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.
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.
National Football League (NFL) teams are availing of one of the most advanced pieces of wearable technology we have seen post-lockdown.
The SafeTag, produced by Kinexon, is a chip the size of a smartwatch. Players at teams such as the Los Angeles Rams will have to wear the tag at all times when inside the franchise’s facilities or engaging in any team activities.
The chip will notify players and coaching staff if they come within twelve feet of someone outside the team’s bubble.
SafeTags can be inserted into jerseys so that even when the team are playing they can easily track who was close to whom and for how long. The device can also be worn on the wrist during periods of inactivity.
The technology is similar to the smart rings we have seen utilised in the NBA in recent weeks, but at 10,000 orders, the NFL are implementing the SafeTag on a much larger scale, ensuring greater accuracy of results.
CAR PARK WRESTLING
AAA Wrestling, a Mexican professional wrestling association, have put their own whimsical slant on ensuring fans can return to their live events in a safe fashion.
We have already seen several teams set up large screens to broadcast the action to fans from the car parks of their stadiums, but this is the first time we have come across a sport moving out there entirely.
In what is sure to be the most proficiently organised scrap in a car park ever seen, the association plan to erect a 1.2 metre-high stage on which the fights will take place and fans can park around. To ensure adherence to health and safety regulations, all tickets will be digital and attendees will not be permitted to leave their cars, with commentary being provided through the vehicle’s radio.
Although quite an amusing story, it does speak to the concept of utilising spaces that are not
traditionally associated with hosting sporting events, as we attempt to return to activity in a risk-free environment. Kudos to AAA Wrestling for the creativity!
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.
VIRTUAL REALITY ADVANCEMENTS
Over the last number of weeks, we have seen several rights-holders adopting virtual reality (VR) to assist fans in feeling closer to their sport outside the realm of the live event itself. Last week, Major League Baseball (MLB) launched a new VR platform that aims to provide fans with an immersive experience of the live game itself while the league plays out behind closed doors.
The platform, supported by Oculus Quest, will be available to fans in specified territories. Through the utilisation of a headset, users will receive a 3D experience of the game, interactive player statistics and 360-degree video highlights.
In last week’s Beyond the Lines column, we reported that 74 per cent of US sports fans are in favour of incorporating more VR into live events while they are behind closed doors, so this is a shrewd move from MLB. As is often the way, the dominant American sports set the trend, and their European counterparts tend to follow suit shortly after. Early adopters of VR in this part of the world are bound to receive significant interest.
VIRTUAL CROWDS 2.0
At the start of this month, we reported that La Liga was aiming to ‘replicate’ crowds at games
through the means of a graphic that was so pixilated, it bore a greater resemblance to Joseph’s Technicoloured Dreamcoat than to actual human beings.
Four weeks later, Fox Sports have taken the concept and enhanced it immeasurably for the return of MLB. Using Pixatope software, the virtual fans will carry out up to 500 actions, such as high-fives and Mexican waves. The network will also have control over the number of fans displayed in the stadium, the team they are cheering for, and even the clothes they have on depending on the weather.
The contrast between the virtual crowds on show at La Liga games and those at MLB, only
developed one month apart, highlights just how rapidly the world of sport is having to adapt and innovate during COVID-19. Those who can be most agile and move with the latest trends are also those most likely to thrive, or at the very least ensure damage limitation, during sport’s most precarious hour.
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.
SMALL CLUB, BIG IDEAS
In an unlikely turn of events, one of the most innovative ideas to engage fans during COVID-19 has emerged from the fifth tier of Scottish football, with the launch of semi-professional side Caledonian Braves’ new app.
Fans can subscribe to the app for a £19.99 annual fee in return for a ‘virtual seat’ at the boardroom table. Here, they will have the opportunity to influence genuine top-level decisions at the club, such as electing board members and nominating official charities. It will also enable a direct influence on proceedings, as users will be involved in initiatives ranging from the preparation of scout reports to nominating players to partake in challenges as they await a return to action.
Although cutting edge innovations from around the sporting world often originate from the biggest organisations, with this venture, Caledonian Braves have demonstrated that creativity can flourish at any level.
Although countless sporting organisations were grateful to have a wealth of archive footage to push out to fans when live sport came to a grinding halt earlier this year, it quickly became apparent that it would take more than reheated content to keep people engaged over such a prolonged period.
Moreover, the developments of recent months have brought supporters to a place where they want constant interaction with their team. No longer satisfied with one-sided productions, supporters now expect to have a say. This phenomenon will remain long after the effects of COVID-19 have faded.
For these reasons, some of Europe’s elite football teams – Real Madrid, Juventus, Paris Saint-
Germain, and Arsenal – have signed strategic partnerships with Twitch, a live video streaming
service traditionally associated with video games and e-sports. This will allow them to produce behind-the-scenes content and stream live action on which viewers can provide instant feedback on and initiate a conversation.
In line with the explosive growth of e-sports in recent years, Twitch has become the 35th most viewed site on the internet, which is really saying something. As the service has a younger demographic than most other mainstream platforms (70 per cent of users are aged below 34), these sporting heavyweights have seen the potential in creating interactive content that can reach previously untapped audiences.
Expect to see rapid growth of the involvement of sports teams – both big and small – on the
platform over the coming months. Those who can adopt the platform early will see fruitful results in engaging the younger generation, during COVID-19 and beyond.
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.
Leicester City FC has announced one of the first sponsorship agreements that is explicitly designed to support “recovery from COVID-19”.
In a year-long partnership with the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the message ‘Thailand Smiles With You’ will feature on the club’s home shirt throughout the 2020/21 season. It is hoped that the campaign will support the recovery of the country’s travel and tourism industry, which has been decimated in recent months.
This move shows that the wounded market we operate in could throw up short-term opportunities that would greatly benefit both entities in their bid to kick-start the recovery.
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.