The huge adjustments we have made for the coronavirus lockdown mean that some technologies have increased in importance. We have moved online many of the activities we used to do offline. Families are using technology to keep their children fit, able to learn and entertained. These changes have important consequences for the future of sports.
Many consumers who had not previously used video chat applications suddenly needed to become proficient. They require video chat to work from home and to keep in touch with their families. This has led to a huge increase in demand for group video chat and unified communications platforms. The winners are Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google G Suite, Slack and even the Houseparty app from Epic Games. At the end of April, Facebook launched its Messenger Rooms application with features such as gallery views to support large groups.
Virtual stadiums apps
Consumers’ acceptance of video chat applications opens the way for sports clubs to develop virtual stadium apps to allow fans to experience live matches without being present in the stadium. Virtual stadium apps will need to combine various viewing possibilities. A live view of the match is at the heart of the experience. In addition, you want to interact with other spectators watching the match to simulate the buzz of interacting with the fans seated near you in the stadium.
The live video broadcast of the event to the virtual stadium app can be enhanced in various ways to improve the fan experience. One important way in which video feeds are already enhanced is by including virtual billboards to customize the advertising content for different local audiences. This technique is already used to allow broadcasters to replace real advertising panels (existing on the playfield) with virtual images on the screen.
This is useful when broadcasting the same event to other regions where the physical advertising is not relevant. For example, a Spanish football match will be broadcast in Mexico with virtual advertising for Mexican brands replacing the Spanish advertising on the physical boards in the stadium. The viewer has the impression that the advertising image he/she sees on screen is real. The value of local brands advertising to their local markets can be more than global brands are willing to pay.
Football matches will likely resume without spectators. The same technology could be used to introduce virtual billboards to replace the empty screen space which used to be occupied by the spectators. For example, stadium owners could mount “green screens” in the stands which the video technology can recognize as a virtual billboard – a space which can be replaced by digital adverts. This could be a completely new revenue stream coming from advertising to the virtual stadium app users. The SPVRS app from Tottenham Hotspur in the UK shows the start of what is possible.
Real matches and videogames
Another way of creating a completely new experience would be to use technology to track the position of the ball and the players on the pitch. The positions can be used to drive a video game engine, such as FIFA 20 for football, to provide a completely synthetic version of the real match. This synchronization of a real match with a video game would allow some completely new features. Do you want to watch the match from the point of view of your favourite player? No problem. Do you want to watch Barça play Real Madrid in an ice palace? You can certainly change the virtual stadium location to any real or fantasy venue. Virtual stadium apps will not arrive soon enough to be used when the current lockdown ends. There is always the risk of another future lockdown, or even a completely different pandemic, and sports clubs will want to improve the experience for fans unable to physically attend events.
The line between reality and simulation is becoming hazy. English Premier League fans have already seen two real fixtures, which had been postponed because of the coronavirus lockdown, played as simulated matches. Watford played Leicester City using Football Manager. The result was a 1-1 draw and the video of the match has been viewed 750,000 times on Twitter. FIFA20 was used to simulate the outcome of the postponed match between Leeds United and Cardiff City. The official Leeds United Twitter account posted highlights of the match just as it would during a real game.
Engagement with fans
During the recent lockdown, consumers looked for entertainment at home and turned to streaming content providers such as Netflix, Amazon Video, AppleTV+ and Hulu. Unfortunately, specialist sports broadcasters such as beIN Sports, DAZN and Mitele Plus weren’t able to capitalize on the increasing consumer interest due to the lack of sports events to broadcast. Nevertheless, consumers have learnt to love new sources of entertainment and this has significant implications on the value of rights to broadcast sports. Fans are less accepting of advertising when they are paying for a subscription service.
The future of sports entertainment will be the result of a power struggle between traditional TV channels, digital platform providers such as Amazon, Apple, Google (Youtube), new streaming services such as DAZN and Netflix and the content providers themselves. Sports clubs are of course content providers. FC Barcelona has had its own TV channel, Barça TV, for nearly twenty years.
Fans are willingly to search for exactly what they want to watch. This may give more clubs and sports the confidence to launch their own TV channels. The NBA has already announced that it is launching a new streaming service in conjunction with Microsoft. This is slated to be available for the 2020/2021 season. It will have real-time statistics overlays and a choose-your-own-adventure style array of audio and video feeds. There will be gaming elements, integration with merchandise shops and social media. There will even be an AI engine that learns your preferences over time in order to personalize your app experience.
Although the coronavirus pandemic will have a huge economic cost it will also drive new innovations. Eventually, the innovations will create much more economic value than was destroyed. We can count on human ingenuity to find a way forward.
Tània Vié Riba