is no doubt that the contraption will cause alarm for some match-goers.

For this reason, we might assess from afar how the initiative plays out for our Brazilian counterparts before considering implementing something similar in Irish sport facilitates.

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LASTING CHANGES

While many short-term plans are being laid out to enable fans to return to stadiums over the coming months, it is becoming apparent that COVID-19 will have a long-term impact on the construction of sporting facilities and will permanently alter the arenas we inhabit.

Large construction projects that are already underway have had to have a rethink. National Hockey League team Calgary Flames recently announced plans to build a new stadium; now, they are factoring in a need for wider concourses, increased washrooms to reduce long queues and close contact, and the ability to ensure greater separation in seating areas.

It is the bleak reality that we cannot rule out more waves of COVID-19 or a different pandemic in the future, so the Flames are also planning for another scenario of games behind closed doors. Resultantly, they are looking to implement technologies that can help the stadium to “function like a stage set”, enabling a simulated fan experience.

Even for the many Irish sporting organisations who do not have the resources of Calgary Flames, it seems unavoidable that the lessons of COVID-19 will have to be factored into all future construction projects.

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BROADCAST

While we wait to attend sporting events in person once again, we rely on the broadcasters, clubs and independent media to help us feel closer to the action than ever before. This will be a particularly interesting space to monitor over the coming months, as COVID-19 has forced content providers to realign their focus, priorities and delivery mechanisms.

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PEPPER THE ROBOT

Over the last two weeks, we have seen La Liga and Serie A roll out variations of virtual crowds for broadcasted games, in a bid to alleviate the eye-sore that is empty stands. This week, we heard news of Japanese baseball team Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks introducing an extravagant (and slightly terrifying) solution to this issue.

The Hawks, owned by Japanese tech giant SoftBank, drafted in forty ‘semi-humanoid robots’ to wear official merchandise, fill the stands and sing club songs, in an effort to recreate something that resembles atmosphere. While the eerie robots might raise some eyebrows, the trick might just have worked, as the home side ran out 4-3 victors in their first game.

Admittedly, the purpose of this column is to inform the Irish sports industry and introduce ideas that could be adapted into our work. Although it is unlikely we will be seeing Pepper the robot on the terraces in GAA or SSE Airtricity League grounds anytime soon, the story – frankly – was just too bizarre to leave out.

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VIRTUAL OPEN

The Open Championship was one of many iconic sporting events to fall by the wayside due to COVID-19, but the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews took inventive action to quench fans’ thirst for competitive action.

‘The Open For The Ages’ – starting today, July 16th – has brought a host of former champions together to “compete” in a virtual tournament on the legendary course, which will play out through a combination of edited archive footage, modern graphics and fresh commentary.

The winner will be determined using a data model, which combines the votes of over 10,000 fans with player career statistics. The event will be broadcasted on TheOpen.com and The Open’s official YouTube and Facebook channels.

Fans’ desire to consume engaging and unique content is not a new phenomenon, it has simply been brought to the fore over recent months. Those most likely to retain newly acquired fans going forward will be the ones that maintain an interactive presence online, even when ‘normality’ has resumed.

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FAN ENGAGEMENT

Sport is having to adapt like never before, with a specific emphasis on managing fan relationships during this turbulent period. To maintain supporter engagement and satisfaction throughout the COVID-19 crisis, sporting organisations will need to dramatically adjust strategies in areas such as ticketing, digital and non match day events.

 

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RISK FREE SEASON TICKET

German Bundesliga football club VfL Wolfsburg have announced an initiative that will secure maximum possible ticket revenue in the aftermath of COVID-19, while simultaneously easing fans’ concerns of losing out if games are still deemed unsafe for spectators.

The cost of a “risk-free” season ticket will only be debited from fans’ accounts once it has been confirmed that they can attend without restriction, from which point the club will deduct the pro-rata value of each game from the supporter’s deposited sum.

If restrictions remain severe, the club will offer a range of reimbursement options, including pro-rata reimbursement, vouchers for club merchandise, an option to redistribute the funds to charity and an option to retain the funds in VfL Wolfsburg.

Recent solutions to ticketing headaches in this column seem to have prioritised those fans with the greatest financial resources. It is heartening that in this case the German Bundesliga side have provided a template for reinvigorating ticket revenues in a fashion that seems equitable and manageable for the entire fanbase.

 

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PARTNERSHIPS

Partnerships have become fundamental to the sustainability and growth of the sporting ecosystem, having evolved from the tired concept of sponsorship being a one-way transactional relationship. This has never been more true than at this present moment, as stakeholders from across the industry must work together to overcome the hurdles of COVID-19.

VIRTUAL MATCH DAY PACKAGE

Scottish Premiership side Rangers have taken a proactive step to utilise sponsorship opportunities for next season, with the expectation that the campaign will kick off behind closed doors.

The ‘Virtual Matchday’ sponsorship package will include branded tarp seat coverings, on-screen branding during live streams, social media promotion and the opportunity to pick the Man of the McMatch, which will be accompanied by a post-game Zoom call with the player.

As many fans of Irish sides will likely to have to settle for live streams of their team rather than watching the match in person for the time being, the provision of such digital sponsorship opportunities could provide clubs with a vital revenue stream.

RETAINING EXCLUSIVITY

Formula One team McLaren Racing have been trialling a new means to engage partners since the sport returned behind closed doors earlier this month.

With behind-the-scenes access often a central component of partnership agreements, the racing team have been trying to fill the gap with McLaren Slipstream, a new streaming service. The platform, exclusively for commercial partners, will provide behind the scenes footage of official areas and interviews with the team’s drivers and senior management: “all the things they would normally be able to do in person” as Mark Waller, McLaren Racing’s Managing Director of Sales and Marketing, put it.

Although instinct has pushed us towards devoting all of our energy to the most pressing operational matters during COVID-19, it is important not to forget our commercial partners, as they will be the ones we rely on to facilitate the recovery over the coming months. McLaren Racing see the value in maintaining partner relationships regardless of external forces, and so too should every other sporting organisation with aspirations of bouncing back from this crisis.

 

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Beyond the Lines is a weekly feature brought to us by our new columnist, Vito Moloney Burke. Vito is a graduate in Business Studies from DCU and was 2018/19 Students’ Union President. He recently completed an internship with Liverpool Football Club’s Strategy team, and is currently undertaking the MSc in Sport Management at University College Dublin.

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