This year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar has been a great showcase of the powerful combination of sports and technology. Most sports fans today can experience versions of nearly all aspects of the tournament without being physically present, which is a humbling reminder of the progress within the sports industry thanks to advances in digital technology.
New research shows that 70% of customer interactions today are now digital, and with the sports tech market predicted to be worth £34 billion by the end of 2023, up from £17.8 billion this year, the global sports brands looking to capitalise on this opportunity will need to ensure digital is embedded in every facet of their business.
So what are the key digital transformation trends that will get the ball rolling for sports brands in 2023, and what innovations have we already started seeing?
1. Direct-to-fan movement continues
The coming year will see sports organisations continuing to invest in D2C (direct to customer) strategies, ensuring they have attractive propositions to encourage direct relationships with their own fans or fans of the sport. Many will be interested in observing the performance of FIFAPlus – FIFA’s owned digital property which launched late in 2022, as a bold test case for creating a direct audience engagement channel with long-term commercial potential. While only a handful of sports organisations world-wide have the deep pockets to deliver something of this scale – it does still point towards the value of building and maintaining an owned database of fans.
This is critical as we expect to see the continued buying-up of sports media rights by the main tech platforms, namely Apple, Disney and Amazon. With Apple making its debut in 2022 with the screening of MLB games, and most recently announcing the 10 year MLS deal – the trend towards live streaming overtaking traditional TV broadcast in the US is expected to continue. This is leading to innovation in the live and on-demand viewing experience with added interactive features. Apple will make all MLS games available via a new monthly subscription service – with this digital model of complete fan choice, it will surely provoke further developments in how traditional sports broadcasters offer access to live content.
For sports organisations – developing the right D2F strategy to co-exist with the rights holders and tech giants –will become increasingly important for creating new revenue streams and commercial opportunities. We’ll expect to see investment in technology to support this vision in 2023, specifically in Customer Data Platforms (CDP)where organisations can develop and maintain an up-to-date ‘single customer view’ of their fans across a host of behavioural and transactional touchpoints.
Engagement, ticketing, purchasing and behavioural first-party data will increase in value as third-party data becomes harder to come by. Once stored in the CDP, this data can be activated through various channels that fans interact with in real-time, to support unique content personalisation at scale. In an era where competition for fan attention is greater than ever, building these hyper-personalised relationships with supporters is critical. This owned first-party data will become sports organisations’ biggest asset, with the potential to further leverage, to boost sponsorship deals and drive memberships.
2. Smart Stadia – is it finally a reality?
The concept of the smart stadium is nothing new. For years there has been gradual innovation in this space, and a move towards more technically advanced in-stadium experiences. But for too long the barrier of connectivity and outdated infrastructure has prevented meaningful advances. Perhaps 2023 will be the year where we finally witness that shift toward digitally enhanced in-stadia experience. During the FIFA World Cup in Qatar we have seen glimpses of real-time Augmented Reality experiences in action – offering an enhanced dimension to the matches being played through mobile and second screens. This has been made possible through the construction of modern stadiums, where technology and enhanced fan experience has been considered from the outset.
Sports venues are increasingly aware of the digital expectations of fans inside and outside the perimeters and we will see more investment with technology providers to meet these demands. For next year’s Ryder Cup, the European Tour has partnered with HPE to ensure that even with a temporarily hosted event the on-course technology is as advanced as possible. The technological infrastructure will support 250,000 on-site spectators with e-ticketing, travel information and on-site navigation, while data harvested at the event will allow measures such as crowd control to reduce queues. "Capturing, analysing and extracting value from data in real-time is fundamental to delivering the immersive experience that sports fans today demand,” said Jim Jackson, HPE's chief marketing officer.
In 2023 we will also see the re-opening of the Santiago Bernabéu stadium in Madrid where technology has be encited as a major investment in the redevelopment – fans will be able to enjoy club-generated content that enhances their matchday experience on their mobile phones and tablets. As more of these venues are upgraded and opened, the move towards ‘phygital’ fan experiences will become ever more possible, its adoption however is still yet to be proved.
3. Sportainment is here to stay
The blurring of the lines between sports and entertainment was seen throughout 2022 – such as with Formula1’s re-generation and the ECB’s Hundred format. We saw new disruptive players like LIV Golf entering the market with bold ambitions to ‘shake-up’ the game of golf and develop a unique platform to attract a whole new generation of sports fans.
LIV Golf has recently unveiled plans for 2023, for a new league format which will see the tour take place over 14 global events and where music and entertainment is a pivotal ingredient to the fan experience on offer. Pre and post-event concerts, roaring crowds, and fan activations are all used to bring fans closer to the LIV brand and enable a wider stream of content for fans to consume across owned and social channels.
Of course, this concept is made easier by PIF’s investment in LIV Golf, as well as having a stake in entertainment business Live Nation which enables these connections and access to artists. These types of strategies are deliberately designed to support the growth of new audiences and younger markets, breaking down perceived elitist barriers with new innovations in formats, access and technology. Established sports organisations may be holding their breath in anticipation of who might be next to face the threat of disruption in 2023.
4. Sports NFTs bucking the trend
While NFTs were all the rage this time last year, we’re now in a predicament where general confidence is low. Combined industry failures and a struggling economic climate have led to a distrust in blockchain technologies with short-term profits seemingly being prioritised over longer-term customer experience.
For the sports industry, however, 2022 saw major teams and competitions sell NFTs on various marketplaces, while fan token sites like Sorare signed deals with a multitude of clubs and leagues including PSG and La Liga. Although other industries suffered financially, according to a recent study from Market Decipher, the Sports NFT market reportedly doubled from $1.3 billion in 2021 to $2.6 billion in 2022.
Within sports, blockchain is certainly gaining momentum into 2023 and football especially is keeping pace. The Premier League has been in discussion with its 20 member clubs around a significant deal which would see a marketplace provide NFTs of static images of the league’s footballers. Similarly, Manchester United has announced a new platform powered by Tezos which will launch NFT assets created to ‘educate, reward and unite’ its global fan base through digital collectables and real-world experiences. United supporters are also now invited to join the club’s virtual community, launched on Discord, which offers a new way for fans to connect with each other on a global scale. The club is looking to supplement this leap into the virtual realm with tutorials on its owned channels, aimed at helping to educate fans and rebuild confidence in Web3.
For sport, 2023 will see a move away from using these future-viewing technologies purely for financial gain but rather to improve global fan relationships – creating digital communities that foster classic sporting traditions.