As technology changes the way we play, the way we watch, and even the sports we play, leaders in sport must embrace the disruption to find new opportunities.
Technology is changing the face of sport. In 2019, we’ve witnessed our professional cycling heroes race full-throttle up alpine climbs without moving at all, we’ve seen more umpiring decisions made by a computer than made by the umpires and we’ve witnessed a Ruud Gullit avatar inspire MoAuba to FIFA World Cup victory at the O2 Arena, securing him $250,000 in the process.
These examples represent the tip of the iceberg – the transformation is affecting the way we play sport, the way we consume it and even the sports we play. It is also transforming at an ever-increasing scale and pace.
In our recent CEOs in Sport Survey, 72% indicated that the digital disruption of participation, was one of the top 3 trends they, and their organisations, were least prepared for. This article considers what this transformation means for leaders as they aim to maintain and grow their sport’s place at the forefront of society, drawing on successful examples of technological innovations in sport today and our work globally.
The way we play
Technology has long been changing the way we play – particularly in the professional game.
As technology becomes cheaper and more accessible, technology’s influence on grassroots participation has increased. Technology can encourage, facilitate and improve participation across the sports landscape. Below we outline the examples of how Strava, Fitbit, Zwift, iSquash and motor-racing have all gamified their sports to attract new participants.
Strava has created a cycling and running community that annually tracks around 7 billion miles of activity, completed by 36 million people, inspiring participation and encouraging retention .
Similarly, Fitbit has used technology to make physical activity easier to track and more rewarding, with instant gratification. Research in the US has shown that Fitbit users increased pedometer-based walking by 27% over base line levels . The recent $2.1bn dollar acquisition of Fitbit by Google clearly demonstrates the value and impact of technology on physical activity .
Zwift has successfully made indoor cycling more popular by creating a platform enabling cyclists to test themselves on alpine climbs, or simply lose themselves on coastal trails, without leaving their New York flat or their Shanghai suburb.
iSquash is an example of how a squash court manufacturer has introduced interactive games to make the sport more engaging and attract younger audiences.
A final example of how technology is changing the way we play today is how Formula 1 and Formula E teams are using state of the art race simulators to train their drivers and even using video games to scout for new talent who may otherwise not have the chance to compete.
Whilst Strava, Fitbit and Zwift are popular today, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are emerging technologies that will change the way we participate in sport even further. Boxers can now spar in the virtual ring on Floyd Mayweather’s ‘Mayweather Boxing + Fitness’, and, using immersive performance training aids such as STRIVR, quarterbacks can run plays in the virtual world over and over again.
From these examples of technology changing the way we play, four key themes and questions emerge:
1. Gamify – how can we use technology to make it more engaging, competitive, fun, or progressive?
2. Increase accessibility – how can we open up their sport to a wider audience, and increase the availability of the sport using technology?
3. Incentivise – how can we use incentivisation to attract new participants, retain current participants?
4. Create communities – how can we use technology to create communities that add a new dynamic to the sport and attract new players?
The way we consume
The rate at which technology is changing the way we watch and consume sport is accelerating. There has been significant disruption in the last few years in an industry that had remained relatively untouched for the previous 20 years. Every part of the way we watch and consume sport has been affected – stadia, TV & broadcasting, ticketing, advertising & sponsorship.
The impact is clear to see: rights holders, such as the NBA, are increasingly focused on developing ‘snackable, mobile content’ to engage and retain audiences; stadia, such as the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium, are investing in technology, bringing innovations in screens, signage, and connectivity to personalise and enhance the in-stadium experience.
We look across three types of consumer and highlight some of the areas where sports should be considering their strategy and objectives.
1. The in-stadia spectator
Stadia – how can technology create in-stadia experiences that ensure the match- experience continues to stay competitive in an increasingly competitive market? – e.g. internet-of-things, in-stadia apps, real time stats
Ticketing – how will Blockchain, and other types of technology, effect the industry?
2. The at-home spectator
OTT – what are the strategic benefits for the sport of OTT, free-to-air and subscription services? If OTT is attractive, should this be via an established OTT provider or developing a bespoke platform?
VR/AR – how will the at-home viewing experience change? (e.g. personalised advertising)
Mobile devices – how can the second screen viewing trend enhance the fans’ experience whilst viewing sports coverage?
3. The fan
Sponsorship – how can rights holders and sponsors use technology to generate more value?
Digital marketing – how can commercial strategies shift towards using digital channels? Which new channels should be leveraged to increase exposure to fans?
eCommerce – How can sports adapt to the changing face of retail?
The sports we play
Esports has observed a meteoric rise over the past decade, with global esports revenues expected to top $1bn this year, and its prize pools and viewing figures now rivalling and toppling the biggest traditional sports .
However, esports in not the only new sport that we will see in the era of Next-Gen Sport. Drone Racing is another which has already made an impact on the international scene – over 57 million fans have tuned in during the first 3 seasons of the Drone Racing League.
As technology continues to develop and evolve new sports will be created. As they do so, the traditional world of sport must be ready to learn from it, and where appropriate, leverage it. Our next article in this series will specifically explore how sports can learn from gaming’s successes, and leverage esports to grow.
Disruption = Opportunity
The era of Next-Gen Sport represents an unparalleled level of opportunity for sports leaders to utilise technology to deliver benefits for their game.
Technology can increase participation in sport and activity, increase accessibility to sport, enhance the journey from amateur to elite, increase the commercial value of sports, attract new audiences, and much more.
Many have already recognised the opportunity. At a national and city level, policy makers are looking for Next-Gen Sport to deliver national objectives including economic growth, national pride, inclusive communities and international recognition. For example, Chile has invested over $1m to tackle childhood obesity through gamification of step-trackers, provided in schools . China has made huge investments into the infrastructure that supports gaming and esports, including Hangzhou which is a $2.2bn project to deliver the esports capital of the world . The Malaysian government has allocated $2.4m for esports and Next-Gen Sport in its 2019 budget, as an engine for future employment . Furthermore, we have supported NEOM, a new city, to become a home of futuristic sports, in line with its vision as a city of the future.
Similarly, sports federation leaders have also begun to look to Next-Gen Sport. Organisers of the Rugby League World Cup, and the England and Wales Cricket Board, have both recently looked to gaming and esports to boost engagement in their products; La Liga have launched an OTT streaming platform; and UCI and British Cycling have both adopted Zwift eRacing into their portfolios.
Sports organisations will have different objectives, and different approaches, but all should be looking to embrace technology to future-proof their game.
We will be addressing many of the questions raised in this article at our ‘CEOs in Sport forum’ in January 2020, where sports leaders, technology experts, and esports innovators will all have their say.
Our next article in this series will explore how video gaming, and its competitive arm, esports, have entered the world of sport, how the two worlds are converging, and what opportunities this presents to sports leaders.
 Strava Annual Statistics - www.bicycling.com
 Sushames A, et al (2016) Validity and Reliability of Fitbit Flex for Step Count, Moderate to Vigorous Physical Activity and Activity Energy Expenditure. PLoS ONE 11(9): e0161224.
 Forbes: Google buys Fitbit for an all-cash deal of $2.1bn
 Newzoo Global Esports Market Report 2019
 Medium.com (2018) Chile announces plan to bring computer science to every student. https://medium.com/@codeorg/chile-announces-plan-to-bring-computer-science-to-every-student-903a97cb03b0
 Scmp.com (2017) Investment Flooding Chinas Sports Sector. https://www.scmp.com/business/article/2017193/investment-flooding-chinas-sports-sector
 The Star.com (2018) Esports can unite Malaysians: Minister Saddiq,26, defends gaming, and likely becomes first top official ever to say ‘humongous’. https://www.thestar.com.my/news/regional/2018/11/18/esports-can-unite-malaysians-minister-saddiq-26-defends-gaming-and-likely-becomes-first-top-official